Signature U.S. Education Initiatives

by Barbara McDowell Dowdall

Remarks to Philadelphia Board of Education October 22, 2020

In a 2006 editorial in the Girls’ High Alumnae News, I wrote:

“Pedagogical history offers rich sources of inspiration: Socrates, Horace Mann, Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Jonathan Kozol, and bell hooks.

The most prominent name in education [at the time was] not a person, but a piece of legislation: The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, [or by popular acronym: Nickelby.]

At the time that ‘Nickelby’ justifiably called attention to the need for high expectations and quality teachers in every classroom, its implementation neglected to provide for additional substantive improvements in our nation’s schools. Indeed, some of the “reform” needed [was not vast expansion of standardized testing but] more like ‘restoration’ of valuable components that years of budget cuts eliminated: art, music, regular physical education, drama, special interest clubs, civic involvement, field trips, guest speakers and performers.” Today, I would add (as usual): school libraries with Certified Teacher Librarians!

Seven years later, President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and, of course, the Congress, instituted an oddly similar devotion to the universe of standardized testing with Race to the Top (RTTT), this time adding teacher evaluation based on student test scores and promoting charter school growth. No one, apparently, thought to ask teachers and provide them whatever they identified as their needs to pursue the vaunted higher test score results.

The late Murray and Adeline Levine of Buffalo University provided a portrait of the shared features of these two initiatives:

Shrill critics claim that today’s public education system is ‘‘broken,’’ … that teachers are failing. These sweeping conclusions are based solely on lower achievement test scores and high school graduation rates in the poorest localities. Why is the criticism so intense, and why is the private sector so interested? One answer is that public elementary and secondary education in the United States is big business. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) created a good way for private interests to increase their share of the education market, when it mandated annual testing of children on state-devised achievement tests in reading and math. The [2009] federal Race to the Top legislation requires comprehensive data systems for the evaluation of teachers and more charter schools to compete with conventional public schools—two more opportunities for the private sector to profit.

As recent Letter to the Editor writer Beverly Hahn noted: “…charters come at the expense of the larger population of schoolchildren who attend their traditional schools. There is no magic pot of money that funds charter schools. Every dollar that is diverted to charters is a dollar that is pulled from neighborhood schools.

Diversion of funds for testing and charters has diminished our chances for small classes, our libraries with certified teacher librarians, and funds for keeping our schools clean and safe. Please show our traditional public schools the loyalty and resources they deserve.

Comparing No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top

Education Deformed: No Child Left Behind and Rate to the Top

Why Race to the Top is Potentially as Damaging as No Child Left Behind

7 Major Differences between No Child Left Behind and Common Core/Race to the Top