Dear Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education:
Hello from the other Washington! I’m writing to say that you can take your No Child Left Behind law and shove it.
Whoa, so disrespectful there! Sorry about that. Lately one of our Seattle government agencies has been deriding citizens as “scumbags,” just to try to score buzz on social media. I guess it rubbed off on me.
More politely, then, you should take that No Child Left Behind law and … spindle it or something.
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I’m a dad of two public-school kids in Seattle. They were born in 2000 and 2002. They are No Child Left Behind babies.
What has that meant? Well, round after round of mostly pointless federally mandated tests that have had very little educational value to the only people who are supposed to matter in all this: them.
I’m writing because the other day you announced that my state, alone among the 50, had run afoul of your desired standardized-testing regimen. So we’re going to be subjected to all the penalties and punishments of that 2001 law.
I remember 2001. Those were the days of you’re either with us or against us. So it’s fitting that your edict means that unless 100 percent of our students pass math and reading tests this year, all our schools will be dubbed “failing.” You’re either above average or you’re failures!
With all respect, doesn’t that seem a tad stupid? A few years ago, you yourself pronounced this top-down, testing-fueled mania to be simple-minded and broken.
“By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students,” you told Congress, adding that the law is “fundamentally flawed.”
My kids’ school here in Seattle, Washington Middle School, is a perfect example. It’s regarded as one of the better schools around. Yet it is categorized by your No Child Left Behind formula as an abject failure, a Stage 5 catastrophe in need of a federally mandated takeover or wholesale firing of the staff.
Why? Because every year, some group struggles on the tests. The school has some typical inner-city challenges, such as that the wealthier kids and the white and Asian kids tend to do better on tests. But even in the years the white, black, Asian, Hispanic and low-income subgroups all passed both math and reading — success! — the school was still judged a failure. One year this was because the English-as-a-foreign-language kids didn’t pass reading. Another year it was that the special-education kids didn’t pass math.
My point is that it’s great to aspire that all will succeed. But to give an “F” to schools where that doesn’t happen every time is silly. Some fraction of Congress gets indicted every year! But nobody pronounces that entire institution a failure (well, OK, everybody does, but not officially).
Now you want to take this troubled model and cement it further by applying it to teachers. You’ve already acknowledged the tests aren’t good measures of schools. So why would they be able to tell us who can teach?
I’m not against standardized tests, at all. But as a parent during 10 years of No Child Left Behind-inspired education, Mr. Duncan, I’ve rarely seen the results used to help individual kids.
So who is all this really for?
It’s for adults to wage ideological battles. That’s how it feels down in the trenches.
I’ll close by saying I think you’re messing with the wrong state. You should try to change this “fundamentally flawed” law, rather than impose it on us out of pique. A prediction: We like to do our own thing out here anyway, and your action will only fuel more boycotts of these tests, as well as suspicion of the entire education-reform industry.
Signed, NCLB Dad in Seattle
P.S. If you don’t believe me about that last part, ask the former U.S. drug czar what happened when he told us not to legalize marijuana.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org