Education reform meets the gatekeepers of mediocrity

Lynne Varner
March 2, 2005

Since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, there has been a movement to repeal it. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the National Conference of State Legislatures is questioning the law's constitutionality.

Part of the impetus fueling critics of federal education reform is typical knee-jerk responses to mandates unaccompanied by gobs of money and loose rules. But more sinister aspects are power and control. Federal education reform challenges local control of schools. It challenges the power of special interests to allow change or stop it dead in its tracks.

Power and control. If we ever get up the courage, we'll turn these two sacred cows into a tasty dish.

I like NCLB. No, I'm not being paid to say this. The law can and ought to be amended in some significant ways, but I absolutely love the way it has exposed the narrow, change-resistant environment of public education.

Some decry NCLB as punitive. Some liken its strong expectations of schools to the unbridled arrogance of the federal government. These critics are, I suppose, comfortable with the old educational system of high expectations for those who could meet them and benign neglect for the rest. I'd call that arrogance.

Schools were once solely for the elite. Then they were transformed into entities designed to make education the great equalizer. For many, that transformation didn't stick. Non-elites were tolerated. They were labeled at-risk and excuses were made for their failures. They were poor. Their parents worked two jobs or they didn't have parents. They came from cultures that didn't respect education or from cultures that discouraged parental involvement in education.

Long before we acknowledged that children learn differently, we were comfortable with the reality that some weren't learning at all.

NCLB offers stinging rebukes to such complacency. Its expectations are strong and unbending, its consequences admittedly harsh. Parents have been given a powerful bargaining chip; the ability to transfer from a failing school at a local district's expense. This challenges two sacred cows at once. The first is the widespread acceptance of perennially failing schools because, well, our own children don't go there. The second challenge goes to the often arrogant manner of educators who ignore parents seen as having few alternatives. Now it is not only the affluent parents who can wield the threat of exiting a school. What a sweet shift in power.

The law isn't just a sharp arrow aimed at failing urban schools. It also strikes deep into the heart of the suburbs, where schools with plenty of resources produce high achievers and receive much acclaim. The secret NCLB will uncover about these schools is their neglect of so-called average and underachieving students. To paraphrase a political adage about privilege, educators cheer students who arrived at school on the academic equivalent of third base as having hit a home run with their strong achievement. These schools are now getting an uncomfortable reminder of the other children who must be coached to home plate.

NCLB doesn't begin to pay for all that it aims to do. But the funding argument is a Trojan horse hiding the real battle. More federal money is being directed to local schools but its form, block grants, challenges the status quo.

The federal law's biggest challenge is shedding its rigidity while retaining its unwavering push for accountability. It ought never be a loose set of rules tied to a vague system of accountability. But it will have to shift according to the different education systems of each state.

Even then, some won't like the law. A lot of people have made whole careers out of pretending only they know how to help poor or minority children learn. They're not about to give up their meal tickets.

That thought came to mind as I listened to reaction from Bill Gates' speech to the National Association of Governors education summit. Lawmakers clapped like seals as Gates decried high schools as "obsolete" and called for smaller, advanced learning environments. They knew that Gates wasn't just talking but would be willing to pony up a sizable sum from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After the Microsoft chairman's speech, governors infused with sudden religion announced a coalition to push for higher standards, tougher classes and more rigorous testing.

Let's not hold our breath. I liked what Gates had to say. The governors' response was appropriate. But just wait. Wait until their lofty goals slam head-on into an education culture suspicious of outside influence and resistant to change. Wait until the governors hear from the gatekeepers of mediocrity. They'll change their tune mid-song. They'll understand where some of the resistance to NCLB comes from.

The sacred cows holding our children hostage have no intention of ending up on dinner plates.

Topic for another time: the sacred cows roaming Seattle Public Schools