What it is/ what it ain't
Whenever I read about this piece of federal law on the blogs, I get those angry itchings because of the irresponsible rhetoric employed to argue against this measure. We should all be able to agree that NCLB does not:
- promote insanity in the young
- recreate the biblical Fall
- forbid you from teaching good
- end bilingual education in California
- create further ethnic segregation
- usher in the first generation of low-performing students
- cause thousands of innocent, hard-working teachers to be ruthlessly fired
And I think that's a good thing. I think, on the most basic level, that these requirements have brought increased attention and visibility to communities, schools, and certain student groups therein that go all too often ignored. Part of this is the nature of schools, and the fact that it's hard to have a global view of something that is so intensely local, but also because there's been malfeasance. Whether we speak of the much-publicized inner-city school or simply the pockets of student "sub-group" that can be easy to ignore in the absence of measures that make them statistically significant, there are too many kids that we have not done well by. Too many.
NCLB did not cause this. The problems and the gaps and the underachievement were all there before 2002 and will probably be there in 2008 when the democratic majority dismantles the law. NCLB certainly put labels on a pre-existing situation, and there are people who will tell you that this represents an unnecessary labeling resulting in blame, unnatural dichotomies, and a dangerous binary way of looking at school, but I'm not one of them. I'm a naked lunch kinda guy, and I think it's always important to look at what's at the end of the fork, and see it clearly. To a large extent, NCLB has improved our clarity, and if we don't like what we see, it's up to us to make it better.
It's there at the end of the above, there in the historical tango between federal oversight and local (state) control. It's there as that critical archstone that supports the work we do and the work we ought to be doing. It's there in the fact that for all the regulations, all the legal wranglings, all the outside forces that can seem so daunting and seem to require so much massive intervention, success or failure still resides within the choices and actions of educators. To quote the woman Samuel J. quoted Nelson M. quoting, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, it is that we are powerful beyond measure."
We waste so much time forgetting that it is the responses of educators that make the difference one way or another, in the acquisition of basic skills, the development of critical thought, and the continued practice of being good people. There is poverty, there is underfunding, there is a materialism that creeps like a wasting sickness in a Bronte novel, and still we can make it happen. Still we can work to prepare students, to ready them to combat the problems they will inherit, because inherit they will. In this preparing lies our continued struggle and our commitment to live in discontent against the inequities that plague us.
It is because of our control in shaping environments and in setting the conditions for teaching and learning that we must not speak of NCLB making us do things, at least not on the level of classrooms or schools, and maybe not even on the level of districts. When schools limit access to curriculum, or take away electives, or insist upon a fanatical adherence to scripted curriculum, these are responses to the test-everyone mandate, and must be judged on their merits independent of the existence of the overarching federal legislation. I recognize the danger here, the danger in saying stop complaining that I shot you, it's your body's response to the bullet in your head that's causing all your problems. I get it, but I'm not buying, because the choices in response to the legislature that anger and frustrate so many are simply not the only choices.
Investing in wide-spread implementation of teacher-proof curriculum is a choice not to invest in instilling a process-oriented approach to teaching. Removing electives is a choice to position literacy and math as prerequisites to other endeavors, and one I agree with, but failing to offer supplementary alternatives outside the school day is a choice to repudiate the importance of enrichment. Maintaining traditional school organizational structures, scheduling principles, and class sizes is a choice to structure schools to serve the needs of adults, not the needs of teaching and learning. Emphasizing one means of assessment throughout the year simply because it is the manner in which assessment will occur in May is a choice not to embrace the reality that good teaching is good teaching, and as such, will never detract from ultimate performance.
We have not made effective enough choices to blame outside forces for our problems. That is what I always come back to. We have not controlled what we have the power to control in effective ways, and until we do, I cannot understand why we elevate this law to boogyman status, and make it the target of all our wrath.
There remain aspects to this law that exist beyond our ability to make choices about response. Here I'm thinking of unfunded mandates, sub-group qualifying calculations, the lack of growth provisions, and whether this concept of 100 percent success for 100 percent of a population is really how we need to structure our educational systems. Let us continue to debate these issues relative to their importance. Because they may not be all that important, or at least not now.
I teach in a school where proficiency rates have more than quadrupled in four years, taking us to a place where slightly more than a third of last year's students were proficient. Do we need to allocate time and resources to talking about NCLB proficiency benchmarks for 2014, when we still need to design models and processes to reach a place where half of our eighth graders leave ready for high school? I don't know, and I don't know if this represents an abdication of responsibility or just an appropriate ordering of priority. I have been elsewhere accused of advocating a first-they-came stance with regard to this, and I don't know if that's what I'm doing.
What I do know is this kind of discussion seems to come down to a debate between those who argue that we can never make lasting change from within schools, that it must come from without. This is the Rothstein argument that, to my mind, seems to conflate the closing of the achievement gap with the eradication of all meaningful distinctions between rich and poor. That may certainly be a worthwhile endeavor, but is it the same thing? Is it the purpose of education? Do we educate to become classless, or do we educate to provide the foundation for meritocracy and democracy?
And then we go back and forth on the locus of control and on the extent of power and influence. Poverty vs. schools. NCLB vs. teachers. It may not be fair to say that educators have the full extent of this power and it may not be accurate or acceptable to require educators to function as if they did. But what would happen if, for just a little while, in opposition to how we may feel or what we may have seen at the corner store, what would happen if we pretended, if we just acted as if we did? What then?