Monday, November 16, 2009

No Child Left Behind in the Race to the Top (of the Market)

In case you missed it in the summer scrums over Justice Sotomayor and death panels, No Child Left Behind (NCLB, or Nickleby to Beltway insiders) has been left behind.  Now we have "Race to the Top".  The Administration made the official announcement this summer - in July - when most of us were paying absolutely no attention to anything educational.  After sputtering along under the radar for three months, the President has now taken Race to the Top out for a public spin, providing more details about the program's goals and funding. 

Race to the Top is certainly a more positive catchphrase than No Child Left Behind.  Unfortunately, it seems to be the same theory using different incentives - or perhaps even the same incentives, coyly repackaged, a reformulation that would make any drug maker proud. 

NCLB's perverse incentives have been well-covered.  But RTTT (should we call it RATT or Rat-a-Tat-Tat?) doesn't appear to be a marked improvement or even much of a change.  NCLB operated through funding mechanisms that withheld money from states and schools that failed to meet certain standards.  RTTT?  As Obama stated in his speech in Madison, Wisconsin, on November 4, the goal of the program is to foster educational excellence through a new accountability metric that reward states and schools that meet or exceed certain standards with additional funding. 

It seems as if the "punishment" theme of NCLB has been replaced by the "reward" theme of RTTT without a fundamental remake of the inner workings of these programs, which look remarkably similar - meet certain goals  measured by standardized student testing, or bye bye funding. 

For that reason, although it pains me to do so on principle, I agree with the Wall Street Journal's initial reservations about the program.  I do, however, I quarrel with WSJ's solution, which is (now here's a shocker) - Let the market decide (i.e., privatize).

It's unfortunate that disaster capitalism has infected our national debate about education, just as it has our national debates on health care, war, and energy.  Education is a national emergency, we hear.  To solve the emergency, we've thrown one controversial, ill-considered, underfunded program at it for nearly a decade.  That didn't work, so let's try another controversial, possibly ill-considered, and sure to be underfunded program at it.  One other thing in common:  Sponsors and proponents of both programs waxing poetic about the benefits that competition will bring to our educational system.

It's a complex issue, but why go complex when you can simplify the problem - even better, find someone to demonize.  The enemy of all this education reform, as we've been repeatedly told (and will continue to be told) are the teachers unions.  The Obama Administration has not (yet) marginalized the unions, which have had some success in communicating concerns about RTTT to the administration, but conservative pundits will ensure that the teachers and their unions will continue to be demonized.  

Those that will benefit from privatizing our school systems have at least one hand on the wheel in this debate and the other hand on the radio tuner, where the anti-union hymn of the republic plays on an endless loop.  The melody of this anti-union song has always been that the unions shelter bad teachers, what we've come to know as the "accountability" ditty.

But what I hear instead of the accountability ditty is something even simpler and more directly tied to the concept that some sort of market-driven model will cure our school ills. That motif?  We hear the motif in the background, whispered in our ears, or the foreground, shouted at us if we've made the mistake of lingering on Fox News - "We pay teachers too damn much money!"  Forests of paper and terabytes of computer power have been devoted to arguments about teacher pay over the past decade.

There is no debate that teachers working for private schools, including charter schools, generally make less - sometimes far less - than their unionized counterparts.  So, a foreseeable result of market-driven education means teachers working for less money - sometimes far less.  If you believe, as some apparently do, that more than a handful of today's experienced teachers are less than competent, then a foreseeable result of market-driven education is fewer teachers working for less money.  Paying fewer teachers less money to teach no less than the same number of students = a higher return on investment, if you are an investor in a large private educational consortium. Does it mean a higher return on investment if you are a parent and the quality of our children's education is the metric?  That's certainly the market pitch.

We want to get our money's worth, whether at Best Buy or Joe Smith Elementary.  But when we take our kids to school and talk to their teachers, are we really comfortable that this message now dominates the subtext of our conversation: 
Thanks for teaching our kids, but you cost too much.  And some of you suck.  Some of you don't suck - but in any event, you all cost too much.  We should be paying less for more.
You've heard of the Waldorf School, where "truth, beauty, and goodness" is one of its educational goals, and art and music form the basis for education? Well, welcome to The Walmart School, where "Save Money, Live Better" is your educational mantra each and every day.

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