Gary K. Clabaugh
Professor Emeritus of Education, La Salle University
23 October 2016
School reform efforts typically employ key terms that are vague and undefined. Consider the late unlamented “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. What exactly did “left behind” mean? That was conveniently obscure. Though by implication it meant any child, including special education students and non-English speakers, who failed to pass high stakes tests in math and reading.
Who established such a mindless definition? It was an unholy amalgam of crafty politicians, federal and state bureaucrats and professional test makers. All of whom were far, far removed from the realities of the classroom.
Historically learners had always had at least some responsibility for learning. But this “reform” placed the entire burden on educators. Even youngsters who adamantly refused to learn had no responsibility for failing. They were victims, who had carelessly, even callously, been “left behind.”
I once heard a youngster defiantly tell a teacher: “You aint gonna teach me shit.” Was he being “left behind," or willfully refusing to get on board? Youngsters like this young man were not a rarity then nor are they now. Nevertheless, the NCLB Act placed 100% of the responsibility for learning on the shoulders of his teachers. How did such a one-sided arrangement ever become reality? Well, for one thing the defintion of “left behind” was rarely discussed openly. It was buried in a mound of detail.
Slogans are useful if we want to establish a broad but very shallow consensus among people of varied interests. That is why they’re employed in harmless ceremonial situations such as marriage, awards, ship christenings, building dedications, funerals, and so forth. They create the momentary solidarity necessary for common celebration. But it is an entirely different matter when slogans are used to sucker voters, justify wars or, as in this case, sneak entirely unrealistic education “reforms” goals into law.
So what will the next generation of presently gestating “reforms” produce? If past is prologue, they will produce nothing but distraction, wasted time and superfluous effort on the part of frontline educators. But at least they will provide protective cover for wily politicians and busy work for a lot of otherwise largely useless bureaucrats.