News analysis: NCLB and 'Yearly Kos'..NEA officials continue hypocrisy on 'No Child Left Behind' while AFT position is simply bad

The following is an edited version of a report on “Yearly Kos” for the staff of Substance drafted on August 7, 2007

When I stood up on August 4 a few minutes before Hillary Clinton arrived in Room 106A (B, C) of the McCormick Place Convention Center to talk about school closings in Chicago — and the future of “No Child Left Behind” for everyone else in the USA — I was ready to be surprised either way.

The panel had been on “accountability.” Thanks to the hard work of many teacher bloggers, No Child Left Behind was one of the four or five main topics on the agenda of “Yearly Kos” (the two major ones being the Iraq War and the politics of electing candidates from the Democratic Party to office in 2008).

The audience included officials from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. In 2002, AFT support had helped bring the “bipartisan consensus” that made NCLB almost as unanimous as the Iraq War vote. The NEA had been less enthusiastic about NCLB, but four years of pounding by right wing media (and “liberal” civil rights groups that had been bought off by corporate sponsoring) had made the NEA so skittish about demanding an end to the law that they had spent the past year looking for compromises.

What I wasn’t completely prepared for was the hush of ignorance when I told the more than 100 people in the room that No Child Left Behind’s most powerful provision — the closing of schools and their privatization because of “academic failure” — had already been taking place for five years in Chicago.

Nor was anyone in the room aware that the first Chicago public school closed for “failure” was within walking distance of the room within which we were talking (and in which one of the nation’s chief supporters of punitive “accountability” — Hillary Clinton — was about to speak).

On the final full-day of “Yearly Kos,” the discussion on the panel on “Educational Accountability” had been about the problems with test-based accountability systems and how at least one state Nebraska) was able to establish a system that bucked the national trend of teacher bashing and the use of high-stakes computer scored multiple-choice commercial tests to establish academic success or, most importantly for NCLB and its sponsors, “failure.”

The speakers were Kenneth Bernstein, a Washington D. C. area high school teacher and blogger (“teacherken”) who has long been active in Kos; University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn (author of “Accountability Frankenstein”), and Nebraska State Schools Supt. Doug Christenson.

The general consensus in the room was that “accountability” based on narrow “metrics” such as the scores on one test were wrong. Christenson had earlier pointed out that you could easily predict the scores on most such tests if you knew the square footage of the home the child came from before taking the test. The bigger the home, the higher the scores generally.

This has also been called “The Volvo Effect” and was long ago reported in Substance and elsewhere. It says that you can predict the test scores of a school by the number of Volvos that drop off the school’s students in the morning. Both theories reflect the fact that standardized multiple-choice tests generally reflect family income more than anything that takes place in schools, and that schools that serve high concentrations of poor children will statistically have lower scores than schools that serve high concentrations of wealthy children. Think Marshall High School in Chicago versus New Trier High School in Winnetka.

It’s been five years since NCLB began, and ten years since the President of the United States praised Chicago for its “school reform” system based on test-based “accountability.”

There was a large blindspot at the Kos convention regarding the actual history of “accountability” and Chicago was the place to correct it. But not one session at Kos included anyone who had the facts from Chicago. Many people on official panels (AFT and NEA both in this case) had a large vested interest in ignoring the actual history of test-based “accountability” because underlying all of Kos was a commitment to moving the Democratic Party back into the White House in 2008. Hillary Clinton was one of seven Democratic Party nominees who would participate in a forum and breakout sessions for the whole conference and hour and a half after the session on “accountability” ended. She would be joined, as I reported earlier, by Mike Gravel (former Senator from Alaska); Bill Richardson (Governor of New Mexico); Christopher Dodd (Senator from Connecticut); Dennis Kucinich (Congressman from Ohio); John Edwards (former Senator from North Carolina and former candidate for Vice President); and Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois).

The only major candidate vying for the Democratic Party nomination who was not in Chicago over the first weekend of August for Yearly Kos was Joseph Biden, who had sent his apologies.

My question could have been for Senator Clinton, but it had to be addressed to the panel.

I pointed out that the most destructive and ultimately expensive componenet of NCLB was still not happening to most school systems in the USA, but that it had been pioneered in Chicago: schools closings.

Then I pointed out that Chicago had already closed more than 30 public schools, including four public high schools, and replaced most of them with charter schools. Noting that only New Orleans had destroyed more public schools since the year 2000 in the name of “accountability”, I then added that of the thousands of students and hundreds of teachers in those 30 schools, almost all of them were black, and of the students virtually all of them were from families that were desperately poor.

Finally, I noted that if anyone wanted we could walk, in less than 15 minutes, to one of the first of those schools, Williams Elementary at 27th and Dearborn, and walk around the housing projects from which the children at that school came.

Like most of the responses to what I had pointed out during the Kos convention, the response was mixed.

People on the panel generally nodded. Admittedly, the Saturday panel was under major pressure, since the decision of Hillary Clinton to do her “breakout” session before the forum (as opposed to the others, who did theirs afterwards) had taken away a room which would have had at least an extra half hour for discussion.

Most of the people from the audience who spoke to me about it during the session’s remaining few minutes and afterwards, however, didn’t know anything about what I was talking about and were shocked to hear that NCLB’s most nasty plans had already been going on in Chicago since before NCLB existed. Without putting too hard a hammer down on the point, either, they were almost equally shocked to hear that former (Democratic) President Bill Clinton had been a major proponent of what Richard M. Daley had been doing in Chicago.

The fact that the school closings in Chicago had begun with the closing of Williams, Dodge and Terrell in April to June 2002 — at a time when “No Child Left Behind” was still in the printing stages. This was almost more than the people there could compute, since the history they have been taught to believe (“Democrats = Good” “ Republicans = Bad”) had not given them the facts to consider the fact that Democrats (Clinton; Daley; the New Dems) had been doing this kind of stuff throughout the 1990s. When Richard M. Daley began “standards and accountability” using his dictatorial powers over Chicago’s schools in 1995, George W. Bush was beginning as Governor of Texas and a very small voice on the stage of the national debate over Standards and Accountability. Nobody thought for a minute that George W. Bush was to be President of the United States. If there were a Bush being groomed for the job back then, it was Jeb Bush, governor of Florida.

It was not George W. Bush (and Texas) that was praised for its courageous and pioneering “school reform” measures in two of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses. It was Richard M. Daley’s Chicago plan, complete with the export of the “mayoral control” model of corporate school reform.

I continued to check with as many people as I could, and my conclusion is that most of these people, many of whom are very young, do not know much history. And any history that pushes them away from the recent mythmaking on behalf of the Democratic Party is being brushed aside or air brushed out of the picture.

We are the witnesses to the facts. And if we don’t tell them — using whatever visuals and data are necessary — those facts will be air brushed out of history as deftly as any other historical coverup.

The reason that Kos is so important is that when I say “Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses,” there is probably someone in the room using a computer with wireless who can sit there, while I’m talking, and locate those two speeches, read Clinton’s words, and verify that I am telling the truth.

Most of what passes for profundity among bloggers is bullshit. Anyone who watches blogs carefully knows that for every thread of fact and hint of truth, there is a cable of mistakes and bellowing lies.

But given the advances in access to information, one of the most important political forces in the next couple of years will be the “Blogosphere.”

Here is a small example of what this access to facts means: One of the candidates had said, the day before the forum, that he would appoint someone like Byron White (one of John Kennedy’s appointees) to the U.S. Supreme Court. By the time that candidate arrived at McCormick Place Saturday, he had been blasted in the Democratic Party blogosphere. It turns out that Justice White had voted against Roe v. Wade, the abortion case!

So the candidate had to apologize, and in front of 2,000 people (and TV cameras from all over the world) on Saturday afternoon he said “I screwed up” and explained how and why he had “screwed up.”

Since the Iraq War began, there has been an explosion of media via the Internet that is changing the way average people can access facts and deal with them. One of the biggest exploiters of that explosion has been the jihad, who have proliferated websites across the planet to report on their side of the Iraq War. The technology being used by our enemies across the planet (and I consider anyone who goes around killing innocent Americans and their innocent countrymen “enemies” no matter what their motivations) also exists as a possible place for truth to sneak out from behind the screens of lies that block it.

In the weeks since Yearly Kos came to Chicago, I saw how that process can take place, carefully and in all of its dialectical complexity.

The fact that Chicago has already done “it” (the closing of schools) to thousands of poor black children and an additional “it” (the slandering of the teachers and principals in those schools, most of whom were also black, given Chicago’s massive segregation) is very important news for the nation.

For a decade we have seen that news blacked out in Chicago by all of the major media, from “Public Radio” and TV to Fox and the Chicago Tribune.

But the facts remain as close as that elementary school on the corner of 27th and Dearborn, less than a mile southwest of that conference room at Cermak and McCormick Place.

And people are interested in knowing those facts, and interested in knowing them now.

To date, the major stumbling block for George W. Bush has been the Iraq War. Had Bush really “accomplished” his “mission accomplished”, things would be very bleak indeed for those of us who wish more freedom and more democracy for more people. Privatization and hypocrisy and all the other horrors would be even more ahead of the forces of democracy and service.

But the second biggest disaster of the Bush administration (and one that will ultimately affect as many Americans as the Justice Department corruption or the Middle East debacles) is No Child Left Behind.

And we live in the place where every piece of “No Child Left Behind” was put into place and used against us by Democratic politicians and their corporate allies not under the Bush dictatorship and the Republican horrors of Karl Rove, but under the supposedly good old days of Bill Clinton and Richard M. Daley.

Please think about our responsibility to the national debate on public education in the weeks ahead.

There is going to be tremendous pressure for us to localize our work here in Chicago, especially if there is a strike a month from now.

But we also have a duty — yes, that’s what I’d call it — to get the story out to everyone else who is paying attention.

Fundamental changes in a democracy require some long-term perspectives: “What would it have been like to have been an abolitionist in 1835?” (Remember: the abolitionists were generally people living in the north with a few middle class privileges).

But the answer to that question is easy, and easily tells us the answer to all the other questions that might follow.

“Being an abolitionist in 1835 would have been difficult. But not nearly as difficult as being born a black child into slavery in Mississippi in 1835.”

Before the “netroots” can actually confront problems as massive as NCLB, the Net itself must have informatoin such as the impact of school closings in Chicago. 


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