Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's education law, had so many harmful, though unintended, effects on American education that even the law's name has become "toxic." So says President Barack Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
But Duncan has failed to learn from his predecessors' mistakes. The revision he handed to Congress earlier this month, termed the Blueprint, is as poorly thought through as the Bush policy. It is filled with contradictions, and even its smart ideas are undermined by foolish ones.
The biggest smart idea with a built-in contradiction is this: The Blueprint calls for funding 20 "Promise Neighborhood" experiments in poverty-stricken communities. These would offer services to help get children to school ready to learn, such as high-quality early childhood programs, since research shows that children from less literate homes are already behind in knowledge and skills by age 3.
After-school and summer programs are included because disadvantaged children often catch up during school, but fall behind in the summer and after school. Parent education programs are included, as well as coordination with community health and social service institutions. All these things can have a big impact on learning.
So it is inexplicable that Duncan also proposes to make the Bush policy even harsher by, in all the other poverty-stricken neighborhoods that don't get Promise Neighborhood grants, placing the entire responsibility on teachers for getting disadvantaged children "college ready" - and then demanding teachers' discharge if their schools have low test scores.
If children came to school with the benefits that the Promise Neighborhoods proposal believes are necessary for success and that school still can't be effective, perhaps replacing teachers might be needed. But if other children don't have these community supports and so are unable to take advantage of good instruction, how is firing their teachers going to solve anything?
The most ridiculed NCLB provision was its demand that all children be proficient at a "challenging" level by 2014. This was absurd - no single standard can be challenging both to children with greater and lesser ability. And although some economically disadvantaged children will always achieve at higher levels than typical middle-class children, average differences in achievement will persist as long as vast differences in children's school readiness persist.
The goal of universal proficiency was denounced by Arne Duncan as "utopian" last September, and he vowed to eliminate it. Yet he now wants to replace it with the demand that by 2020, upon graduation from high school, all children be ready to enter college without any remediation - even those who choose not to go to college.
Not only is this foolish for all the reasons that "proficiency for all" was foolish, but today, only about 20 percent of adolescents graduate from high school fully prepared for college. If we wanted to set schools up for failure, asking educators to quintuple this rate in less than a decade would be an excellent approach.
Of course, teachers should look every child in the eye and say, "You can have a professional career if you behave, study well and work hard," and hope every child will strive for this. But teachers shouldn't consider themselves failures if not every child fulfills this ambition. And certainly, no government should fire teachers of low-income children if their school isn't getting every single child college ready by 2020. But the Blueprint proposes exactly that.
Yes, everyone should aim high, but utopian goals don't inspire, they promote cynicism. Just as NCLB created incentives for states to define proficiency down by lowering passing scores on tests, the Blueprint will inspire its own corruption. Middle-class schools' test scores may never be low enough to result in threatened shutdowns, but just imagine how states will respond to the rage of parents told their apparently good suburban schools are failing: They will relabel the remedial courses in their state university systems as credit courses.
The immediate crisis facing schools today results from our economic collapse. Forty percent of black adults will be unemployed for some period this year, for instance. The children of parents who lose their jobs, regardless of their race, may change schools frequently if their families lose housing. Some students will have behavior problems when their home lives are stressed. Others will attend school hungry or ill, having lost health insurance.
Simply holding the line on these children's educational achievements would be an extraordinary accomplishment. Punishing teachers for their failure to raise it in unprecedented leaps is cruel.
The Blueprint is also blind to fiscal crises facing schools themselves. Public education now faces unprecedented budget shortfalls, especially because schools depend heavily on property taxes. In some areas, like Long Island, there is political pressure to keep increases in astronomical property taxes down. In others, depressed real estate values inhibit the amount of property taxes coming in.
Oblivious, the Blueprint wants to reduce the real per-pupil federal dollars that schools serving disadvantaged children now receive, and that they need to plug shortfalls in state and local funds. Instead, Duncan proposes to redirect these federal funds to competitive grants for a small number of schools promising favored reforms.
A few districts will win these competitions, but most won't. No Congressional representative whose schools are laying off teachers, raising class sizes, and cutting back on athletics, arts and other "nonessential" programs will permit Duncan to give bonus payments to a few other districts that agree to innovate.
So it's fortunate that - after a bruising health care fight that left other critical issues piling up and with elections coming this fall - there's no chance that Congress will enact the Blueprint this year. Secretary Duncan can use the extra time - he still has a lot of remedial work to do.