The cost of good intentions in education policy

No Child Left Behind is a fraud that cannot possibly succeed

November 26, 2010|By Ron Smith

Accidental outcomes or unintended consequences often swamp good intentions. This seems to be some kind of cosmic law, and we can see it in spades when it comes to educational initiatives in the American system of public education.

This week comes news that the No Child Left Behind Law — a fantasy-mandating fraud — is wreaking havoc with schools that are considered successful and is doing so in a most predictable manner.

The Washington Post reports that Prince George's County is one of the school districts (and there are many across the nation) wherein students transferring from schools deemed failing are overwhelming the schools that have been "succeeding" under the NCLB mandates.

What happens is pretty simple. The law demands steadily rising academic achievement from the kids, and as a result, more schools "fail" every year. Parents have the option of moving their children to better schools, a move that's supposed to result in higher achievement levels for the newcomers.

By 2014, the federal government has decreed, a Lake Wobegon effect will have taken place in which all of the nation's children will be above average. This is the fantasy part of the equation mentioned above. Nothing can be leveled upwards. And the flood of schoolkids from the lesser-achieving schools means the better ones become overcrowded and have to deal with an influx of not-so-adept students, which inevitably will drag down the test scores of the heretofore stronger schools.

"The transfer requirement," reports the Post, "in which school systems must allow students to transfer from high-poverty schools that repeatedly fail, has created similar problems in the past for struggling school systems across the country, including New York City and suburban Atlanta."

They have dealt with this problem by limiting the number of students who are allowed to transfer. Doesn't this thwart the goals set by the NCLB in and of itself? Of course it does, but in our present mania for pretense and rejection of brute facts, we're supposed to be astonished when pretense fails and reality kicks butt.

Probably the most realistic — and therefore controversial — assessment of the current state of American public education comes from Professor Robert Weissberg in his book "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools." In it, he trashes the ludicrous assumption that every child is capable of academic excellence and exposes every "guaranteed not to work" education reform on which we have squandered billions of dollars.

Head Start doesn't work in any lasting way, but that doesn't stop it from swallowing billions of taxpayer dollars. Merit pay for teachers is seen as a panacea, if only some way can be found to get the teachers unions to agree to it. But that won't work either.

I say that secure in the knowledge that schools don't take tests; students do. If a teacher is to be judged superior, that teacher must have a classroom heavily populated by students who want to learn, not filled with malcontents or those unable to grasp the subject matter being taught.

As Professor Weissberg suggests, the reforms that would actually have positive results are ones unthinkable to today's academics or politicians: Let those who would drop out do so. Create an atmosphere that encourages excellence. Stop pretending that all kids are capable of doing college work. Cull the herd.

No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top — these are incredibly costly farces. Lots of people know this. Witness the growing popularity of home schooling. Yet the "experts" staunchly stay the course even though it has been proven a disastrous one time and again.

The educational business is huge, a world in which countless well-paid careers are enjoyed. The status quo has powerful sponsors. The teachers unions are a huge part of the Democratic Party. Democratic pols dare not offend them. Republicans are even worse. They collaborate in perpetuating a system that scorns them.

"Some worry that transfers may imperil progress at failing schools," reads the Post headline. Unsaid is that they will almost certainly "imperil progress" at the other schools. Some things just can't be mentioned in polite company. Oh well, it just keeps getting better, doesn't it?

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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