In left-wing enclaves such as my current home of Takoma Park, Maryland, ridiculing the illogic of the Bush Administration (on Iraq, on global warming, etc.) is something of an official sport. As the only former member of the Bush Administration in town--if there are others, they stay closeted--I tend to stay in the bleachers. But last week, the President's domestic policy standard-bearer, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, performed such an amazing feat of mental gymnastics around the issue of national standards that I can't help but step onto the field just this once.
My beef isn't that she dismissed the idea of national standards as a solution to the wide variability of state standards, a problem shown once again last week by a new government study. (See our review below.) While Gadfly readers know that we favor national standards, you also know that we share Spellings's concerns about its risks. She's right that the process of creating national standards could become "an exercise in lowest-common-denominator politics." That's why we need to think carefully about the best way to create national standards--a path that may not, probably should not, involve the federal government. (See our ideas here.)
No, my real concern is that she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the downward pressure that NCLB is putting on state standards.
Consider these assertions from her Washington Post op-ed ("A National Test We Don't Need"). "Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away," she writes. And: "Our goal is a public education system that is transparent and responsive to the needs of parents and children--not to the whims of Washington."
The dictates of bureaucrats? The whims of Washington? Forget national standards; these are excellent descriptors for much of No Child Left Behind today. Demanding universal proficiency by 2014. Expecting students with disabilities and English language learners to meet the same standards as their peers. What are these if not "dictates" and "whims"?
Is Spellings the last person in America who doesn't see a link between such mandates and lackluster state standards? Sure, those standards were low, many of them anyway, before NCLB burst onto the scene, but there's nothing in the act to inspire states to aim higher. On the contrary. If you really have to get 100 percent of students to "proficiency" by 2014 (including those who can't read or speak English and children with significant learning disabilities), you have little choice but to set the bar low. Ask Missouri, which set lofty, aspirational proficiency goals in the pre-NCLB era, then lowered its bar lest every school in the Show-Me state be listed as "needing improvement."
Even Education Trust, the hardest of NCLB hard-liners, admits that there's a problem here. It has offered a smart solution (see here), allowing states that set rigorous college-prep standards to move back their timelines and to aim for merely 80 percent proficiency. (Ninety-five percent would have to achieve a "new basic" level.) What an opening this gave the Secretary! Ed Trust gave her political cover to drop the "100% by 2014" rhetoric. And yet she passed.
States could use "anything and everything that could be considered raising standards" to justify "recalibrating the goalposts," she told Education Daily about the Ed Trust proposal. "I worry that that's a way to go backwards."
So let's get this straight: When it comes to defining proficiency--how much students are expected to know and be able to do--it's acceptable to move the goalposts. (No federal official gave Missouri any grief.) But when it comes to getting all students to proficiency, any delay is "going backwards."
And, Madame Secretary, you still don't see how your No Child Left Behind depresses state standards?
Alas, such a position isn't just illogical. It's also depressing.
Now back to my bleacher.