Pretending To Care!

From the White House to the legislative chambers of the United States Congress, the beat goes on!  These elected officials and the government bureaucracy they oversee continue to play an old con game with the American people.  It’s called: “Let’s pretend we care about public education in America.”  

Their latest farce is the federally mandated No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The major thrust of this legislation is that to improve our schools nationally, we can just “pummel schools to greatness” with high stakes standardized testing that will force the students, teachers and administrators into educational improvements.  

Some formula for success!!! No Child Left Behind is a flawed plan to fatten the cattle by simply weighing them over and over again. Incredibly, NCLB is supposed to effect educational improvement in schools without any provisions for new or innovative or research-based initiatives inside the schools. Indeed, before his untimely recent death in a plane crash, Senator Paul Wellstone decried the naiveté of such a “high stakes testing approach” with these words: “I find it incredible that testing, which is supposed to be a means of assessing reform, has now become the reform!”  

Under the NCLB plan, a required annual test for students will tell everything about the quality of education in each school. However, the latest Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll (September, 2003) doesn’t offer much public support for this piece of federal brilliance.  Sixty-six percent of the public does not believe that a single test can provide a fair picture of whether or not a school is in need of improvement. And seventy-two percent of the public does not believe it is possible to judge a student’s proficiency from a single test. But then our big brother government has its own agenda and it doesn’t include listening to the people.  

American politicians have been notorious over many years for burying their heads in the sand with regard to real issues in society that affect our society and of course education in our schools. Instead, these leaders offer the public simplistic panaceas that create the illusion of a caring government.  No Child Left Behind is another classic example of a political three-dollar bill, another sad case of  “Let’s Pretend We Care!”  

If our federal government really cared about schools and educating children to the fullest extent possible, here are just a few recommendations that would make a significant difference for the better in a true national education effort.  

1. Money matters!  Award-winning writer Benjamin Barber has noted that “ by itself can’t solve problems, but without money, few problems can be solved. Money also can’t win wars or put men in space, but it is the crucial facilitator. Money is also how America has traditionally announced: We are serious about this!  

Empty political rhetoric won’t get anything done! The bottom line is that the federal government provides only about 7% of the total funds spent on public schools.  If education is really such a national priority, then “where’s the beef?”   

For openers, Congress can begin by fully funding its promised 40% share of the cost of federal special education (Individuals With Disabilities Act, IDEA) legislation. Our federal government has betrayed the intent and purposes and the clients of the IDEA from its inception in 1976 by consciously under funding its promised 40% share of the cost of this legislation and annually passing a huge financial burden on to school districts. At present, the yearly cost of special education programs across America’s schools is roughly $92.5 billion.  The 40% promised federal share would be $37 billion, but the Congress is currently tinkering with an appropriation on only about $11 billion. If IDEA were funded by the Congress just at the promised 40% level, it would free up $26 billion of local and State money, now paying for the majority part of the federal government’s share of special education.  That money ($26 billion) could be well utilized in local public schools for reforms such as teacher training, professional team building, innovative K-12 curriculum innovations, technology expansions, remedial and enrichment programs, dropout prevention, and early childhood programs.  

Ironically, there is also a shortfall in federal funding for the No Child Left Behind testing mania. And much of the funding that will be provided has been obtained in an underhanded fashion. Our federal government has been playing its usual “magical tricks” with money.  Isn’t it curious that some very worthwhile United States Department of Education Programs, once annually funded by more than one billion dollars, have been recently cut in order to reappropriate that money for No Child Left Behind? And even with this “sleight of hand” maneuvering by the feds, there will still not be enough annual federal funds to pay for No Child Left Behind over the years ahead, once again dumping a financial burden on the local doorstep. Some commitment to education!.

In yet another arena of concern, The American Society of Civil Engineers has been quite critical of our federal government for its inattention to school facilities. Millions of our students currently attend schools that are antiquated or badly in need of repair. Why has our Congress not viewed this situation as the disaster that it is and appropriated funding to help address these problems?  

2. Has Anyone In The Federal Government Been Out In The Real World Lately?

The United States child poverty rate is substantially higher---often 3 to 5 times higher---than that of most Western industrialized nations. The National Center For Children in Poverty reports that 38% of American children (27 million) live in low-income families and 7% (five million) live in extreme poverty. This is an unacceptable national disgrace that has major educational impacts upon public schools that serve this population of students. Decreasing poverty levels should be a government priority in the national interest, but it isn’t.  

Lester Thurow, a distinguished economist, has offered this poignant summary of our nation’s inattention to this issue: “America’s elite...more and more resemble the oligarchy of Latin American countries where a small handful of immensely privileged people have it very good and don’t care at all about the fact that the rest of the country is doing poorly.”  Sounds to me like a perfect description of the current White House and the Congress of the United States!  

Beyond the issue of poverty, 20% of the students in America’s public schools have at least one foreign-born parent. Almost 10 million pupils speak a language other than English at home. How can anyone really believe that the “high stakes” testing obsession inherent in No Child Left Behind is really the educational panacea for these newest Americans?  

It is clear that far too many of America’s leaders have little if any idea of the remarkable heterogeneity of our public schools in terms of resources, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and ability levels. The educational and humanitarian challenges for thousands of our nation’s schools go well beyond the threats of some “high stakes” test.  

Finally, to help the Congress focus on the issues of public education and the needs of the common people, let’s purge all of the lobbyists. The Associated Press has reported that more that 14,000 lobbyists work the United States Senate and House of Representatives, spending more than one billion dollars each year to promote their special interests. That means that the lobbyists outnumber the members of Congress by a 27-1 ratio. Small wonder that these elected officials often have legislative priorities far removed from the real needs of people.

 3. Let’s Bag The Nonsense Flowing From the Private Sector!

There has probably been no more blatant hypocrisy about public education than the stream of rhetoric from business and corporate leaders.  This nation does not need round tables of business executives advising the federal government about something these corporate geniuses know so little about, our egalitarian system of public education.  

During the 1980’s, CEO after CEO blamed public schools for the downturn in the economy, but when the economy turned consistently “bullish” in the 1990’s there was no praise for schools from those same business leaders.  That’s because the correlation of economic success or failure to the quality of public schools was never a valid premise in the first place (see Lawrence Cremin’s Popular Education and Its Discontents, 1989), just a convenient propaganda mechanism for corporations experiencing rough times.  

Another big business complaint has been that public schools are not creating the necessary quality workers that are needed for corporate success.  But check the records of downsizing in the private sector where all too often thousands of highly trained and capable workers are cast aside (laid off) in order to insure the profit line for the company. Clinton Boutwell’s Shell Game is an awesome documentary of this amoral practice by corporate leaders.  

Finally, the idea that some mechanistic business model should be utilized to promote educational excellence in schools is highly questionable.  Just in 2002, the corporate misdeeds of WorldCom, Tyco International, ImClone Systems, Arthur Andersen and Rite Aid should be enough to convince anyone that maybe “big business should just mind its own business.”  

And then there’s the corporate argument that public education needs the accountability that exists in the private sector. Really? A Philadelphia Magazine look at CEO compensation from companies in Philadelphia in 2002 makes one wonder, “what accountability.” Comcast’s CEO made $27.8 million in spite of the company’s stockholders losing 34.5%; Campbell Soup’s CEO made $18.3 million while the company stockholders lost 12.5%; the Unisys CEO made $16.9 million against a company stockholder loss of 21.1%; CIGNA’s CEO made $16 million as the company stockholders lost 54,2%; and Lincoln National’s CEO made $8.5 million while the company’s stockholders lost 32.3%.  

4. Get Off The Backs of Educators

How politically pragmatic it has all been for government officials and bureaucrats, so far removed from the real world problems of schools, to bash public education. Nothing could be more absurd or unfair. How many of these policy makers have ever spent any significant time inside a public school with a diverse population of students to educate. Why have teachers and school administrators, those closest to the schools and the students they serve, been excluded from any national dialogue about educational reform. Public schools and those who labor in them with dedication and love these days should be receiving help, support, encouragement and resources from government. How tragic it is that our federal government is so clueless that the No Child Left Behind Act is all they offer our schools!  

In the September (2003) issue of The School Administrator, Harvard University Professor Patricia Albjerg Graham has offered this summary of the quest for universal quality education: “...We should be using a broader set of indices than tests. They are a simplistic explanation for the very complex phenomenon of learning. To be honest, the work of schools has been hijacked by the political agenda.”  Joe Batory - September 2003