Arne Duncan’s Mistaken View of Education and NCLB
Yesterday(September 24, 2009) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered his first major speech about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 1965. The law’s last reauthorization took place in 2002 and resulted in what is known today as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In his speech, Duncan acknowledged that NCLB has significant flaws and promised to work with Congress to correct the problems. But based on this and his previous speeches as well as the actions of the US Department of Education under his leadership, I must say that Arne Duncan’s view of education and NCLB is mistaken and I am afraid this mistaken view will result in another, and possibly worse, version of NCLB.
Duncan believes that “the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards,” according to the Press Release of the Department of Education. And his solution is to have states adopt common standards or national standards and hold schools and teachers accountable for meeting these standards. In fact, the Department of Education is already using over $4 billion of the stimulus funds to “encourage” states to adopt national standards. And coincidentally the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have a joint initiative to develop the so-called common core standards in math and English. The initiative released its first draft this week.
The real problem with NCLB is its definition of education, as I have pointed out in my new book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. Instead of restating what I have said, I lift a chunk of text from the Preface of my book:
NCLB practically defines good education as being able to show good scores in a limited number of subjects. Thus as schools conform to the standardized curriculum and attempt to provide “good education” so defined, children are deprived of opportunities to develop talents in other areas. As well those children who do not perform well on the required tests at the required time are discriminated against because they are considered less able and “at risk.” Theoretically, different schools can teach more than what is mandated. In reality schools must ensure that they do well in areas that affect their reputation and standing, which means the subjects that are counted in standardized testing. It is also theoretically possible to develop standards for a broad range of subjects and activities and require all schools teach the same curriculum nationally or statewide, like what China used to do. But even in the case of China, only subjects that count in the high-stake College Entrance Exam are paid serious attention to. In the U.S., such an effort is not even possible. The Clinton Administration supported the development of national standards for nine subjects but most of them failed to be accepted because of disagreement over what should be included in each subject.
As a result of adopting national standards, schools will produce a homogenous group of individuals with the same abilities, skills, and knowledge. Such a result will be disastrous to America and Americans because as globalization and technology continue to change the world,
America needs a citizenry of creative individuals with a wide range of talents to sustain its tradition of innovation. Americans need talents and abilities that are not available at a lower price elsewhere on earth. American education, despite its many problems, has at least the basics that support the production of a more diverse pool of talents. However these basics are being discarded by NCLB and similarly spirited reform efforts.
The spirit of NCLB also denies the real cause of education inequality—poverty, funding gaps, and psychological damages caused by racial discrimination—by placing all responsibilities on schools and teachers. While schools can definitely do a lot to help children overcome certain difficulties, their influence has limits.
In a way, the reforms that aim to save America are actually putting America in danger. NCLB is sending American education into deeper crisis because it is likely to lead increasing distrust of educators, disregard of students’ individual interests, destruction of local autonomy and capacity for innovation, and disrespect for human values.
Moreover, as I have pointed out in an op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press and several blog posts that national common standards will not close the achievement gap. Instead, it distracts us from truly educating our children for the future.