I went through a period after I served in the Bush administration of being very involved in some very conservative think tanks where I shared their enthusiasm for testing, for accountability, for choice.
I don’t think I gave up my critical faculties, but I think I was hopeful, because I was always very critical of the quality of education. I thought our kids needed so much more. I wanted to see and have always wanted to see schools where children got excited about studying the history and science and math and where the arts were very important. So I thought the testing, accountability and choice would lead us in that direction.
I now look back and I wonder why I thought that, because, obviously, it now seems so wrong to me. But that was my hope. And, as I was immersed in that world, the think tank world, those were my friends. And, as I began to see the results of No Child Left Behind, as I began to hear more and more reports of districts dropping the arts, cutting back on time for their study and as I began to hear early reports of cheating, of teachers being held responsible for things over which they had no control, piece by piece, my views began to change.
The big event for me, though, was going to a conference at a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2006 – I believe it was. It was at the American Enterprise Institute and the purpose of the conference was to look at No Child Left Behind after five years, because it had been passed by Congress in 2001. And there were a dozen scholars from all over the country talking about whether No Child Left Behind was working. Was the toolkit working?
I was invited to be one of the people summing up at the end of the day. And each of these dozen people presented a paper saying, “Well, this isn’t working and the supplementary services aren’t working, and the after school tutoring is what is supplementary services – that’s not working, and there’s more paperwork than ever before and choice is not working in this district and it’s not working in that district and this isn’t working.” Well, at the end of the day, I had heard 12 papers that said it’s not working, and I had no option other than to say it’s not working. I mean, what other conclusion could I reach?
Then I found myself looking at the NAEP scores as they emerged and realizing there was very little change. This hoped-for transformation hadn’t happened. I began to look again at the critique of the Texas Miracle, and I thought you have to understand that the whole of No Child Left Behind was based on two things. First of all, Congress longed to have accountability. Everybody had been complaining for 15 or 20 years there was no accountability and we needed accountability. And along came candidate George W. Bush saying there’d been a miracle in Texas, that Texas had simply imposed this testing system and that if you test every child every year and how schools gave some rewards to those that improved and punishments to those or humiliation to those that didn’t improve, wonderful things would happen. The achievement gap would start to close. The graduation rate would go up. Test scores would go up. All these great things happened just by testing.
So Congress bought into the idea of the Texas Miracle, but I started looking again at some of those early studies and saying, “You know, there doesn’t seem to be a miracle. What happened to that miracle?” Now, ten years later, we know that there was some improvement in Texas, but there was some improvement in a lot of places. But Texas is not at the top of the pack. Massachusetts is the top of the pack. Texas is right in the middle.
Then there were other things. I remember going to a meeting of one of the organizations I belonged to. It was not a conservative think tank, but it was an organization where there are a lot of people from the corporate sector and some governors. And they sat around the table. I was a member of this organization. They sat around the table complaining that teachers didn’t work hard enough and were overpaid. And I thought about the teachers I know who were making $50,000-$55,000 a year and I looked around and realized most of the people around this table are making six figures and some of them are making seven figures. And they’re complaining about teachers and I’m sure that they’re able to go to a meeting like the one we’re at and teachers work much harder than they do, so that was another thing that kind of stuck in my throat.
But there just came a moment where things like that began to bother me and then I began looking more and more. You know, you start looking at evidence differently, when you’re mind starts to rotate in a different direction, and mine was to think what we’re doing isn’t working and then I began to really reconsider. Then within some of the think tanks, I offered my resignation. It wasn’t accepted. I continue to stay and to argue, and, then, at a certain point, I thought this just isn’t working for me. I don’t belong here.
A lot of people who are friends of mine were worried about me, because it seemed like a really weird thing to deviate from this orthodoxy.
But this should not have been a secret, because I was writing blogs, I was writing opinion pieces. I actually wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. I think it was in 2007. And they gave it the title “Get Congress Out of the Classroom.” It was a call for the repeal of No Child Left Behind, so this was not an overnight transformation.
The things that I cared most about were the things that I’ve always cared most about, which was I would love to see children have the kind of education where they were looking forward to going to school, where they had the chance to be creative, innovative, excited about learning, where they learned history in depth, where they had time to really probe beyond the textbook and go into historical events in great detail, to have debates, to engage in deep discussions, to have teachers who excited them about learning and to make the most important thing about schooling love of learning.
So those are the things I’ve always cared about. That hasn’t changed. I just came to realize that what we got involved in and what I had been supporting was turning education into a desiccated, data-driven, anti-human activity and this would not encourage the love of learning. It would kill it.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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