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Volume I, Number 12, December, 2003

The Cheapening of America:

NCLB and the Decline of the Good Job

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved

The American Dream is at risk from drastic economic shifts that threaten to downgrade the future prospects of millions of Americans. In its current version, NCLB is likely to play a harmful role in this drama as millions of students are pushed out of school before they can graduate. They will become conscripts for low wage, low skill jobs - the sadly promising employment growth sector of these United States.

According to Fortune:

2.8 million factory jobs have been lost since the summer of 2000, shrinking total manufacturing employment by 16% to 14.6 million.
"Will 'Made in USA' Fade Away?" Volume 148, No. 11 - November 24, 2003 - page 100

Down and out in Washington, D.C.

Photographed in November, 2003.

Behind the burger counter.

As prices go down in some stores across the land, so do the wages and the overall quality of life for many Americans. Retailers paying premium wages find themselves forced out of business.

The low wage employees are caught in a downward spiral. As the Bush economy stumbles toward some kind of recovery, it has been called a "jobless recovery" since so many good jobs keep disappearing overseas. (MSNBC) The Bush administration sat back while 2 million jobs evaporated and has no plan to restore good jobs in America other than tax cuts for the rich.

The number of manufacturing jobs continues to decline as of December 5, 2003.

The manufacturing sector, which has been among the hardest hit and slowest to recover, cut 17,000 jobs last month, 3,000 more than were lost in October. November marked the 39th straight month of job losses in the sector. Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2003

Without a high school diploma and good skills, young people are prime candidates for this subsistence economy - and that is just how some power brokers like it.

I. Flooding the Workplace with Dropouts

Given the huge number of students who never graduated from their Texas high schools during the past decade (see "A Lost Generation? A Million Left Behind?"), it is likely that NCLB, (which is based on many of the same mistaken strategies) will provide a supply of cheap labor for the next decade as school dropouts and pushouts pour out of classrooms before their time, taking up their spots in the fast food restaurants and low paid service jobs of this nation.

As Wal-Mart and other low-paying retailers battle it out to lower prices, cheap labor and poor wages with minimal benefits are prime weapons in the competition for shoppers.

Pushing Students onto the Streets and Behind the Counters Early

Combining high stakes testing with punishment and public humiliation is a sure fire way to fail our children, leaving millions behind so they can be "nickel and dimed" - condemned to fill the burgeoning ranks of the marginally employed. In her exposé, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich describes this marginal minimum wage existence in graphic terms.

Between 1998 and 2000, I went to three different cities, and tried to support myself on the wages I could earn as an entry-level worker. I waited tables, I cleaned the toilets of the rich, I fed Alzheimers patients in a nursing home, I sorted stock at Wal-Mart. (PBS)

And no matter how carefully I pinched pennies I couldn't get my wages to cover basic expenses. Like rent, at least $500/month plus utilities, like transportation to and from work, at least $60/month, and then if you are a working parent, you have hundreds of dollars a month in childcare expenses. Now if there's one thing that's really demoralizing, it's working hard and not making enough to live on.

The PR spin for NCLB is so overpowering that its impact on the labor supply and the union movement goes unmentioned, even though its choice provisions endanger teachers while its unforgiving accountability and testing provisions threaten to dump children onto the streets before their time.

Just take a look at how it worked in Texas . . .

The Houston Early Departure Shuttle

If they could do it in the Houston ISD while the current Secretary of Education was Superintendent of Schools, they just might try to spread the plan to the nation as a whole.

According to fresh reports from KHOU, the CBS station in Houston, very large numbers of ninth graders were suddenly held back in one school in 1998 from taking the all important tenth grade state test. A sudden shift in rules for retention kept all but the strongest students from moving forward and being counted in the test results.

HISD: Lesson in deception? (Part I) - 06:08 PM CST on Sunday, November 30, 2003
By Anna Werner

Did some area high schools boost their TAAS test scores by holding back some of their students? The 11 News Defenders have discovered that some Houston Independent School District high schools might have been involved in a lesson in deception.

In 1998, using a waiver, Houston ISD's Austin High held back an unusually large number of students. As a result, the number of 10th graders fell from 580 to just 235 students and the per cent passing the state test soared from just 68% passing to 86.2% passing.

These are miraculous (some are saying fraudulent) improvements in test scores for a single year.

Because of this sudden rule change, the 9th grade jumped in size from 900 to 1200. Some of these students were held for more than one extra year and then jumped ahead to 11th grade so they never had to take the state test. Others simply gave up and hit the streets.

HISD: Lesson in deception? (Part II) - 11:31 AM CST on Tuesday, November 25, 2003
By Anna Werner

HOUSTON – Did the Houston Independent School District cheat to make schools look better?

How do you get better test scores at the high schools? You can hold a bunch of the weaker kids back a grade so they can't take the test. They sit out and scores go up. Sounds like a neat trick, but HISD claims those kids just weren't ready to be promoted. So why wasn't an honor student ready for the tenth grade?

Part 3 - Community leaders worry Houston's schools are in crisis - 08:43 PM CST on Monday, November 24, 2003
By Anna Werner

Houston leaders are taking action in response to an 11 News Defenders investigation. Last week the Defenders uncovered some questionable Houston Independent School District test scores, and how students may have been pushed out to get them.

But that also caused kids to dropout. So Hispanic leaders are banding together and demanding real change.

Dubious Test Results

The New York Times reported this week that the seemingly impressive Houston ISD results on the Texas TAAS test do not stand up to scrutiny. According to the Times, when the students' scores on the Stanford Tests are compared with the TAAS results, the gains are much smaller and much less impressive.

Gains in Houston Schools: How Real Are They? - December 3, 2003
By Diana Jean Schemo and Ford Fessenden in the New York Times.
Texas has trumpeted the achievements of millions of its students, but an examination of student performance in Houston raises serious doubts about those gains.

The Times article tells stories of apparently good students who moved on to college after getting good grades and good test scores from the Houston ISD only to learn they were poorly prepared for college.

Taking It National

It turns out that the very folks who now push the idea of leaving no child behind were actually quite expert at doing just that - leaving them behind. They talk the talk but did not walk the walk. They create the appearance of improvement while serious problems boil below the surface.

The statistics are profoundly disturbing as the victims of this cynical maneuver come disproportionately from the ranks of Hispanic and African American disadvantaged populations.

The President and the Secretary are fond of accusing NCLB opponents of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" but the Houston Early Departure Shuttle shows the damage done by raising the consequences for school failure without concurrently raising the capacities of schools and students. Harness some principals with a one year pass/fail contract and throw in a cash bonus of $5000 for good scores and you might get miracles - accounting miracles along with flashing mirrors and Enron sleight of hand.

Other administrators refuse to play the game, blow the whistle on the unethical practices and find themselves transferred or without a job.

Minimum wage earners line up each morning in down town LA to catch a bus out to suburban malls where they can see how the other half lives while they themselves flip burgers, wash dishes, clean bathrooms and work the retail floors and stock rooms of large stores.
Connecting the Dots - What does this have to do with Walmart and the labor market?

The Los Angeles Times is running a series of articles showing how Walmart's low wages are transforming the lives of workers here in the United States and overseas.

In the first Los Angeles Times article, Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland show how grocery stores paying $14.68 an hour with a pension and family health insurance are closing in the face of Wal-Mart's Supercenter's low prices. They point out that Wal-Mart's grocery workers usually make less than $9.00 an hour.

Wal-Mart's empire reshaping workplace
Thursday, November 27, 2003 : Business & Technology

The company's vast influence boosts U.S. economic growth and its decisions ripple across the world, but its astonishing success extracts a cost...

Wal-Mart's astonishing success exacts a heavy price.

By squeezing suppliers to cut wholesale costs, the company has hastened the flight of U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas. By scouring the globe for the cheapest goods, it has driven factory jobs from one poor nation to another.

Wal-Mart's penny-pinching extends to its own 1.2 million U.S. employees, none of them unionized. By the company's own admission, a full-time worker might not be able to support a family on a Wal-Mart paycheck.

The reporters interview an American fan manufacturer who has been forced to open a factory in China where workers are paid 25 cents an hour in order to get prices low enough to satisfy Walmart. Here in the States he pays $13 per hour, they report. He has automated the U.S. plant so as to cut his work force from 22 to 7.

Wal-Mart wrings efficiency from Third World factories
Friday, November 28, 2003 : Business & Technology

When Wal-Mart Stores demands a lower price for the shirts and shorts it sells by the millions, the consequences are felt in a remote Chinese industrial town...

What American Dream?

Many of us grew up hearing about an American Dream. This country was supposed to be the land of opportunity. It still is for those with exceptional skills and a great education, but for those who are pushed out of school without a diploma and without strong skills, the future holds little promise of advancement and little hope for a decent life style with adequate medical insurance, good housing and protection against the inevitable crises of life.

For many young people, there is a new American Dream - more nightmare than fantasy. They are finding themselves caught up in a survival game without any of the benefits of reality TV. Forced to live in islands of decaying housing in forsaken neighborhoods, they will have few choices when it comes to jobs.

Sleeping on the street in LA

The new American Dream?

Related Articles


Is Wal-Mart Good for America?
December 7, 2003 in the New York Times

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.