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NCLB Doesn't Add Up
Howard Dean thundered his challenge to the new "No Child Left Behind" federal education law; it will dumb-down Vermont's high standards, cost more than we get (and become another unfunded mandate), and the federal intrusion into state and local matters will result in a hidebound and bureaucratic blob.
Reasonable people solidly agree with the goals of the law. It represents a moral as well as a state Constitutional obligation. We must provide a solid education for all children.
Yet, the federal approach is a clumsy and inept mechanism, liable to cause more harm than good.
Dumbing-down our standards - Vermont children score an average of 27 percentile points above the nation and our lead over the nation increases each year. However, because our standards are so high, 46.5% of our students are said to fall "below standards."
Contrast Vermont's exceptional performance with then Governor George W. Bush and Superintendent (now U.S. Secretary of Education) Rod Paige's "Texas Miracle." They point out that Texas had 90% pass their standards – but they are very low standards.
Vermont scores in the highest rung on the National Assessments while Texas scores 25 percentile points below the national average. To label high scoring Vermont schools as "failed" while low-scoring Texas schools "pass" perversely rewards failure and punishes success. Michigan, Maryland and other high scoring states have logical reasons to review their high standards.
In Vermont, the law threw an anchor on our well-established and successful reform efforts. Teachers, principals and curriculum coordinators now wait interminably for the tangled, incomplete and confused information from the federal government. Whether our very strong system will have to be replaced with something weaker freezes local and state leadership. Purpose has been replaced with uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion.
Considering Vermont's high standards and the federal mandate, citizens and taxpayers reasonably ask what it will cost. To get at this question, courts across the nation have increasingly relied on the concept of "educational adequacy." That is, if we require all students to meet certain standards, then it is the state's responsibility to provide the resources to make the standards a reality. Different researchers use a variety of techniques to estimate these costs. Regardless of the method or the views of the researcher, they agree that we significantly under-estimate the costs of bringing all students up to high standards.
The reason is straightforward. A child in a single parent home who saw Mom get beat-up by her boyfriend last night, who is hungry, ill-clothed and has a toothache is simply not going to be a prime candidate for learning phonics the next morning. To ask schools to overcome these obstacles without resources asks too much. It is neither fair nor right to blame the students or the schools who consequently "fail" when they never had a decent chance. Nor would it be right to label a hospital as "failing" because it treats an excessive number of heart attacks. Reasonable people would ask what was causing the heart attacks.
Vermont receives $52 million in all federal education monies (excluding special education). The federal government issued press releases about their "historic increases" to education funding to meet these requirements. Yet the increases in remedial programs amounted to a mere four-tenths of one percent of education spending.
Using the various methods for calculating the cost of adequacy in Vermont, it will cost an estimated additional $158 million. It takes no special expertise to figure out that accepting $52 million in money to carry out $158 million dollars worth of new requirements is not sound financial management.
The Bureaucratic Blob
Assistant federal education secretary Susan Neuman said she hopes the new law "will stifle and hopefully kill" creative and experimental teaching. Instead, schools will be judged strictly on test results without considering the differences students bring to the classroom. The obvious result is to narrow the curriculum to only those things measured on the tests. Most parents would agree that testing is important but few would say we should neglect arts, sports, history and getting along with others. Parents have a more comprehensive view of what children should learn.
At the time we hear calls to eliminate bureaucratic regulations, schools are to be micro-managed by an 1100 page federal law where every school is to move in lockstep. "We don't intend to waive any of the requirements," says Neuman. If super-bureaucracy and punishment does not work, super-deregulation through charter schools, management changes, vouchers and private schools is to be imposed. This striking polar contrast has led many to conclude that the purpose is to eliminate democratic government of schools.
Vermonters value the close link between their locally elected boards and the direct and meaningful connection to their children's education. Yet, the federal law eliminates this connection and replaces it with unyielding federal rules far beyond the reach of parents and citizens.
Dumbing-down our standards, requiring efforts beyond our fiscal capability, and a lock-step bureaucratic prescription holds little promise for success. Federal zealots claim they have found the true path and, like zealots everywhere, wish to impose it on others. American history shows these plans don't work. They run counter to national core values such as imagination, diversity, decentralized government, creativity and freedom.
Superintendent, Ruthland Northeast Supervisory Union
Senior Fellow, Vermont Society for the Study of Education
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