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Volume IV, Number 10, November, 2006

The Next Law - A Kinder, Gentler and Truly Effective Law?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Across the United States a chorus of voices is calling for a major overhaul to NCLB/Helter-Skelter. Newspapers, members of Congress and organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English are pressing for major changes. The initial claims of NCLB proponents have proven unreliable and far-fetched while the actual impact of the law's stern measures has been damaging rather than inspiring.

After six years of heavy-handed but ineffective change strategies imposed on schools and states by an overly zealous right wing Ed Department, the recent shift of Congress offers hope for a new educational reform law that will emphasize support, encouragement, capacity building and skilled leadership rather than blame, fear, shame, punishment and narrowly defined educational goals.

More Resignations?

We should ask for more resignations following the sudden departure of Donald Rumsfeld this month after failing to win in Iraq or convince American voters. Leaders in the Ed Department with a record of failure should follow his example. The Director of Reading First resigned in September as scandal was detailed by an Inspector General's report. Secretary Spellings should leave next. Despite her lack of school experience and credentials, she has been quick to impose radical and damaging ideas on schools like cheap annual testing. Her team has allowed states to exclude some two million minority students from consideration while she has mouthed nonsense about bigotry and has feigned commitment to the disadvantaged.

In a November editorial (11/17/2006), the Denver Post called for major revisions to NCLB:

Legislators should free the nation's public schools from the unfunded mandates, unnecessary entanglements and impossible edicts of the law.

This administration has brought the same bungling leadership to educational reform it applied to Iraq and Katrina reconstruction. The new and improved NCLB will set the stage for a much healthier approach to supporting school change.

Traits of the Old NCLB Traits of the Next Ed Law
1. Shame: The old NCLB employed public humiliation as a prime motivator for change, failing increasing numbers of schools each year in a very public manner. 1. Praise: The new ed law will emphasize the positive. Schools that make good progress will be held up as shining examples.
2. Fear: The old NCLB employed fear as a prime motivator for change, using the possibility of job loss and school closures to develop a climate of fear. 2. Calm: Teachers work best when they feel secure and protected against turbulence and disruption.
3. Threat: The law and its disciples carried a big stick, warning that failing schools would lose their students to charter schools and private market alternatives. 3. Support: Teachers can help students make the most progress when the focus is on capacity building and good resources.
4. Punishment: Emphasizing annual testing, the law's proponents sought to hold individual teachers' feet to the fire. 4. Reward: Incentives will be stressed for programs and schools with good results.
5. Regimentation: Proponents employed a distorted view of research to impose standardized approaches to learning that destroyed decades of previous practice and steered schools down narrow pathways. 5. Innovation: The new law will encourage the development and use of a wide range of strategies and programs instead of imposing arbitrary limits or pseudo science.
6. Intimidation: Criticism, doubt and questioning were met with harsh responses - allegations of bigotry and moral lapses. You are with us or against us! 6. Partnership: The new law will permit and encourage wide ranging critiques as well as disagreement and dissent.
7. Narrow Curriculum Focus: The testing of just two subject areas (reading and math) led to the elimination of many subjects like science, art and social studies in some schools as students were force fed triple doses of those things being tested. 7. Rich Curriculum Focus: The new law will bring back the idea of reaching the whole child and a rich curriculum with multiple literacies. Program assessment will hold schools accountable across all subject areas, not just reading and math.
8. Inadequate Resources: The old law placed new demands on schools that proved more expensive than the extra funds approved by Congress. While federal spending for schools increased, it did not meet the demands of NCLB and actually weakened important programs. 8. Adequate Resources: The new law will identify promising strands of practice and provide the funding so that all schools can afford to create thriving programs.
9. Inconsistent Rules: The Department of Ed allowed states to set ridiculous standards for group size so that some states were allowed to ignore thousands of minorities. Tough talk was backed with flabby enforcement. 9. Consistent Administration: Under the new law, certain standards like group size will actually be firm guidelines that prevent states, schools and districts from gaming the system or ignoring groups of children.
10. Incompetent Management: The arrogant tone and tough talk of bureaucrats masked fundamental incompetence and lack of credible track records. The Director of Reading First had failed with children in Baltimore. Both Secretaries of Ed failed with children in Texas. 10. Competent Management: Under the new law, the Ed Department and its employees will be held accountable for ethical and efficient conduct with penalties both criminal and civil applied when employees throw business to cronies, past employers and favorites. The Department will be monitored for compliance with requirements of the law like those it ignored the first time.
11. Favoritism & Cronyism: NCLB became a money machine for consultants and educational programs endorsed and pushed by the Ed Department despite a section of the law that prohibited such steering. The program was ripe with conflict of interest and greed. 11. Code of Ethics: The new law will include a strongly worded and strongly enforced code of ethics outlawing the kind of favoritism and blatant conflicts that arose in the administration of the first law.
12. Ideology over Pragmatism: Beliefs about free market competition and reading instruction, most unproven, became virtual truths exempt from challenge, criticism or any need for justification. 12. Pragmatics: The new law will encourage the development of practical program initiatives that produce results and will avoid measures that impose particular belief systems and practices on practitioners in the field.
13. Overemphasis of Testing: Eager to demonstrate the impact of their accountability theories, proponents made annual testing a centerpiece of their change strategy, an approach that was lacking in any research support as states that had experimented with it had little to show in the way of results. 13. Balanced Assessments: The new law will continue to hold states and schools accountable to show progress for all students but will require a more broadly defined approach to assessment that includes a broad range of subjects and a mixture of techniques beyond simple annual standardized tests.
14. Damage to Morale: The impact of NCLB on teacher spirit and morale has been devastating, but the whole issue of morale has been put on a back burner as if it had nothing to do with student performance. 14. Teacher Morale: The new law will make teacher morale a priority, recognizing that a positive spirit is a fundamental ingredient required to achieve gains in student learning. Schools and states will collect data on teacher morale and develop plans to improve morale.
15. Damage to Recruitment and Retention of Quality Teachers: As NCLB has ruined the working conditions of teachers, many of the best have left early, turning to other jobs, and talented potential new teachers have changed their minds without even trying the classroom. 15. Quality Teachers: The new law will focus on improving the working conditions of teachers and the recruitment of talented new teachers to the field, identifying and eliminating as much as possible those negative factors most likely to discourage prospective teachers from entering the profession. The new law will provide financial incentives to help attract teachers to less attractive teaching jobs.
16. Blindness to Social Causes: Although we have plenty of research showing that poor school performance is strongly influenced by factors outside the school like poverty and difficult living conditions, the old law paid attention only to the school factors. 16. A New War on Poverty: The new law will combine with a series of initiatives like Head Start and a decent working wage to address the social causes underlying much school failure. Congress will devote far more attention to the conditions of life for the nation's least advantaged families.

© 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.