The Democrats’ overriding moral commitment to education reform has always centered upon the figure of the underserved, vulnerable student. The political right finds itself invested in the same reforms, but for very different reasons, including a general preference for privatization, a distaste for teachers’ unions, and an abiding concern for America’s economic and military standing in the world. For Democrats and allies on the left, though, the stark achievement gap between African American and white students has presented the most damning evidence of a national failure to educate all of its future citizens equally. When framed like so, it’s easy to see why Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, at the height of the implementation of the Race to the Top program, declared that education is “the civil rights issue of our generation.”
And the parallels between the ways and means of civil rights legislation and the No Child Left Behind era are clear, as well. As part of his rationale for legislative action in the early 2000s, President Bush invoked the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” implying that racial (among other) biases at the local level were at least partly to blame for the achievement gap between white students and most racial minorities, particularly African Americans. Similar problems of local biases animated the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation.
The basic likeness here, between the shape of Civil Rights legislation and education reform as embodied in NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top, is straightforward: local structures of power and knowledge are prejudicially crippled in such a way that only federal power can ensure fair and equal processes of accountability. Liz King makes this plain: “The lesson of the civil rights movement and community is that the federal government is the defender of vulnerable children and we are worried that with new state and local authority, vulnerable children are going to be at risk.” On this view, the federal government defends vulnerable minority children from local tendencies, based in overt or unconscious racial bias, to ignore, underfund, or otherwise mismanage their education. As Libby Nelson says, the restructuring of No Child Left Behind “means states could scale back their efforts to improve schools for poor and minority children.”
It is doubtless for this reason that, in the wake of last week’s congressional dustbinning of No Child Left Behind, Liz King and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have expressed fears that the move might signal a return to a state in which schools and districts are free to ignore the needs of poor and minority students. The retreat of strong federal oversight leaves disadvantaged students to the mercy of the very local structures that had failed them for so long.
But these fears on behalf of vulnerable students are overblown. Not because the analysis of events is necessarily wrong: despite the fact that some accounts are quick to argue that the government is not getting out of the local-accountability business at all, it’s certainly at the very least a symbolic victory for congressional conservatives, for whom “local control” and “states’ rights” have longstanding and dog-whistle-y and decidedly anti-civil rights connotations. That the federal government is retreating from local intervention to even a small degree is certainly a victory for those who would rather not devote resources to caring about the most vulnerable students.
But let us remember that federal mandates and the disempowering of local judgment, spurred by the civil rights movement, have also had profoundly deleterious effects on just those poor and minority populations that federal intervention was meant to protect. Naomi Murakawa’s magisterial new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, documents the way in which mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, largely responsible for the contemporary experience of African Americans’ mass incarceration, evolved from a similar impetus on the part of well-meaning Democrats to solve problems of local bias in largely Southern jurisdictions. The lesson here is: federal intervention on the behalf of poor and minority populations is only positive to the extent that its effects are positive, and there is substantial reason to be suspicious of No Child Left Behind’s effects in this regard.
By taking aim at the achievement gap in reading and math scores, No Child Left Behind and its Obama-administration progeny seized upon a proxy measure for the overall quality of a child’s education. Reading and math were – and remain – the predominant way of measuring education at large because reading and math are the only domains in which standardized tests have good validity. And given the scale of the achievement gap, there is (and was) little reason to doubt that the overall gap between white and minority students, across all educational domains, was real.
But there is no reason to believe that this inferential direction there can be reversed; that is, there is no reason to think that reducing the achievement gap in these two areas will amount to reducing the educational gap overall. In fact, to the extent that additional time and effort focused on reading and math comes at the direct expense of other domains, the overall effect of a full-scale drive to lift math and reading performance can be disastrous.
Unsurprisingly, as Richard Rothstein and Diane Ravitch have demonstrated, this disaster is more or less what occurred, in many cases, even as math and reading scores rose. Under the original accountability features of NCLB, well-to-do schools with majority white populations were under no threat of failing to make the grade, and still afforded their students a full and diverse educational experience, including a range of arts and extracurriculars. Meanwhile, those schools with high populations of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, those schools in danger of failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as measured by math and reading tests, sought to avoid NCLB’s punitive sanctions by redirecting all efforts, even those of music and physical education teachers, toward raising test scores in those domains.
And so it was that No Child Left Behind succeeded in focusing attention on vulnerable students, just as its noble intentions wished. But the result was not to erase the chasm between the quality of education for well-off white students and that of poor and minority ones, even though there was some real success in raising the math and reading scores, particularly of vulnerable students. Instead, the increased attention to poor and minority students was somewhat nearer to the profoundly negative experience that Simone Browne associates with “the surveillance of blackness.” For the better part of a decade, economically-secure white students, whose schools never had to fret about making AYP, received a qualitatively different educational experience from their poor and minority peers, whose curriculum gravitated toward the two assessed domains and whose teaching practice erred on the side of test-preparation.
In bidding adieu to NCLB, and in resisting the urge to call its departure any kind of civil rights defeat, we instead ought to recognize the law’s similarity to the Reagan- and Clinton-era sentencing reform movement and label them both a form of malpractice in the implementation of civil rights intentions. Federal control over education isn’t necessarily the first step on the road to tyranny, as the political right is prone to imagining, but it is also definitely not an unmitigated blessing for those whom the political left would like to help.
In closing, I hope that the following fact is lost on no one: The school reform and accountability movement only ran into serious political trouble once the Obama administration replaced status models of measuring adequate progress (the percentage of students above a given score) with growth models (the percentage of students that reach expected individualized scores). Measuring each student’s growth toward an individualized goal meant that everyone, not just poor and minority students, had to care deeply about the test. When the wealthier parents of white students found their children subject to the kind of test-driven teaching that underprivileged children had undergone for a decade, only then did it become a bad idea.
Politically, teaching to the test and the resulting “curricular distortion,” as Rothstein calls it, were perfectly acceptable as long as poor and minority students were the primary targets. The opt-out movement was nowhere to be found until this testing regimen affected the educational experiences of the politically powerful, too.
Caring about the education of poor and minority students is important. But manifesting that care in a way the upper classes would find unacceptable for their own children is probably not the kind of “caring” that the well-intentioned had in mind. The demise of NCLB should not signal a return to a past in which the education of vulnerable students was not a matter of concern. But perhaps caring is something that simply cannot be done well from far away. As discretionary power reverts back to state and district education agencies, “local control” must also mean “local care.”