THE BLOG
11/09/2010 06:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Two Politicos

"Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world."

According to Politico, Secretary of Education of Education Arne Duncan wants to leverage his relationship with Republican Representative John Boehner, an architect of No Child Left Behind, in order to extend President Bush's notorious education law. After the two politicos rebrand NCLB, the good feelings could presumably be extended to the rest of our divided government. Duncan is optimistic that he and his Republican counterpart could soothe "hurt feelings" by brokering a deal that could be leveraged so that America could better compete in the global economy.

But frankly, I am tired of the hubris of non-educators, who use tactics from their own realms to leverage change in schools, in order to then leverage change in other political and/or economic arenas.

We should remember how a similar pride went before the fall of both NCLB and our financial system. NCLB sought to leverage federal spending which was less than 10 percent of total educational investments into transforming schools throughout our diverse nation. The conservative Cato Institute, for instance, complained that "the federal government was the cause of 41 percent of the administrative burden at the state level, despite, on average, providing just 7 percent of the funding."

"Reformers" then placed all of our chips on the idea that standardizing testing could be the lever that forced lazy educators to "raise expectations." Data would drive transformational change, accountability hawks would wipe away the "status quo," and the legacies of Jim Crow and generational poverty would disappear. NCLB would have been better than "Voodoo economics," had it worked.

Instead, school systems borrowed the methods of hedge funds and financial engineers, who used bogus numbers to enrich themselves, thus causing the economic crash. Diane Ravitch is particularly astute in describing how "the billionaire's boys club" has leveraged educational contributions to advance their interests, and why those strategies have not advanced the interests of poor children.

Just as bankers leveraged dubious housing numbers to produce a financial bubble, districts adopted accounting tricks to produce a miraculous bubble in NCLB test scores. The problem was that the more reliable NAEP reading test scores were largely flat. Tennessee, for instance, claimed that 90 percent of its eight graders are proficient in reading, although their NAEP proficiency rate was 26 percent. That state was rewarded with a $500 Race to the Top grant.

Now, Secretary Duncan wants to extend the policies that most appeal to Republicans. His "Blueprint" for reauthorizing NCLB would largely let 90 percent of schools off the accountability hook. His punitive policies would largely be directed against teachers and neighborhood schools serving poor children of color. Rather than declaring war on the legacies of poverty in our toughest 17 percent of schools, he would punish the educators who commit to the most challenging 10 percent of schools. Those poor schools are disproportionately filled with adults, and children, from households that vote Democratic. The political capital earned by attacking Democratic constituencies would presumably be leveraged into creating goodwill from Republicans and corporate powers.

Maybe education will never be more than bargaining chip for politicians preoccupied by global issues. Maybe Duncan "is right in line with Republican thinking," so that President Obama can continue "acting like a Democrat for all of his policies except education." But still, I will take my stand with students and teachers.