Gary K, Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

School reform rhetoric typically employs terms that are centrally important, yet vague and undefined. Consider the late, unlamented, “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. What exactly did “left behind” mean? That was obscure. But by implication it meant any child, including special education students and non-English speakers, who failed to pass high stakes tests in math and reading.

Who came up with such crazy criteria? An unholy amalgam of crafty politicians, federal and state bureaucrats and professional test makers; all of whom were very far removed from the realities of the classroom.

Here’s the practical implication of promising that no child would be “left behind.” Learners have always had at least some responsibility for learning. But this “reform” placed the entire burden on educators. Even youngsters who adamantly refused to learn had no responsibility for failing. They were victims, heartlessly “left behind.” Educators were now expected to lead a horse to water AND make him drink. 

I once heard a youngster defiantly tell a teacher: “You aint gonna teach me shit.” He wasn’t being “left behind;” he was willfully refusing to get on board! Youngsters who resolutely refuse to even try to learn are not a rarity. Yet the NCLB Act placed 100% of the responsibility on educators.

How did such a ridiculously one-sided arrangement ever become reality? Well, for one thing the meaning of “left behind” was hidden in a mound of detail. For another, no one of consequence ever challenged this foolish and destructive slogan. And there is still another consideration. Frontline teachers had no input.

In 2015 the NCLB Act was replaced. Was it with something better; more fairly aimed? No,the new attempt to impose reform from on high was equally ridiculous. It’s called the “Every Child Succeeds Act.” And this title is just as foolish and dishonest as No Child Left Behind. Short of a return of the Garden of Eden (or the complete elimination of meaningful standards) some children will inevitably fail — given all of the terrible things that can and do happen to children that destroy or badly damage their potential to learn.

It’s about time we get realistic about school reform. Imagine a national healthcare reform titled the “Everyone Gets Well Act. That would be plainly ridiculous. Yet the same thing has been done twice at a national level with education and no one is yelling “foul!”

Slogans are useful if we want to establish a broad but very shallow consensus among people of varied interests. That is why they’re employed in relatively harmless ceremonial situations such as marriage and awards, ship christenings, building dedications, funerals, and so forth. They create the momentary solidarity necessary for common celebration. But it is an entirely different matter when slogans are used to sucker voters, justify wars or, in this case, sneak entirely unrealistic education “reform” goals into law.

Think NCLB is an isolated case? Unfortunately it is not. Here is another one of many examples. In the 1990’s the Oklahoma State Board of Education imperiously declared that by the year 2000: “All schools will focus instruction on the needs of each individual student at all levels within the framework of an integrated curriculum.”

How could a secondary teacher assigned an average of, say, 110 students per day, possibly individualize instruction for each and every one of them? This was plainly impossible. Plus teachers had to accomplish this within the framework of an “integrated curriculum” — whatever that meant. This was even more ridiculous.

Such a “reform” was also borderline impossible for elementary teachers. Designing and implementing instruction for small groups of, say, 5 or 6 youngsters is demanding but doable. But truly individualizing newly integrated subject matter for each of 20 or more children was a truly formidable challenge — particularly when the teacher also had to keep the rest of the children orderly and learning. [1]

This so-called “reform” actually was a combination of wishful thinking and political hot air. But Oklahoma educators still had to appear to comply. This doubtless gave rise to dozens of mind-numbing meetings and vast amounts of useless paperwork. So from Kenton in the panhandle to Sallisaw on the Arkansas border this top-down, ridiculous “reform” greatly interfered with educators actually doing their jobs.

Years have passed since the Oklahoma “reform” deadline. Was the state’s public education improved? No, of course it wasn’t. The whole “reform” effort was an odious, time-wasting, paper project inspired by a hollow slogan — “integrating the curriculum.” Worse, it was forced on educators by self-important political hacks that either didn’t have a clue about the day-to-day realities of classroom teaching, or didn’t give a damn.

One day, far in the future, a janitor will be tidying up the Oklahoma Department of Education’s back offices. In a musty corner he or she will stumble across yellowed old curriculum integration documents submitted by every one of the state’s 520 school districts in order to document how they had managed to accomplish the impossible.

“What is all of this?” the janitor will wonder as he or she struggles to carry the overflowing boxes to the trash. Meanwhile, in State Education Department board-rooms across the country, and the Department of Education in Washington, a new crop of clueless political appointees will be crafting still other top-down reforms to convince gullible voters that their particular administration really does care about children — provided it isn’t costly.

So what will this next generation of still gestating “reforms” produce? If past is prologue, they will produce nothing but distraction, wasted time and superfluous effort on the part of frontline educators. But at least they will provide protective cover for wily politicians and busy work for a lot of otherwise useless bureaucrats.

[1] These numbers are based on 2016 Oklahoma averages as compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics.