Thursday, March 18, 2004

Public opinion on NCLB: our vulnerability

cross-posted on The American Street
Two feel-good stories about NCLB, one from the DOE and the other from the mouthpiece of the administration, hit the press early this week. Both take the focus off the real problems with the law while DOE reps and voucher/charter school supporters jump up and down and say, see the DOE is flexible after all.

I'm not buying it. In fact, I'm concerned. Ruy Teixeira wrote that NCLB is our education president's vulnerability because states everywhere have been finding out how heinous the mandates are. And now I will argue that this has become our vulnerability, especially in the realm of public opinion.

This new must-read Media Transparency report about the huge machine supporting the policies of this administration only underlines the need for us to respond more actively in shaping public opinion. While education is not specifically mentioned, the foundations behind anti-public education measures are major players in this report. I don't think education is exempt; in fact, if anything, the attacks on public education have been under the radar.

We are vulnerable because an astonishing number of people don't know much about NCLB. According to this Pew/Kaiser study,
    When asked, more than eight in ten Latinos (87%), whites (81%) and African Americans (85%) said that they did not know if an education reform bill was passed.
I can attest to this lack of knowledge personally in my little corner of the nation where many of the people I run into are wealthy and over-educated. (Note: I'm way over-educated but far from wealthy). People who are higher up in the educational system are well aware of NCLB problems. This is what we are seeing in the media reports but I don't think this awareness has filtered down to the general public.

We are also vulnerable because education is extremely important to parents. The National PTA's recent survey shows this:
    Poll results released today by National PTA and Ipsos Public Affairs show that parents are worried about the future of public education. Parents are seeing classrooms with wall-to-wall desks and are opening their wallets to save art and music programs. Additionally, an overwhelming 93 percent of public school parents said that education will play a major role in their decision about which candidate to support in this election year.

    In a national telephone poll of 800 public school parents, more than half of the respondents (55 percent) ranked school funding as a top issue facing public schools today—eclipsing both school safety and quality. Additionally, 85 percent of parents believe the federal government should provide more funding for education.

We are vulnerable because we need to address our efforts on how to overcome their use of code, especially in their use of words such as 'accountability', 'flexibility', 'choices', and 'educational reform'. All of these feel-good terms imply a certain set of ideas that can easily be misinterpreted by susceptible parents.

Finally, I think we are vulnerable because we haven't quite addressed how to deal with public opinion altered by the conservative talk-show media blitz. I certainly don't have the time to listen to what goes on but the little I do hear seems to have an effect on those I know. The new liberal media radio is a step in the right direction but it seems we need more of an organized attempt to deal with their talking points. Anyone out there with ideas, please develop it and go for it.

Recently the conservatives have stepped up their efforts to mould public opinion. The media has been publishing DOE spin on NCLB in editorials around the nation ( a few examples here, Nevada, South Carolina, and New Hampshire). Granted while many of these are in newspapers already quite conservative, I do think that we're seeing a clarification and amplification of the official talking points of the administration. The messages are the same: that it is a good law especially for minorities and the poor, that there is enough money for it, that people opposed to accountability are opposed to higher standards in public education, and so on. In addition, the DOE and Congressional reps have been putting in time and energy in support of NCLB such as in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and in Montana.

Getting back to the recent changes to NCLB, the real problem, to over simplify because there's plenty of problem areas, lies in the high-stakes testing, the perverted part of the bill. NCLB raises the bar on passing so high, and it gets higher every year, that for a school to avoid failing it needs to perform the equivalent of a Hail-Mary pass. Not only is there more than one bar to pass, every single one must be met for a school, otherwise, the whole school fails.

This is how public education will be destroyed, in bits and pieces. Once a school fails, it is placed on probation. The kids are granted the ability to move to another school in the second year of probation, with the school paying for transportation costs. This doesn't always work, really, because there's not enough room for an entire school of kids to go somewhere else in a school district. But the third year and henceforward, more and more money is taken from the system, to be used for expensive tutoring by private corporations, teacher training, and transportation costs. Nice carrot to the parents but taking it kills the school in the process because it takes money away from the basics. The increase in funding from the DOE doesn't touch this need. It continues on until the school is dismantled, to be turned into a charter school, staff replaced, or turned over to a private corporation.

None of these recent DOE changes so far do anything to touch the heart of the problem involving NCLB. They have been merely cosmetic changes to satisfy certain constituencies: special ed, single-sex ed, limited English groups, and teachers. This last change regarding teachers is like a bone thrown to rural states. There's already quite a bit of backlash regarding these new measures (see also Utah and Alaska).

Needless to say, we need to get the progressive word out on NCLB, what is wrong with it, and what to change about this twisted law. Saying that this law needs to be fully funded is also not quite what I'm looking for. Fully funding it won't change the highstakes testing portion of the bill. Rather than focus on getting Paige out, let him make all the gaffes he wants. Let's put our time and money and energy into putting the message out and changing the areas of the law that really destroy public education.