Bush’s education law is the best living example of what politicians do when the real problems are too hard.
No goat left behind
If I am right about my biblical history, the first scapegoats were found in the ancient Middle East, where once a year Israel’s religious leaders selected a goat and symbolically placed all the sins and evils of the past year on its back. The goat was then released so that upon its departure these sins and evils would also leave and society could start the year fresh.
Ever since then societies have looked for scapegoats upon whose backs they could dump their problems and blame when things are not going right.
In Wisconsin and the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, our scapegoats are our children and their schools. It has been more than 20 years since the publication of A Nation at Risk, but the negativism and hysteria that report elicited from Republicans and conservatives has continued unabated ever since. The federal government’s passage of the so-called No Child Left Behind law in January 2002 has ratcheted up the fervor of those who would destroy the institution of public education in this country in the name of saving themselves from having to do the real work of governing and leading.
We have been told that our public education system is broken, that our children cannot compete when tested against children of other nations and that our teachers are overpaid, greedy and ineffective. We have been told that the only way to restore our competitive edge—implying that our education system is the primary factor that determines the economic life of our country—is to hold our schools more accountable through testing and punishment. We have to force them to try harder.
We are told to test the kids every year in grades 3-8 and again in grade 10 and get all children to a standardized level of performance by the year 2012 or else feel the wrath of the federal government. Schools found out of compliance will be closed or signed over to for-profit private education companies.
Forget about the fact that we know from research that all children do not learn at the same pace. Forget about the fact that some children have bona fide learning disabilities that will not allow them to reach a common level of performance with their non-disabled peers. Forget about the fact that children who live in poverty are at a tremendous disadvantage when compared to children from affluence. Forget about the fact that children from single-parent families have a harder time achieving academic success then children coming from families with two adult role models in the home. Forget about the fact that schools in wealthy suburbs spend more per pupil than their urban counterparts.
All these facts are lost on the politicians who want to simplify the learning process, coin catch phrases like “No Child Left Behind,” and quantify the myth that public education is failing by setting an expectation that will be impossible to meet.
So when public schools in Wisconsin and throughout the nation fail to meet these expectations the self-fulfilling prophecy will be complete. The scapegoat will be formally identified and all that will be left is the question of how to dispose of it. Replace it with Edison schools? With religious schools? With virtual schools?
Are there children who struggle in school, and could the schools serve them better? Sure there are. But the record will show that when you look at the students who make up the majority of those who struggle you will find that race and poverty are the common denominators. Dealing with issues of race and poverty, however, are not high on the priority lists of our elected officials, so they trot out the public education scapegoat.
Until our political leaders develop the moral will to face the real issues that undermine the ability of all of our children to succeed, we will have children left behind and a scapegoat ready to blame. If you listen carefully you can hear the bleating already.
February 10, 2004
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Michael Salkowski is the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District superintendent and a former teacher and principal at Milwaukee’s Washington High School and Nicolet High School, respectively.