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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Miller's "Kill All the School Boards" - Just a Provocative Title?
Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, recently penned a piece for The Atlantic with the most provocative of titles, First, Kill All the School Boards. To juxtapose nicely with his bold and controversial assertion, the writer subtitled his piece, A modest proposal to fix the schools.

It is always difficult to read something that does not match up with one’s experience. So forgive us if we take exception to his proposal. The author of The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love (2003), Miller has generally been described as an immense writing talent with a propensity to see the middle ground. In First, Kill All the School Boards, Miller instead takes an extreme position.

Those seeking to try to follow his argument should check the link we published above. He begins with Horace Mann, moves to Prussia, back to Horace, then follows the evolution of our current system of schools to make his case that local school boards are the problem with education.

Somehow, Miller associates local control with stunted research and development, argues that school boards are beholden to or simply overpowered by the more organized teacher unions, and then concludes that local control and school boards are at the root of all education problems.

It should be noted that Miller’s focus seems to be on the urban, inner city school boards. Perhaps that is why so much of what he writes is inconsistent with the State of Maine and our experiences working with local school boards.

Correct in One Regard
He does eventually get to the fundamental issue facing our country today, our overall educational performance. Miller noted that though the United States spends more per child than nearly every other nation, our performance pales in comparison. Miller notes the results of one specific 2003 assessment where out of 29 developed countries, the U.S. ranked “24th in math and in problem-solving, 18th in science, and 15th in reading.” He also reiterated that despite such expenditures “half of all black and Latino students in the U.S. don’t graduate on time (or ever) from high school.”

Essentially, his answer to improving education is to eliminate all local control, i.e., “Kill All the School Boards.” He states that the time has come to implement a national, federalized system.

It is interesting to note that Miller cites the last 30 years as particularly negative in education and that despite continuous calls for improvement, little progress has been made. Of course, we would note that just happens to be the period of time that the federal government began to expand its reach into public education.

No Child Left Behind
Surprisingly, Miller arrives at his conclusion for greater federal oversight despite acknowledging that the biggest federal attempt to date has been a dismal failure. But there again, the flawed law that President Bush refers to as his signature achievement, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is essentially a failure because of local control, at least according to Miller.

Miller writes, “NCLB required states to establish standards in core subjects and to test children in grades 38 annually, with the aim of making all students ‘proficient’ by 2014. But by leaving standards and definitions of ‘proficiency’ to state discretion, it has actually made matters worse.”

Though most educators would agree with Miller that the law has made things worse, far worse in fact, many would contend that the law is precisely the reason that the federal government should stay out of local affairs. In fact, we would strongly contest that the law fell apart at the point of implementation because it was so poorly constructed.

Miller Correct in a Second Regard
We do agree with Miller, the time has indeed come for a standards based education. It is also long past time to have measures of accountability in place that determine progress towards those standards.

In fact, the vast majority of educators would welcome national standards if they were research-based, reasonable, and clearly articulated. But those are three big ifs.

In addition, the vast majority of educators would welcome accountability if a reasonable definition of proficiency were determined and an appropriate goal for student success set forth. But those are another two big ifs.

End the Politicization of the Issue

Of course, if you label something with a catchy phrase such as No Child Left Behind you cannot use a goal of 85% or 90% of students reaching the standard. You must make it 100% because of your title. Yet no where within those 29 other countries is 100% proficiency expected or obtained.

Furthermore, if you label the law the “No Child Left Behind Act” you immediately have to begin to rethink what is meant by proficiency for fear that by setting reasonable, base standards, you have again done a disservice to someone.

We noted in a previous post that experts see the law as immensely flawed. We quoted Columbia Teacher College researchers who insist that “proficiency is not attainable by all, or even nearly all, at any time.” Not by 2014, as NCLB states, in fact, not ever. The researchers contend that not even 100% of middle-class students could reach a truly rigorous standard, thereby rendering the fundamental tenet of NCLB, ‘proficiency for all’ an oxymoron. We also noted that “closing the achievement gap is one thing, but that ‘not only is it logically impossible to have proficiency for all at a challenging level,’ not even ‘the highest-performing countries come close to meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s standard of proficiency for all.’”

NCLB a Dismal Failure
We agree with Miller, NCLB has been a failure, especially if the intent of the measure was to improve our public schools. However, we strongly disagree as to the reasons for that failure.

More importantly, if the most recent trip into federalizing education is an example of what educators can expect, then we cannot in any way support Miller’s solution. In fact, we would argue that without local control this flawed law would have done an even greater disservice to our students and our schools than it has to date.

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