The only war BushCo. seems to be winning these days is the one that doesn't get
much press coverage: the war against America's public school system. Schools,
teachers and students are reeling from the one-two punch delivered by Bush's "No
Child Left Behind" dictate and the older, but just as demented, "Zero
Tolerance" school policy.
"No Child Left Behind" (or NCLB) is the more delusional of the two
(and I will subsequently write about it in detail). Like most Bush initiatives,
it's an un-funded mandate grounded firmly in fantasy. It's goal is to make every
student in America "proficient" in reading and math by the year 2014.
It's methodology? Standardized tests, rating schools based on how many kids
pass these tests and rating teachers on how well they teach the kids by rote.
The schools that are not deemed worthy by the Federal government can be shut
down or re-organized. The "failing" teachers can be bounced. The sub-standard
students? Well, someone has to flip those burgers.
Here's an interesting wrinkle to Dubya's dream. Students who are in "failing"
schools can be given vouchers allowing them to go to other schools (read: whiter
and more upscale schools that they can't afford, even with the vouchers). And
a school that the Feds decide has not made adequate yearly progress for five
years running can be re-opened as a charter school, with most or all of its
staff replaced or (drumroll, please) having the school operation turned over
to a private company! That private company would, of course, be out to make
a profit and a non-union or inexperienced staff would be the way to go.
Basically Bush would like to turn over America's multi-billion dollar educational
system to companies who want to make big bucks. Sound familiar?
Bush tipped his hand a few years back when, at a D.C. elementary school, he
quipped "The quality of a school depends on the quality of a principal.
When you find a good principal, A CEO OF A SCHOOL, you find a school that achieves
what we all want." I love the smell of privatization in the morning!
I don't know about you, but when I was a student, I never confused my school
with a corporation and it was individual teachers who made the most difference
in my life, not the principal. Teachers are the ones who recognize what the
needs and the strengths and the weaknesses of individual students are, and act
accordingly, one-on-one. Of course, with "No Child Left Behind," that
sort of educational concept goes out the window. It takes the concept of "What's
good for our kids?" and bowdlerizes it into "What's good for our test
Bush's program seems to resemble a "gun-to-the-head" educational
boot-camp approach to learning. What can you expect from a former student who
barely kept his head above C level?
The plan is SO irrational on SO many levels, it's almost incomprehensible.
Under Bush's plan, states initially calculated a targeted percentage of "proficient"
students based on tests given under the first year of NCLB. Each school was
then given two years to achieve that goal, while, at the same time, the states
raised the bar, targeting a higher percentage of desired "proficiency."
For urban and rural schools, this is closely akin to mountain biking uphill
on a path coated with motor oil. Not even President Clyde Crashcup could handle
In NCLB, students are divided up into groups based on sex, race, limited English
skills, economically disadvantaged homes or communities, special education needs
and migrant status. In other words, if a school doesn't cater to upper middle-class
and upper class kids, they're already behind the eight ball. And, if you don't
perform well, the Feds will impose funding "sanctions" on your school.
In 2005-2006, standardized testing in reading and math begins in grades 3-8
and in grades 10-12. Schools who haven't achieved adequate yearly progress (AYP)
for the past three years must offer private tutoring (with all that money they
have squirreled away). The following year, AYP-challenged schools must take
"corrective action," ranging from hiring an outside expert to replacing
2007-2008 calls for annual testing in science to begin with states again raising
the target percentage of "proficiency" until, incrementally, it reaches
100% in 2014...when every kid will be a genius, Leprechauns will give us all
a pot of gold and I'll win the Pulitzer Prize for writing screeds like this.
Hey, it could happen.
It's impossible to distill all the idiocies involved in NCLB in a single column,
but here are a few outstanding ones. Bush has underfunded the nation's schools
from the get-go but his No Child Left Behind dictate has never been fully funded.
Not once. To the tune of negative BILLIONS. (I mean, we have a couple of wars
goin', knowhutImean?) And, at a time when state budgets are strained to the
max because of Bush's booming economy (with some states in the worst shape since
the 1940s), there is no way that states can meet their OLD education needs,
let alone the Boy Prince's NEW ones.
State budget shortfalls have forced the elimination or shrinking of most after-school
programs (music, art, literature, math clubs, theater -- those pesky non-standardized
deals that allow kids to bloom, to cultivate individuality) , school counseling,
recess periods and even school repairs. (More than 25 million students go to
schools that have substandard heating, ventilation, plumbing and roofing systems).
Teachers, who, because of school budget shortfalls, have long spent their own
money on everything from pencils and notepads to textbooks, now have a new threat
hanging over their heads. If they don't meet their proficiency quota, they're
Enter "Zero Tolerance." The whole Zero Tolerance movement started
in the Reagan era when states were afraid of street gangs infiltrating public
schools brandishing weapons. In 1994, Congress passed the "Gun-Free School
Act." After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, school systems
went bananas, suspending and expelling students for infractions that, before
Zero Tolerance, would have meant a trip to the principal's office if at all.
Although the Department of Education says that crime has been declining in
public schools since 1990, post-Columbine jitters transformed a lot of schools
into the equivalent of prison camps with Draconian suspensions and expulsions
becoming the norm. Now, carrying a gun or a knife into school is one thing.
Being suspended for throwing a snowball (assault with a weapon) is another.
In the Bush Zero Tolerance era, asthma medication and Certs are considered
drugs. Mouthwash can get you busted for possession of alcohol and teachers who
don't like a kid's attitude can bust a student for "insubordination"
and "disrespect." (Were I a student under these rules? After about
two weeks of geometry, I'd be tossed into the festive Attica wing.)
Zero Tolerance makes zero sense. For instance, one six year old, who'd just
stepped out of the shower, saw the school bus pull up outside his house and,
not wanting to miss it, ran out of his front door au natural to shout at the
driver to wait for him. He was busted for "sexual harassment."
An 11 year old girl in California was suspended for doing "dangerous"
cartwheels and hand stands during lunch time in the playground...while boys
were playing soccer nearby. A 16 year old with a smelly backpack was busted
when a police dog smelled marijuana and cocaine in said backpack. The police
didn't find any drugs, nor any evidence of drugs, but the kid was suspended
anyway, charged with "passive participation."
Busted for smelling funky.
What's next, the death sentence for dodgeball?
Not surprisingly, most of the students suspended or expelled are black, Hispanic
or poor. In some states, they amount to over six out of ten busts.
"Clearly if you are a classroom teacher dealing with disciplinary problems
that come as a result of doing your job, there are times when you need very
strong rules and regulations," says Gerald Newberry, executive director
of the National Education Association's Health Information Network. "Unfortunately
... many school boards and school administrators misinterpreted the intent of
the law and began taking first graders out of class for bringing nail clippers
That's why legal and education experts blame the big Zero for what they call
the "school to prison pipeline." If yesteryear's misstep got a slap
on the wrist, those wrists could be slapped with handcuffs for the same misstep,
"We are breeding a generation of children who think they are criminals
for the way they are being treated in school," offers Judith Browne, senior
attorney at the Advancement Project, in Washington, DC. "School used to
be a refuge. Now it's a lockdown environment. We are bringing the practices
of criminal justice into the schools."
If anything, zero tolerance breeds failure among the most vulnerable students
and puts kids on a path to prison, according to Russell Skiba, associate professor
of education and director of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project at Indiana
University. "Students suspended in elementary school are more likely to
act out in middle school, and there is some correlation with dropouts. If one
of the potent predictors of achievement is time spent learning, then expulsion's
effect on achievement is not surprising. Even if we say these are bad kids,
zero tolerance doesn't do anything to help them. It's placing a higher proportion
of students at risk for jail."
Augstina Reyes, associate professor of education at the University of Houston
and a former Houston school board member studied statewide data on disciplinary
actions for 2000-2001 and found that almost half a million children from kindergarten
through twelfth grade were bounced. Counting repeat offenders, there were 1.1
million suspensions in all. 95% were for discretionary reasons. (See: "disrespect"
"As educators and administrators, we have to take responsibility for navigating
the gray areas," says Lynne Noble, a Columbia College professor who trains
"Zero tolerance is the easy way for not having to make tough decisions.
It's one-size-fits-all. That's not the way the world works."
Which brings us back to BushWorld, where one-size-fits all ALWAYS works, there
ARE NO tough decisions and No Child Left Behind is considered sheer genius.
Zero Tolerance critics believe that Bush's emphasis on standardized testing
is one reason harsh policies continue even as school crime plummets. Central
to No Child Left Behind are those state and local mandates for annual testing
of students in reading and math, and sanctions for those schools that fail to
Reyes believes that this sort of testing will effect teachers whose students
are mostly poor and/or Latino. "I've seen how life on campus revolves around
testing. If teachers are told, 'Your scores go down, you lose your job,' all
of a sudden your values shift very quickly. Teachers think, 'With bad kids in
my class, I'll have lower achievements on my tests, so I'll use discretion and
remove that kid."'
Adds attorney Brown: "It makes sense that kids who don't pass these tests
are being punished by being retained in a grade and are more likely to drop
out and more likely to enter the criminal justice system."
In other words, special education and minority students are now considered
huge liabilities in the classroom because their scores bring down a school district's
overall grade. Needy kids are now considered a liability. Before Bush? They
were considered a challenge. And teachers went out of their way to meet that
Thus, pressured from every level, even the most dedicated teacher now will
be forced into a "Lady or the tiger" decision. "Do I lose my
job or lose this student?"
Another great bi-product of Bush's compassionate conservatism, don't you think?
So, if high school kids are bounced, where do they go? The street. What becomes
of them on the street? Odds are, they'll wind up in jail, where no child's behind
Another option? If you're poor with no possible job prospects, who are you
going to turn to? How about the U.S. Military? No diploma? No problem! No GED?
We don't need no stinkin' GED. Creative Armed Forces recruiters will snatch
you up as fast as Bush's education system tossed you out.
Sometimes, however, non-Bush reality can get in the way. In Bath, PA., 18-year-old
Jessica Faustner has been charged with being AWOL by the National Guard for
not showing up for entry training. Jessica's lawyer, meanwhile, charges that
the Guard recruited the then-17 year old girl using "deceptive practices."
Her lawyer says that a recruiter had told Faustner that the Army National Guard
would send her to nursing school after basic training but, instead, her unit
had been told it had a 90% chance of going to Iraq.
"A 17-year-old should be thinking about her prom and her graduation, not
about going to Iraq. She was misled all the way around. She's not real sophisticated,"
says lawyer John Roberts, who revealed that his client was recruited at Northampton
Area High School about six months ago and "...she's prepared to go to jail,
if that's what they want."
The Guard says that they're going to seriously pursue this matter because they
"want soldiers fulfilling their requirements."
And thus we see the true magic in Bush's education system, a system that will
transform smart children into standardized cogs. Wave the standardized test
wand and slower students can be transformed from kids into cons, maybe even
Is there nothing to be done? Well, led by Utah, a number of states are telling
the Feds to butt out of their school systems and keep their money. The states
are declaring THEY will decide how to teach THEIR children.
If you're a parent or a just an old-fashioned concerned American who remembers
how important your education was to you, get involved. Contact your state and
We may not be able to impact the war in Iraq, or change the course of the war
in Afghanistan, but this is one war we can all get involved in. And fight. War
has been declared on our schools. This one we have to win.