What we already knew: the truth about NCLB

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”

So wrote Emily Dickinson, who could have been foreseeing the current debate around the legacy of NCLB on the occasion of its 10th anniversary.

I was among several people invited over at Education Week to share my thoughts on what ten years of life under NCLB has meant. As I read the responses and the discussions in other media, I found one constantly repeated point to be particularly irritating, resulting in my posting an angry tweet:

@askgeorge I am SO tired of folk claiming we didn’t know ’bout ed inequality until NCLB. Shows how much Blk tchrs & parents were ignored. (@TeachMoore Jan 6)

Supposedly, NCLB’s one highly positive attribute is that, as Rep. Miller put it, “It turned the lights on in our schools.” He and others credit NCLB with uncovering what was supposedly a deeply hidden secret: That some groups of children in our country, particularly, Black, Hispanic, and special needs children, were generally getting far lower quality of education than their peers. That is the truth, but here’s the slant: It was not a secret. In fact, these inequalities are the results of long-standing, deliberate, systemic practices in American education. What’s more, parents and teachers, particularly minority parents, students, and teachers, had been complaining loudly and bitterly about those problems for a long, long, time. Perhaps it was policymakers who needed the evidence from NCLB, as Rep. Miller claims, to be “convinced that all children can learn and succeed.”

Miller and others argue that “we” didn’t have data on how each group of students was performing, and without that information, “no one felt the urgency to fix the problem.” Truthfully, what’s being preferred as data wasn’t that scarce; we have elementary school standardized test scores and college admission scores going back decades. The lack of urgency (again, on whose part?) was because of whose children were being affected. NCLB supporters insist that the law provided impetus, in the form of real penalties, to correct these problems. In most cases, however, those pressures have been applied, not to the designers or perpetrators of the inequities, but more often to those who had been trying for so long to shine the light on these problems: students and teachers.

As I’ve shared before, many of the schools we currently label as failing, are in fact too successful at doing exactly what they were designed to do: under-serve specific groups of children. How can we hold every child and every school accountable for the same standards, while we simultaneously and deliberately give some students inferior resources, underprepared teachers, inadequate facilities, and put other unnecessary obstacles in their already difficult paths? It did not take ten years of humiliation and frustration of millions of children to learn what we already knew.

Real education reform starts with truth and equity.

Cross-posted at National Journal.com