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School Reform We Can’t Believe In

By Stan Karp

While running for president, Barack Obama called No Child Left Behind “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics.” By the time he gets a new version of the law through Congress, his own campaign theme—“change you can believe in”—may be a contender for the same title.

In fact, if the healthcare debate is any guide and the reform ideas being floated by the current administration are ultimately adopted, the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, still commonly known as NCLB, could make a bad law worse.

The administration hopes to move a reauthorization bill this year, but Congressional divisions and election year politics make that doubtful. The current law will remain in effect until it’s replaced. It will also continue to trap growing numbers of schools in its test and punish dragnet as the 2014 deadline nears for its unreachable goal of 100 percent pass rates on state tests. Over 30,000 schools, nearly a third of all public schools, are already on the “needs improvement” list. Unless the law is changed, most of the rest will follow.

Even if reauthorization is delayed, the effort to remake federal education policy is well underway. But instead of a dramatic break with the test, punish, and privatize policies of the Bush era, there’s been so much continuity under Obama that historian Diane Ravitch calls it “Bush’s third term in education.” Bush brought in Houston Superintendent Rod Paige as secretary of education to implement the “Texas miracle” on a national scale. Obama selected Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan, with his overhyped résumé of turnarounds and charter schools, to do the same (for more on Duncan’s record in Chicago, see Rethinking Schools Vol. 23 #3).

The Obama/Duncan federal education policy began to take shape with the “assurances” tied to last year’s stimulus package, which included $100 billion for education. It was further spelled out in guidelines for Title I School Improvement Grants issued last August, and again in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) plans last fall. Sidepockets of $650 million in “innovation funds” for partnerships with favored nonprofits and another $350 million for new tests are also part of the mix.



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