Secretary Duncan Uses NCLB Waivers to Push School Reform Agenda

by Christopher Paslay

In 2001, when George Bush unveiled No Child Left Behind, he was promising America the impossible.  The idea of 100 percent of all children being proficient in math and reading by the year 2014 was more than pie-in-the-sky—it was educational propaganda. 

The reality of the matter is, there are many, many children who, no matter how much time and money are invested in their educations, will never be able to analyze and interpret complex pieces of literature, nor will they be able to work though advanced algebraic and geometric equations; these are the skills required to score “proficient” in math and reading at the high school level on current standardized tests under NCLB.

Not all children are born with the requisite mathematical and linguistic abilities to perform such tasks (imagine if all students in America were required to dunk a basketball to be considered “on grade level” in athletics).  When you factor in poverty, the break-down of the nuclear family, poor nutrition, and the devastating impact television, cell phones, video games, and the internet are having on attention spans, the idea that 100 percent of American children will be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014 is ridiculous. 

But in 2001, when Bush proposed NCLB, the bill wasn’t necessarily about feasibility or even realistic goal setting.  It was mostly about control

As those familiar with both politics and public schools know, when you control education, you control large amounts of money (billions of tax dollars), jobs, votes, etc.  This is the very reason why education must stay “broken”; so the teachers, parents, principals, etc. will continue to be stripped of any real control, and the politicians can stay in the driver’s seat.

But with new politicians come new sets of rules—structured to fit specific agendas.  Which is why President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, is now declaring (surprise, surprise!) that Bush’s NCLB law is broken and needs to be fixed. 

Estimates on standardized test scores predict that this year, as much as 80 percent of America’s public schools will be labeled “failing.”  Some educators, such as noted education scholar and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch, believe nearly 95 percent of schools will be designated “failing” under NCLB by 2014.    

“This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year,” Arne Duncan recently told the House education committee.  Interestingly, Duncan’s way of “fixing” the law is to force states to do things his way, and his way alone; schools in danger of being labeled failing must forfeit all control to Duncan and adopt the Obama Administration’s National Reform Model (charterizing schools; replacing principals; overhauling staff by arbitrarily firing teachers, etc.).

According to a recent story in Education Week:

“States seeking relief from the requirements of the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind Act are taking a wait-and-see approach to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plan to offer those that embrace his reform priorities wiggle room when it comes to the law’s mandates.

But the idea of waivers is already facing hurdles on Capitol Hill—drawing criticism even from the administration allies. And while the department points to waiver powers that Congress included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, some naysayers are wondering whether Mr. Duncan has the legal authority to offer states broad leeway on the law’s accountability requirements.

Details on the waiver proposal remained sketchy last week, but it’s clear that states will have to embrace an all-or-nothing package of reforms from the department in exchange for relief under the ESEA, the current version of which is the NCLB law.

‘This is not an a la carte menu,’ Secretary Duncan said during a June 13 call with reporters.”

Indeed it’s not a la carte.  It’s become quite clear that Secretary Duncan does not want individual parents, communities, or teachers having a say when it comes to educating their children; a more appropriate term from his educational menu would be prix fixe

This, interestingly, is a tactic local school district leaders are currently employing in Philadelphia. 

Whether their dictatorial decisions will pay off in the future remains to be seen.

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