An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 85, 1 (Fall 2006) pp. 7 - 11

No Child Left Behind: some misgivings

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 2/13/18

The surest way to discredit the public school is to leave no child behind. The second surest way is to make the school a "safe and nonthreatening environment" for psychopaths and morons. The third surest is to try to teach the "whole child" in any single setting. The conservatives know this; that's probably why they're doing it. And in a fit of unconscious bipartisanship seldom equaled in our contentious nation's history, the liberals have been working on the same project for decades, albeit more stupidly. The sad fact is that public schools just cannot be all things to all children, nor should they be a total program for producing "whole children."

Please forgive my bluntness. I reckon I'd better explain that when I use the coarse word "morons," I am not referring to those who cannot learn -- they deserve every kindness. Rather, I mean those who will not learn and who are gratuitously disruptive. They need to be elsewhere, as do those who are cruel and without working consciences -- the psychopaths. I believe in educating every child, but I no longer believe public schools and "regular" classrooms can accomplish that. Education is a right, but alas, schooling is the price we pay for waiving that right. It seems to me that compulsory education, as distinct from compulsory schooling, requires multiple alternatives and viable choice.

Given the extraordinary diversity of purposes for schools and definitions of education in a democracy, a rich diversity of educational offerings makes sense, so I have no problem with private schools, and I'm favorable toward vouchers, with reservations.1 However, decent people just don't work toward choice or privatization in ways that would unnecessarily hurt kids and teachers, and No Child Left Behind does precisely that.2 Hence, I don't blame the Bush administration for its goal, but I do blame it for its method. On the other hand, liberal-progressive insistence on "whole child" teaching in a government-school setting -- an idea that can be more totalitarian than charitable, and is notoriously difficult to square with the classically liberal philosophy of freedom -- has only added an impossible ideal to a flawed institution.3 This leaves me blaming the liberals for their goals, and not their methods, which are generally ethical, informed, and skillful.

So here's the bad news: I fear that this essay marks a turning point for me, in which I make a long-dreaded shift from "maverick" to "renegade." In earlier criticisms of American education, I have tried to take the high road, assuming the best intentions of whomever I was disagreeing with, and moderating my language to be constructive and charitable. (For instance, see my mixed review of John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education in the Winter 2005 issue of educational Horizons. I saw the book as basically factual, but one-sided and angry. I believed then that Gatto was correct but wrong: that there was far more good going on in our schools than harm.4)

Over the past year or so, my opinion has changed. I've encountered the most despicable miseducation I've seen or even heard of in thirty - three years of teaching -- so bad, in fact, that I'm no longer willing to be tactful. I ended the year telling one of my student teachers and his cooperating teacher: "If I were a smart kid in this class, I'd either drop out or commit suicide." (To their credit, they agreed wholeheartedly.) My junior-level students, in a methods course that is entirely positive -- simple how-to-do-it stuff, nothing to do with problems and policies -- ended their field experiences this year with the gloomiest countenances ever. Student after student, they confessed to me that what they were seeing "just isn't worth doing," and from what they described, I couldn't argue with them.

About the only thing I could advise was that "Smart people don't make career choices based on March morale." True enough,but still pretty lame. What we were seeing was wooden, rote learning and brainless, boring teaching, worthy of the contempt of any free American. What we were seeing, almost uniformly, was test-driven minimalism, with the slower and resistant kids monopolizing the time of frustrated and surly teachers, and the brighter kids sitting quietly, bored stupid. In a few cases the teachers were clearly blameworthy, burnt-out, or useless to begin with, but mostly we saw decent people trying heroically to be blessed exceptions -- heroically, but with depressingly little success against a system that demanded basic knowledge but penalized advanced thinking.

And we saw an unprecedented teacher attrition rate, with teacher dropouts' places taken increasingly by untrained "drive-by" teachers. And that made my students' gloom that much worse: nobody looks forward to a life like that, nor do they want to impose such unkindness and mediocrity on children. I pray that my students and I just got two bad-luck sets of assignments, and that what we saw is not generalizable to either the local schools or the rest of the country. Unfortunately, I'm becoming increasingly alarmed that it may be.5

It should be no surprise, since the famed Christian writer C. S. Lewis identified the process almost fifty years ago. In "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" (a sequel to The Screwtape Letters), Lewis took the role of a senior devil advising fledgling demons how to make people mediocre enough to be suckered into hell:

The basic principle of the new education is that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be "undemocratic." . . . At universities examinations must be framed so that nearly all students get good marks. . . . At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud pies and call it modeling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back,because the others would get a trauma -- Beelzebub, what a useful word! The bright pupil thus remains democratically fet tered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval's attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.... And the teachers ... will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We [devils] shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin will do it for themselves.6

This is precisely what we are seeing,and looking at those bright children wasting away in those wretched classes infuriates me now just as seeing those minority kids wasting away infuriated me years ago. Time to declare war. The good news is I think it's just possible to win this one. For now, let's start with one idea and do whatever I can fit into the rest of my word allotment for this essay, then continue to some more radical and thoroughgoing ideas to be discussed in the future.

What schools are says little about what schools could be and almost nothing about what schools should be. Schools can and should be safe places in which worthwhile learning is the principal goal, and becoming worthwhile adults is the principal outcome.7 So allow me to suggest that educators have the responsibility to protect kids from three intellectual vices: ignorance, stupidity, and silliness.

Ignorance is when one doesn't know much.

Stupidity is when one knows only what one has been told.

And silliness is when one knows only what one wants to know.8

Granted, no school is going to be 100 percent effective in protecting kids intellectually any more than we will be 100 percent effective physically. Just as the occasional nitwit will get a black eye despite the best adult supervision, so some nitwits will not achieve well in schools, ending up still ignorant, stupid, or silly.

While the "no child left behind" ideal is a moral improvement over the old "somebody's got to dig the ditches" mentality, it is not a moral victory, nor is it likely to become one. It's much more likely to generate lots more bad press (we call that "accountability") for the public schools, which I suspect is its real purpose. And, frankly, I plan to do my part: I'm no longer going to tolerate what I've been seeing the past couple of years, nor will I be nice about it.

Heaven knows I don't expect perfection from individuals or justice from institutions, but like military veterans everywhere, I tend to give more credibility to the grunts on the line than to the REMFs (Rear-Echelon Master Foulups, or something like that), and to place lots more blame on their institutions and lay responsibility for fixing it on those mid-level managers wise enough to disdain further promotion.9 The measure: if a school can't do at least as good a job at protecting kids -- and teachers -- intellectually as it does protecting them physically, it has no business being in business.

With this "standard" to meet, the schools will need to recruit and keep smart, skilled teachers who are experienced enough to be wise teachers also. As I have written elsewhere, the supposed "teacher shortage" is baloney.10 Although spot shortages surely exist (not enough science teachers here, not enough special ed teachers there, et cetera), the real problem is teacher retention, especially the retention of good teachers. So I propose a "friendly amendment" to No Child Left Behind's "highly qualified teacher"provisions, one that I daresay no legislator could safely oppose but that all the REMFs will try to bury.

Let's add a provision requiring all public schools to be "highly qualified schools" by 2012, with one criterion being that on-site teacher longevity averages at least five years. Imagine how different schools would be if the pressure on administrators to seek, develop, and keep serious teachers (and quickly get rid of ignoramuses, incompetents,and fools) were as strong as the current pressure is to raise the test scores of thugs.

Imagine how different schools would be if administrators were under that kind of pressure to turn their schools into places where teachers want to stay. Imagine that, and it becomes possible to imagine schools as places where students want to be, rather than have to be. I believe administrators would find ways to do that, and I know they'd have to start now.

End Notes

1. See Wade A.Carpenter,"The Other Side of School Choice," Educational Horizons 83(2) (2005): 87 - 91.

2. While I think the literature against No Child Left Behind is blemished by many self-serving rants by professional educators (including some of my own), there is a substantial literature of substantive critique. One of the more interesting treatments is Lowell C.Rose's "No Child Left Behind:The Mathematics of Guaranteed Failure," Educational Horizons 82(4) (2004): 121 - 130.

3. The literature on the liberal definition of freedom is voluminous. Basic references must include John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1869; New York:, 1999); Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society (New York: Harper Row, 1972); and John Dewey's Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916).

I also recommend Barry L. Bull, Royal T. Fruehling, and Virgie Chattergy's The Ethics of Multicultural and Bilingual Education (New York:Teachers College Press,1992) for an education-oriented view; John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down:The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992) for a more radical educationist analysis; Kenneth L. Grasso, Gerard V. Bradley, and Robert P. Hunt's Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism (London: Rowman Littlefield, 1995) for a religious perspective; John Kekes's Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) for a philosophically technical attack; and Peter Augustine Lawler's "Technological Nihilism and Natural Law: Science, Morality, and the Law Today," Educational Horizons 83(4) (2005): 564 - 271, for a freewheeling anti-Deweyan diatribe.

4.Carpenter,"The Other Side of School Choice."

5. Especially alarming to me has been a series of articles by Ann Doss Helms from May 30 to June 2, 2006, in my hometown newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, detailing the miserable collapse of a once-ballyhooed school system. I was there in the middle of its so-called glory days in the 1970s and '80s, when it got national raves for "making busing work." While that glory was somewhat exaggerated (see Frye Gailliard's hagiographic A Dream Long Deferred [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988]), it was many notches above the "bright flight" catastrophe that Judge Howard Manning, Jr., described from the bench as "academic genocide."

6. The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Westwood, N.J.: Barbour and Company, Inc., 1961), 180 - 181.

7. The fall 2004 issue of Educational Horizons has a number of good articles addressing physical and emotional safety in schools.

8. We used to call this by terms such as "narcissism,""solipsism,""hubris,"and "egoism"; the founding fathers feared it as "factionalism"; and modern politicians pretend to deplore it as "partisanship." More recently, of course, we have called it "postmodernism" and "constructivism." By whatever name, it still amounts to "same foot, different pile," and it is just plain silliness.

9. George Becker's Assassin's Gate:America in Iraq (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2005) puts it well: "In Iraq as in Vietnam, I continually found more insight among midlevel civilians and military than at the top -- because the political pressure at that altitude is low enough for clear thinking to take place, and because their intellectual candor made professional advancement less likely"(p.304).

A couple of depressing examples of why I trust teachers' ground-level input over their better-informed bosses' were in yesterday's and today's local newspapers -- and that's probably about as far as anybody else would have to look anywhere in the nation! The July 12 Rome [Ga.] Tribune gives this year's AYP results, and despite all the hype and PR of the past two years, the local schools are, to put it nicely, turning out cheap labor, and that's about it.Today's paper describes the sentencing of our state's previous superintendent to eight years for stealing $600,000 from the Georgia School for the Deaf. The School for the Deaf, for God's sake!

10. Wade A.Carpenter, review of Who Controls Teachers' Work? by Richard Ingersoll, Educational Horizons 84(2) (2006): 69 - 77.