fresh voices from the front lines of change







So much for the “New Washington Consensus on Education”.

Education policy, we were told by conservative leaders merely six months ago, was a ” redeeming feature” of the Obama administration that would provide DC policy makers with a tranquil eddy amidst the whitewater of American politics.

The New Consensus was forged on the idea that federal policies governing the nation’s schools could enforce “tight” restrictions on what we expect public schools to make students and teachers “do,” as long as the governing policies remained “loose” about how we make them do it.

The last glimpse of this glorious, technocratic vision slipped out from an embargoed presser in the wee hours of Monday morning, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan admitted that the once heralded goals of No Child Left Behind were unachievable and that states could blow them off as long as they could persuade a yet-to-be-announced group of peers that they were adhering to a yet-to-be-defined definition of “accountability.”

The announcement was in every way a rendering unto the “tight, loose” edicts of the New Washington Consensus. Yet even this vague illusion of a policy — an administrative excuse, really, for the complete and utter failure of NCLB — was met with resounding disapproval from all sides in the once still-waters of edu-policy.

Republican education policy leaders had already expressed opposition to waivers with conditions. And Republicans from states with large populations of rural schools have already declared that the Obama “Blueprint” for education policy, which many speculate that Duncan’s waiver requirements will draw from, is basically unworkable in their states.

Even education policy makers in the Democratic party have expressed skepticism about waiving NCLB “growth targets” for specific student populations. And Duncan’s announcement generated only tepid expressions of “understanding” of “where Duncan is coming from.” This hardly constitutes a strong base for strong-arming policy through a reluctant legislative body.

Secretary Duncan’s once-reliable “reform” backers, true champions of the New Consensus, were mostly vehement in their criticism — slamming it as a “back door” strategy, a grasp for “greater presidential authority,” and a “gambit” pleasing no one. It seemed the best support that Duncan could get from the self-anointed reformers would be the incoherent declaration from loyal ally Michelle Rhee that waiving NCLB “accountability” is okay only if the government enforces “rigorous accountability.” (Huh?)

And those who’ve long opposed NCLB were uniformly and unsurprisingly critical of the waiver plan.

So in the place of the New (now Old) Washington Consensus on Education, what we’re left with is a truly ungovernable stalemate in which the rudderless ship of state founders on the shoals of entrenched political positions in DC while waves of budget cuts lash at the gunwales and privateers plunder the hold.

Teacher and edu-blogger Doug Noon correctly likens the situation that education policy finds itself in to the “Doom Loop” determining our nation’s economic policy:

With a slight adjustment, Paul Krugman’s analysis of the S&P downgrade works for education reform as well.
“1. US debt is downgraded, sparking demands for more ill-advised fiscal austerity
2. Fears that austerity will depress the economy send stocks down
3. Politicians and pundits declare that worries about US solvency are the culprit, even though interest rates have actually plunged
4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised austerity, which sends us back to #2”
Applied to education reform:
1. US schools are criticized, sparking demands for ill-advised standardized testing
2. Fears that testing is dominating the curriculum send confidence in schools down
3. Politicians and pundits declare that teacher effectiveness is the culprit, even though instruction is focused on tested material
4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised testing, which sends us back to #2
And back to Krugman for the zinger, “Behold the power of a stupid narrative, which seems impervious to evidence.”
Really, how much of an appetite for this shit do we have?

Apparently, quite a lot. Already, plenty of states have lined up for the chance at a waiver even before the requirements have been spelled out. Short-term grasps at straws, it seems, are what our political leaders are willing to accept.

But there is a real consequence of this short-term gaming in place of long-term leadership to all of us down here on the ground. As my colleague Dave Johnson has so insightfully observed here on this blog, “government spending cuts don’t cut, they shift costs.” And as the first wave of school openings rolls out this week and next, the “shift” is going to hit the fan in our nation’s school hallways and classrooms.

How this new reality for the nation’s schools works is that parents get hit for costs they never had to pay in the past, children who are the most in need — such as poor kids with no access to books and children with developmental issues — get blocked out of early childhood programs, kindergarten programs are closed, and families who live in remote areas are told to take a hike if they care about getting their son or daughter to school.

The reformist joke of a solution is to recommend that the nation adopt the education policies of the state with the highest percentage of failing schools.

But what we really don’t need is another Michelle Rhee-type grand plan for “innovation” that, “after replacing 50% of the teaching staff in the regular public schools, paying huge fees and salaries to self-described experts, and shipping over one-third of the student population to essentially unregulated charter schools,” produces “basically, nothing.” (hat tip: Tom Hoffman)

What we need instead is, first, for the broadcast media’s staging of “back to school season” to shun the Michelle Rhee’s and Bill Gates’es of the world and take a look at the real, hard truth of the nation’s disinvestment in public education. Listen instead to this LA teacher who explains why she can’t be “excellent” when school cuts and teacher lay-offs force her to deal with a class of “31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes, [and a] brainiac who’s so bored she’s reading ‘Lolita’ under her desk.”

Instead of running more puff pieces on “wonderful” charter schools that the edu-philanthropists shower with money, follow edu-blogger Nancy Flanagan as she gives an eyewitness account of the decay we’ve allowed our traditional public schools to fall into:

And then there was the building itself, which reeked, literally, of neglect–from broken, filthy blinds (essential for shutting out the hot glare of the sun) to gummy floors to mismatched windows with security mesh embedded. The kindergarten “playground”–a crumbling concrete square–looked like a prison yard, and the auditorium floor was littered with broken glass. Boxes of unused teaching materials, ordered decades ago, were stacked everywhere. The principal told me that 90% of her workday since she was hired, in June, has been taken up with a frustrating quest to get some action on urgent and critical facility needs.
Teachers were hauling years’ worth of dusty trash into the hallways, armed with disinfecting wipes, spray cleaner and contact paper. Interactive white boards had been used as bulletin boards; teachers were exchanging tips on removing tape residue and whose husband had the power drill to put up shower board from Home Depot over old, cracked chalkboards.

And what we need is real leadership — real leadership like what we just saw from North Carolina’s gutsy governor Bev Perdue who announced yesterday that she will defy the state Tea Party inspired budget that blocks at-risk children from early childhood programs. It’s sad but true that standing up for the welfare of children in the face of rapacious greed from the most powerful people has now become the hardest thing for leaders to do in our society. But there you have it.

Only that combination — confronting truth and real leadership — can get us out of this Doom Loop we find ourselves in. Waivers won’t help.

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