by Kathleen Jeskey
Jonah Edelman’s recent in The Daily Beast is a classically beautiful batch of snake oil. The thing that makes it so beautiful is that it combines just enough truth and righteous indignation (over things about which one should be righteously indignant) with the deception of a slick ad campaign to make it palatable and easy to swallow. But like any classic snake oil, we shouldn’t expect it to offer relief from the problems it purports to cure.
Edelman begins by informing us that Congress may be about to actually do something and rewrite the long-overdue-for-renewal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) known in its current form as No Child Left Behind. Those of us who have been waiting and hoping for a reauthorization and renewal of ESEA since 2007, one that might correct the errors in its incarnation as NCLB, begin to feel hopeful.
Next he invokes the history of ESEA, which has its original roots in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and was born during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. And clearly, we continue to face those same issues today. Once again, there are those who wish to deny assistance to people who live in poverty and blame the poor rather than the system that creates their living conditions. Once again, there are those who would like to have a separate schooling system for their children. Once again we have those who are trying to ensure that all children have access to equal educational opportunity no matter their address, income, or the color of their skin. But today, those lines of conflict are not as clearly drawn. They have become quite blurry, and some of us believe that might not be an accident.
Edelman continues to speak about NCLB and even defend it somewhat, since after all, it “exposed grossly unequal educational outcomes and motivated a range of efforts across the country to address the low performance of low-income children and children of color”. He then says that the law was nonetheless flawed, and particularly in its stated goal of 100% proficiency by 2014, which he rightfully mocks as ridiculous.
But then come the corporate reform talking points: “The federal government has offered incentives”; they want to “offer more choices to parents”; they want to “strengthen teaching through more accurate educator evaluations.” We are reminded that these reform ideas are all “state-based”, however. And of course, we need more rigor in there somewhere.
He then returns to a statement with which I and many others agree: that there must be some accountability to federal law by state and local schools, since without “meaningful federal oversight” many children will be put at risk of not receiving an equal educational opportunity. However, I and many others are beginning to wonder if the current brand of federal oversight is capable of providing the equal opportunity that should indeed be its responsibility. It seems to be working in the opposite direction. I believe the definition of “meaningful” must be what Mr. Edelman and I disagree on.
And then comes the deception. “There’s also talk by states’ rights advocates of no longer requiring annual testing by states, which would deny parents and educators valuable information about whether students are on track, reduce the ability to measure and improve teacher quality, and make it harder for administrators to know how schools are doing and when they need to intervene. Ironically, this is being proposed just as ‘smarter’ assessments come online that will more accurately measure student learning, including their ability to think critically, solve problems, and write.”
Really? “States’ rights advocates”? Not teachers and parents. It’s those “states’ rights advocates”. The ones who want “little to no federal oversight”. I know those people exist, but Edelman paints everyone who disagrees with annual high stakes testing for every student in America on the same set of standards with an incredibly broad brush. And then he’s right back to the corporate reform talking points: How will parents and teachers know if kids are on track without those tests? How will we measure teacher quality without those tests? How will we know how our schools are doing without those tests? And come on! The tests are “smarter” now. I bet he thinks they’re more “balanced” as well.
Clearly we have known since at least the 1960s that children who live in poverty need more support. When will we stop measuring that fact and start to actually do something about the roots of poverty? Clearly there continue to be those who wish to deny the civil rights of all children. But just who are those people? Are they the ones who believe that the federal government should serve and support communities and require a democratic process for decisions made about our schools? Or are they the ones who are attempting to sell us snake oil, a Common Cure for what ails us?
He ends by mentioning the sign that famously sat on Harry Truman’s desk: “The Buck Stops Here.” Sadly, today that sign would probably be sitting over the door to the banks where the snake oil salesmen deposit their money.