Early in 2001, when I was the chair of the education committee on the Council of the District of Columbia, I was talking with the D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vance about the intense debate over standards at the time. Federal lawmakers were debating whether to tie federal dollars that were earmarked to the states to having the state’s school age children academically proficient by 2014. Under this proposal, those states whose students failed to meet this standard would lose their expected federal education dollars.
As the Superintendent Vance and I went back and forth about how difficult it would be for states to measure up under the proposed law, he finally waved his hand and said to me, “Well, Councilman, the reality is that even if this law passes, the states will work around it. Very few states, if any, will meet these new requirements by 2014 so two things will happen: some states will lower their existing standards and the federal government will give many states waivers from the law’s mandates so they can still get their federal funds.”
The law, which was passed in 2001, would ultimately be known as No Child Left Behind. And Superintendent Vance was right. Now that we are in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education has given over 44 waivers to states that did not do what they promised to do–enhance the academic enrichment of their kids. That’s right. The federal government regularly socially promotes states who are failing our kids. During this same time period, some states aggressively questioned the need for rigorous standards, leaning on states’ rights arguments, even though the right to a quality education for all kids may be lacking in their state.
What’s worse, however, is the evidence pouring out of the felony racketeering trial in Atlanta, where 11 teachers were convicted of conspiring to change their students’ test scores to make it look as though Atlanta schoolchildren were doing better on tests than they actually were. Twenty-one other teachers pled guilty to lesser charges in the scheme. In all, some 180 employees, including a mix of teachers, testing coordinators and 38 principals, had engaged in an organized and systemic cheating scheme in at least 44 Atlanta schools involving falsification of student learning data by inflating test scores to make the district look better.
Adding insult to obvious injury, these teachers would brazenly have eraser parties following the testing period to celebrate their conspiratorial success at cheating.
All of these factors point to one thing: we no longer have a learning culture in America. Indeed, we have dumbed down education and learning so much that the education of our children is embodied by meaningless platitudes, hollow promises and just plain dishonesty. Even among those responsible for providing or overseeing the delivery of K-12 educational services in America, a new culture of excuses and “reasons why” we can’t teach all kids exists. Sadly, the unspoken truth is that many do not believe that all kids can learn.
The time has come for the American people to demand more and get more from those vested with the fiduciary responsibility to teach our kids. We should no longer accept the false promise of better schools tomorrow because our leaders point to selective, marginal and incremental improvements scattershot around the country today. Nor should we celebrate the mediocre expectations that have crept into the education policy discussion. Rather, as we look forward to the 2016 presidential elections, we need to categorically reject any candidate who doesn’t boldly stand for immediate change in the academic expectations we have for all kids. And we should reject any candidate who is unwilling or unable to hold every school and every school district accountable for teaching all kids.
Frankly, it is time to end the dumbing down culture in American education. Our new national imperative should be to instill personal and national pride in learning. This new form of patriotism is more uplifting and beneficial to our country than the fear-based, patriotic war on terror. And, it is needed. When it comes to the education of our kids, the future is now.