No to the ESEA Re-authorization

3 Aug

Whether it is the senate’s “Every Child Achieves Act” or the house’s “Students Success Act”, local control of schools is being dangerously arrogated to the federal government. The United States Congress has lost its way. They are turning local school boards into powerless tax collecting agencies that implement authoritarian mandates.

Many people that I admire say the Senate bill is an improvement over NCLB (the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)). Saying we will never get perfect, they council embracing the improvement. These new re-authorization bills do limit the power of the Secretary of Education, but both versions continue grabbing power away from communities and assigning it to federal bureaucracies. I say it would be wiser to live with the clearly flawed NCLB and work for a better law next year than accepting 5 years of mandated bad education theory and extreme testing.

Historically, it has been difficult to institute quick national change in education. That is how American public education achieved a greatness that is envied worldwide. It was only by their own volition that local educators adopted policies and those policies became widely implemented by dint of classroom testing and approval. Education policy was informed by the wisdom of the national education community. Harmful policies were identified and shunned.

When fads like “new math”, “phonics only” or “whole word” came along, they infected many jurisdictions but not a majority of the country. As their weaknesses manifested, these fads were abandoned before serious damage occurred.

The latest fad is standards based education and assessment. Even though graduates of American education have dominated academia, the arts and the sciences for the past century, there exists a constant constituency favoring a more behaviorist philosophy of pedagogy i.e. standards and testing. Business leaders are particularly enamored with behaviorism and the odd idea that schools should be run like businesses.

Standards based education is seductive to the uninformed. Its associated drill and skill pedagogy to ready students for high stakes testing is widely embraced by those who have no practical knowledge of good pedagogy. Although this education ideology has existed for centuries, it never appealed widely enough to spread across America. That only changed when federal lawmakers realized they could use the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to exert federal control over local schools.

In 1978, Congressman Ronald Mottl D-Ohio 23 who trained in law at Notre Dame introduce a bill promoting education standards. It was the first time a bill was proposed that amended ESEA to promote a particular theory of education. Mottl’s bill went nowhere like bill (H.R.371) introduced the next year by his colleague who also had no education background, Tennyson Guyer R-Ohio 4.

In 1983, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of Education, Ted Bell went rogue and established a blue ribbon committee consisting of primarily business executives to report on education. They produced the infamous “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”. It was a polemic and political, but was neither factually nor pedagogically well founded. History and serious academic research have consistently shown this non-peer reviewed writing to be a misguided amateurish analysis of a national strength. It was an ill-conceived politicization of public education but ironically, it opened the door for today’s misguided federal control of education.

The Department of Education under Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, was very pro-standards and testing. They facilitated a growing momentum for standards based education inside the beltway. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed into law first the bill providing federal money to research and promote standards. This amendment to ESEA was called the Education Council Act of 1991 and was sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman D-NM.

Within a week of her husband Bill being elected President in 1992, Hillary Clinton received a screed of social engineering from Marc Tucker known as the “Hillary Letter.” Republican Congressman Bob Schafer from Colorado was so disturbed by the contents of this letter that he had it printed in the congressional record. The federalization of public education was a central thesis of the eighteen page letter.

Amongst Tucker’s proposals was:

“Clear national standards of performance in general education (the knowledge and skills that everyone is expected to hold in common) are set to the level of the best achieving nations in the world for students of 16, and public schools are expected to bring all but the most severely handicapped up to that standard. Students get a certificate when they meet this standard, allowing them to go on to the next stage of their education. Though the standards are set to international benchmarks, they are distinctly American, reflecting our needs and values.”

Two years later, Bill Clinton signed the 1994 re-authorization of ESEA that required states receiving title-I money to develop education standards and standards based testing. This became the legal push and financial incentive for states to develop high school exit exams. When Liz Chaney loudly objected to proposed history standards, Clinton retreated from his all out push for standards.

By 2001, there was a substantial bipartisan agreement that the federal government should be in charge of education and furthermore, standards and high stakes testing were the path to education nirvana. Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller D-California 11, and George H. Bush finalized the federal take-over of education with NCLB.

Maybe I am wrong and the politicians are right. Maybe John Dewey did not know what he was talking about when it came to effective education and we should ignore his warning against standards based education.[1] Maybe the great Japanese education thinker, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was completely misguided when he warned about the deleterious effects of mechanized education and testing hell.[2] On the other hand, why don’t we test these ideas contradicting the pedagogy of beltway politicians and bureaucrats in the American way? Let local school districts, teachers and parents decide which philosophy of education is best for their communities.

1) Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Page 203
2) Bethel, Dayle M. Makiguchi – The Value Creator. New York: Weatherhill, 1973

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One Response to “No to the ESEA Re-authorization”

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  1. Lunch with Larry | tultican - September 6, 2015

    […] recently wrote an open message to my congressman, Scott Peters, urging him to reject the proposed rewrite of the Elementary and […]

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