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Petrilli and Hess: Democrats “Play the Race Card” in Debate Over Federal Role

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The most contentious issue in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently named No Child Left Behind) will be the federal role in mandating annual testing. The latest polls show that it is opposed by a majority of parents and educators, but Secretary Duncan has staunchly insisted it is necessary; 19 civil rights groups endorsed his position, even though the children they represent all too often are negativrly afrcted by such tests. Since minority children, English learners, and children with disabilities are disproportionately stigmatized by standardized tests, it is bizarre to assert that standardized tests are guarantors of civil rights.

So here comes an interesting debate in the conservative National Review. Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute take issue with Jonah Edelman of the corporate reform Stand for Children.

Stand for Children is an active and politically savvy opponent of teachers and teachers’ unions. A few years ago, Jonah Edelman boasted at an Aspen Ideas Festival about his role in buying up all the best lobbyists in Illinois so he could ram hostile legislation down the throats of teachers across the state and make it near impossible for the Chicago Teachers Union to go on strike. He was wrong about the latter, because the CTU garnered overwhelming support for a strike and followed through in 2012. Edelman pulled a similar stunt in Massachusetts, having collected millions of dollars from hedge fund manager to make war on teachers and their benefits and job security.

In the present case, Petrilli and Finn chastise Edelman for supporting an expansive federal role in education.

They write:

“In the piece, Edelman denounces efforts to shed some of No Child Left Behind’s more onerous and unworkable provisions as a “threat” to “your kids’ future.” He then recounts a parade of horribles from the last century. “Linda Brown was denied the opportunity to attend a nearby public school because she was black,” he reminds us. “Black students were denied access to a public high school by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.” And states and districts weren’t meeting the “special needs” of students with disabilities.

“This is a shopworn parlor trick — equating conservatives concerned about federal micromanagement of schooling in 2015 with the “states’ rights” segregationists of two or three generations past (who, for what it’s worth, were overwhelmingly Democratic)….

“But this sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand has not held up particularly well. Debating whether the federal government should tell states how to label, manage, and “improve” schools (all on the basis of reading and math scores) is a far cry from debates over whether states should be allowed to deny black students access to elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, those who, like Edelman, celebrate Uncle Sam’s expertise and the effectiveness of federal bureaucrats fail to acknowledge how often federal bureaucrats have gotten it wrong — and put in place laws and regulations that have gotten in the way of smart, promising reforms at the state and local level.

“What are the issues that have Edelman so worked up? Republicans on Capitol Hill make no secret that they envision a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that will significantly reduce the strings attached to federal education dollars. Among the possible actions: Allowing states to test students every few years rather than annually; getting the federal government out of the business of telling states how to design school-accountability systems or address low-performing schools; and making clear that (contrary to the Obama administration’s designs) the federal government should have no role in dictating state reading and math standards.

“Casual followers of the education debate might notice that these changes seem both modest and sensible. Yet Edelman insists that if Congress dares to go down this path, “disadvantaged students will lose out, and millions of young people who could have become hard-working taxpayers will end up jobless, in prison, or worse.” (Worse?)….

“The deeper problem is that Edelman and his allies fail to grapple with the very real harm that federal education policy has caused, especially in the past decade. This is baffling, given his own admission that No Child Left Behind is “deeply flawed” and that “federal interventions don’t always work as intended.” But his solution — to simply update the law more regularly — indicates a misunderstanding of the realities of the legislative process (Congress updates laws when it will, not on the schedule of us pundits) and of the root problem. The real issue is not just that specific provisions of NCLB are problematic (though they are); it’s that the federal government is destined to mess up whatever it touches in education. That’s because it’s three steps removed from actual schools, with states and local districts sitting between its good intentions and its ability to ensure good results.

“All the federal government can do is pass laws telling federal bureaucrats to write rules for the states, whose bureaucrats then write more rules for school districts, which in turn give marching orders to principals. By the time this game of telephone is done, educators are stuck in a stifling, rule-driven culture that undermines the kind of practical discretion that characterizes good schools.

“During the Obama years, this problem has only grown worse. Convinced of their own righteousness and brilliance, Obama’s education officials have pushed all manner of half-baked ideas on the country (especially the demand that states evaluate teachers largely on the basis of test scores); helped turn potentially promising ideas into political hot potatoes (see Common Core); and embarked on ideological, deeply harmful crusades (using legal threats, for example, to discourage schools from disciplining minority students)….”

What Secretary Duncan has achieved in his six years in office is to persuade many liberals and conservatives that the U.S. Department of Education has abandoned any sense of federalism and has assumed far too much control. While liberals are uneasy about trusting either state or local government with the future of education, they are just as wary (or warier) of the heavy-handed power of the federal government. Duncan himself has become a symbol for many of the federal government’s abandonment of public schools and its commitment to privatize public schools “with all deliberate speed.” Duncan’s demand for annual testing and his determination to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores–practices not found in high-performing nations–has put him on the wrong side of history. He simply ignores the failure of his pet policies, as well as the protests of parents and educators. His self-righteousness is no substitute for evidence and democratic governance.

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