COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Undermining Education

DURING GEORGE W. BUSH’s first term, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. Like so many “improvement” acts of the Bush years, No Child Left Behind did pretty much the opposite of what it claimed to be doing.  It was an unfunded mandate, an onerous burden put on the states requiring continuous batteries of standardized testing of school children without appropriating the money to do it.  Conservatives and educational technocrats have been obsessed for decades with the need for public school and particularly teacher accountability.  We never hear of tests for congressional accountability to the voters, but teachers and school administrators frequently get blamed for poor student performance and general public ignorance. Subjection of students to continuous testing would provide the government with numbers by which they could judge school performance.  And those schools that couldn’t cut the mustard would be shut down, their teachers and administrators joining the unemployment lines.

Standardized testing as a measurement of knowledge is riddled with problems too numerous to go into here.  Suffice it to say, it is simplistic, and the very weight carried by these new tests would skew the whole educational process.  Teachers inevitably ended up teaching to the tests instead of engaging the students in the learning process, which involves a good measure of spontaneity and free inquiry.  Also the impact of crucial environmental factors on learning was conveniently ignored. This is particularly disastrous for children and school personnel in the many festering slums caused largely by deindustrialization and unemployment. Since the country’s right turn, government’s chief means of dealing with inner city blight has been the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of the poor, generally minority inhabitants of these areas.  The effect has been to make them even less livable sinkholes, but these places like New York’s South Bronx, with crumbling school buildings and bad underfunding, were now supposed to turn their students around and make them all fast learners through the magic of tests.

Some who supported NCLB sincerely believed that its testing regimen combined with the looming threat of closure aimed at schools whose children continued testing poorly would produce positive results. Tests would somehow motivate study and learning. But malnourished children crowded into wretched little apartments, or even living homeless, don’t perform well at school.  Many libertarian conservatives like the punitive aspect of NCLB, because they dislike “government schools” and want them to fail, so they can privatize the whole educational process, either through the charter school movement, which usually eliminates unruly, costly teachers’ unions, or even more radically, by introduction of voucher systems on the state level that would enable parents to use government education funds to pay for private or home schooling.  Vouchers would cripple funding for and thus kill universal public education, one of America’s oldest democratic institutions.

The Obama administration has tried much harder than its predecessor to get money appropriated for schools and for increasingly expensive higher education.  In its first two years, with a Democratic Congress, they increased Pell Grants to college students and pumped billions into the stimulus bill to save teachers’ jobs.  But when arch conservatives took over the House, they stopped government aid to education in its tracks.  The President and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, are anxious to aid struggling schools nationwide, even retaining some of the NCLB strictures, but a nihilistic House stands in the way. With little money in the pipeline now, many see foundation aided semi-private charter schools as the panacea.  I am more than a little skeptical. Charters have leeway to specialize.  They don’t have to take everybody, as public schools do.  And many on the right support them as a way to get rid of teachers’ unions. Unions made teaching a middle class profession by gaining decent wages and retirement benefits, and unions pressured for increased government spending on habitually underfunded public schools. But under the new corporate order, teachers aren’t entitled to a living wage or a decent retirement, are they?

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.