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Volume IV, Number 7, August, 2006

Meddling, Pandering and Muddling

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author

With NCLB/Helter-Skelter, the current Congress and the President are guilty of meddling where they do not belong, pandering to basic instincts and muddling the school business in unconscionable ways.

verb ( pander to)
gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire, need, or habit or a person with such a desire, etc.) : newspapers are pandering to people's baser instincts. (The Oxford American Dictionary)

intr.v. med·dled, med·dling, med·dles
1. To intrude into other people's affairs or business; interfere. See Synonyms at interfere.
2. To handle something idly or ignorantly; tamper. (Free Dictionary)

v. mud·dled, mud·dling, mud·dles
1. To make turbid or muddy.
2. To mix confusedly; jumble.
3. To confuse or befuddle (the mind), as with alcohol. See Synonyms at confuse.
4. To mismanage or bungle.
5. To stir or mix (a drink) gently.
To think, act, or proceed in a confused or aimless manner: muddled along through my high-school years. (Free Dictionary)

Bashing Schools and Teachers

School and teacher bashing has become a national sport thanks to NCLB and this Congress largely committed to tax cuts for the rich and to poorly designed social experiments.

Meddling and Muddling

With NCLB we see politicians from both parties embracing policies that are both simple and wrong-minded, ignoring complexity to win favor with voters back home. Their support for NCLB's hodge podge of ill considered change strategies is pandering at its worst.

In a few short years Congress has transformed many schools into the educational equivalent of fast food restaurants and factories, robbing millions of children of their educational birthright and moving them along an educational assembly line like widgets.

Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math
Published: March 26, 2006
By Sam Dillon in the New York Times.

Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.

Because of numerous loopholes provided by the Ed Department's cynical application of the law, the impact has been felt most severely on the very children the law was claimed to protect. Poor children and minorities are the real losers in this tale. The Ed Department has actively fostered the lowering of testing standards by states in order to avoid sanctions, pressuring states with good tests to exchange them for bargain basement tests that require little thinking from children but make schools and states look better than they deserve. We have seen educational inflation and fraud spread across the land under the banner of school reform. Note "Gaming the System" - NCL, June 2006 at

Simple-minded? The notion that children become better readers because we test them every year is one of the dumbest ideas ever proposed. Less time for learning. More time for testing and test preparation. Note "The Annual Testing Myth" - NCL, May 2005 at and "Weighing the Pig: NCLB as Simple-Minded Con" - NCL, December 2005 at

Wrong-minded? The notion that threats, punishments, shame, blame and fear make schools, principals and teachers perform better violates everything we know about healthy change and organizational growth. It is an extreme and harmful approach to change. Note "Shock and Awe Campaign Hits Schools" - NCL, June 2003 at

"The Whipping Post"

School bashing has become a national sport thanks to NCLB even though for decades parents have ranked their neighborhood schools positively according to the annual survey compiled by the Gallup Polling Organization for Phi Delta Kappa.

Another important contribution of the poll results is that they should help to destroy one of the myths surrounding the public schools: that the public schools are losing public support. The trend lines in this poll suggest the exact opposite. The grades the public assigns the schools remain as high as ever and are truly impressive when public school parents give their evaluation; the public continues to express a strong preference for change through the existing public schools; support for choice shows no sign of increasing and could be said to be lagging; and it is the public schools to which the public turns for closing the achievement gap.
37th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools
By Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup

Given the dramatic tie between poverty and poor school performance, Congress should be looking at ways of reducing poverty and improving the living conditions of young ones, but it cannot even raise the minimum wage without trying to link that meagre increase to a tax reduction for large estates.

It's about Poverty

Intent on giving tax breaks to the wealthy, Congress ignores what we know about improving schooling and learning, opting instead for the cheap and incorrect solution - more testing and more fear.

Yet, the research evidence is clear that poverty is the major influence determining school failure for our least advantaged populations.

David C. Berliner presents compelling evidence that poverty is of primary importance in his essay, "Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform."1

Fifth, and of greatest interest, is that small reductions in family poverty lead to increases in positive school behavior and better academic performance. It is argued that poverty places severe limits on what can be accomplished through school reform efforts, particularly those associated with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The data presented in this study suggest that the most powerful policy for improving our nations’ school achievement is a reduction in family and youth poverty.
This document is available on the Education Policy Studies Laboratory website at:
"Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform"
by David C. Berliner
Published by Teachers College Record, August 02, 2005
Retrieved from:

Poverty Worsens

How about a national policy called "No Child Left in Poverty?" NCLP?

Sadly, poverty is getting worse for children in the USA since 2000 thanks to the Bush administration and a Congress that does little to improve life for the middle class, the poor or the working poor.

The National Center for Children in Poverty at reports that the percentage of children in poverty has grown dramatically in the USA since 2000.

In 2004, approximately 18 percent of all children in the United States lived in poverty. Over the last five years, child poverty has risen substantially, increasing by 12 percent. After hitting a low of 12.1 million children in 2000, more than 1.4 million children have been added to the poverty rolls, becoming members of this country’s “new poor.” Children who grow up in poverty experience significant hardships that can have lasting effects well into adulthood.
"The New Poor: Regional Trends in Child Poverty Since 2000" at
Although child poverty has increased 12% nationally since 2000, the rise in the Midwest was a stunning 29%?by far the most substantial of any region. Accounting for nearly half of the increase nationwide, the Midwest was the only region where poverty increased among children with employed parents, due in part to the loss of relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs.

Simple Bad Politics

With NCLB Congress is pandering. It is simple politics.

Take a complex challenge like improving school performance . . .

How do they package a solution? Simply.

They look for quick fixes that might appeal to a wide range of voters requiring no sacrifices or personal responsibilities.

And then they pander. They tell them what they want to hear.

"If your child cannot read, it's the teacher's fault."

Politicians are unlikely to pressure families to work harder on their own educational responsibilities. That might backfire and lose them votes. It is evidently OK to blame and shame teachers and schools but bad politics to blame and shame employers who exploit workers or families who shirk their responsibilities.

Sadly, many politicians in this particular Congress are unlikely to bother themselves with issues of poverty and social justice as they focus on tax cuts for the wealthy.

Top Down Mismanagement = Meddling and Muddling

This Congress turned our schools over to a team that has permitted millions of minority students to go uncounted while approving state testing programs that have created exaggerated and false impressions of improvement - impressions unsubstantiated by performance on national tests such as NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress).

The Founding Fathers and the Constitution wisely granted control over schools to the states, thinking that policy should be created by those closest to the schools. This Congress has overstepped its Constitutional authority and waded into a realm it little understands.

Both political parties are guilty at the national level of meddling where they have no business and little expertise. Their attempt to reform schools by relying on fear, frequent testing and national directives is an irresponsible experiment that is based on little more than wishful thinking. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that children become better students because they are tested more often. There is also no evidence that bribes and threats improve learning.

Pandering at the Highest Levels

Lurking behind the NCLB campaign is the claim that schools (teachers and principals) are mainly at fault for any problems with student performance.

In real life, in real schools, the causes of failure are more complicated.

We have evidence that school failure results from a dozen or more interrelated factors:

  • A poor start to life (nutrition, health, lack of early reading, etc.)
  • Difficult home conditions related to parents working multiple low paying jobs or other problems
  • Homelessness
  • Illegal immigrant status with a language other than English as the native language
  • Hunger
  • A lack of health care
  • A lack of sustained support at home for good school performance
  • Discrimination
  • Huge class sizes
  • Old school buildings
  • Poorly prepared teachers
  • Bad school leadership
  • Insufficient capacity
  • Lack of professional development

Many politicians are fond of blaming teachers and principals for all that goes wrong in schools. You rarely hear them blaming absentee parents, poor wages or poverty. There is little attention devoted to solving the problems listed above. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens in the USA, Congress does little to provide the social conditions that would help young ones to succeed.

Social Capital

This Congress is quick to invest in foreign military adventures while shortchanging the society at home. Instead of investing funds in building a healthy society, Congress is more interested in tax cuts and advantages for the wealthy.

The first Bush president promised that all children would enter school ready to learn by the year 2000.

This proved to be empty rhetoric as no Congress since then has been willing to fund Head Start fully or provide the social support services required to deliver the goods.

This Congress prefers to look the other way as poverty worsens, good jobs are lost overseas and the quality of life for many families declines.

Family values? Hardly. We are seeing the destruction of the middle class and the widening of the gap between those who live in gated communities and those who work at minimum wage.

Minimum wage? Last increased to just $ 5.15 by Congress almost a decade ago, the bottom pay rate is a disgrace, as was the attempt this August to pass a very small three year increase to $ 7.25 linked to a decrease of the inheritance tax on big estates.

The Fate of NCLB

While the law is up for reauthorization in 2007 and some argue for amendments to address its worst flaws, the basic premises upon which NCLB was drafted are wrong-minded and the role of the federal government in dictating educational policy is harmful. The law should be shelved in favor of a new law devoted to capacity building and support - one that gives states primary responsibility for reform and puts the control of schools back where it belongs - in the hands of educators who have some understanding of what works. This new law should be accompanied by social investments to address the severe needs of disadvantaged populations whose poor treatment in the current century violates the most basic of American principles.

If we truly wish to leave no child behind we must address the dramatic problems caused by low wages, homelessness, poverty and segregation. As long as schools are treated simply and separately without acknowledging the web of related factors, the effort is doomed.

© 2006, 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.