Re-Examining the Federal Leviathan and Why No Child Left Behind is Pure Political Profit, Part I

If we truly wish to improve academic achievement we must concentrate our attention on the complexity of learning, which should entail examining the conditions under which learning can best be achieved, and this varies among children.  Our focus on tangential and after-the-fact assessments only obfuscates the root of any problem we are attempting to address.  By imposing punitive consequences on students, teachers, and schools, we are in essence blaming those who have fallen victim to the institutional and structural forces that have contributed to their academic failure and their sense of helplessness or failure.  Our focus on process (hyper-standardization and teaching-to-the-test) and punitive consequences (labeling and threats to restructure schools) is akin to what psychologists refer to as operant conditioning and other methods intended to control human behavior.  To quote Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, we are making our “educational space function like a learning machine…”[i]  We have reached the point where we are focusing almost exclusively on process and outputs and less on the complexity of learning itself.  As Marx demurred in his analysis of the division of specialized labor in the production process, I sense that we are relegating students to a system of schooling that increasingly makes it difficult for them to exercise and exemplify their artistic, imaginative, and creative capacities.[ii]

 Powers Not Delegated Yet ‘Necessary and Proper’?

Decades ago, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill coined the popular phrase, “All politics is local,” with the implication that a congressperson’s actions were fundamentally understood through the lens of local constituent politics.  This clearly remains true today; however, due in large part to the federal government’s growing participation in and authority over policy domains that were once considered primarily state and local responsibilities, many issues that were once local have become national in scope.  Public schooling, for example, long a matter of local and state sovereignty, has transformed into a significant forte of national policy significance.  It’s true that states still exercise ultimate constitutional authority over education, but due to the federal government’s ability to impose funded and unfunded mandates (No Child Left Behind is significantly underfunded), the federal government has been able to significantly influence education policy over the past decade.   Viewed as a fundamental component in maintaining global competiveness, public education has transcended traditional state boundaries, and it is now effectively an area of policy firmly rooted in the nadir of the federal leviathan.  Despite the fact that education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, “so long as states accept federal funding, Congress can do pretty much as it pleases with education –even establish a national curriculum and a national exam,” as James Ryan has aptly concluded in his The Tenth Amendment and Other Paper Tigers.[iii]  Because it is now perceived with greater magnitude by its being connected with globalization, education is no longer left solely to the caprice of state and local authorities.  By supporting greater federal involvement in education including, but not limited to, placing conditions (or mandates) on receiving federal funds, states’ rights advocates have strengthened decades of constitutional jurisprudence that they have otherwise adamantly opposed since the ratification of the Constitution.  To be honest, I favor federal involvement in many policy domains, such nationalized health care, protecting constitutional rights, and environmental protections.  However, with the exception funding equalization and the protection of constitutional rights, schooling should remain primarily a local responsibility. When I say local, I’m referring to teachers and classrooms.

Peruse the Congressional Record leading up to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, and you will notice that the congressional debates over No Child Left Behind are replete with hyperbolic language describing America’s education system as a disaster in search of a corresponding national response.  Naomi Klein’s “crisis capitalism” has included a number of policy domains including education.  The perception of imminent crisis is analogous to the hysteria following the launching of Sputnik in 1957.  However, while the perception of crisis in the earlier case was used to legitimize federal funding for science and math programs in our nation’s public schools, more recent perceptions have warranted increased federal influence over curriculum and assessments while also opening the door to privatization.  While many Democrats also supported No Child Left Behind, the law represents one of many examples in which the Republican Party has reluctantly accepted federal involvement in various programs in order to dismantle them.  In other words, while the Republicans have been unsuccessful in destroying certain federally funded programs, they have figured out that they can damage them from within.  This has been achieved to a degree by imposing enough bureaucratic regulations on programs to prevent them from fulfilling their missions. In the name of public accountability, Republicans have required government programs since the mid-1990s to spend numerous hours shuffling and completing needless paperwork.  These are hours that used to be spent serving citizens and providing agency clientele with public services.  As a result of the imposition of endless paperwork that focuses on minutia required by excessive regulation, Republicans have crippled many public programs.  In turn, this has given them opportunities to present justifications to either terminate programs or to privatize them.

Indeed, we have seen this phenomenon in the field of public education.  Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, the States’ Rights Party eventually and strategically supported increased federal control over public schools.  Creating the blanket perception that America’s schools were in crisis, justified their top-down approach to discredit public education and create opportunities for privatization.  By specifically tying federal funds to standardized assessments, standardized curricula, and accountability measures, along with requiring states and state education agencies to devote extraordinary resources in order to fulfill these mandates, America’s public schools have been set up to appear as if they are failing.

This latest response to our educational “crisis” illustrates what has become a century-old pattern of relying on our public schools to solve a myriad of social and economic problems.  As William Reese has argued, “schools have become multipurpose institutions, which is why they are so easy to criticize and forever in need of reform.”[iv]  However, unlike many of the reforms advocated throughout the history of American schooling, the newest reform serves to undermine our public school systems.  While preparing students for the workforce has always been an expectation of public schools, the latest crisis is significantly framed by globalization and privatization discourse, i.e., competition, consumer choice, commodification, outsourcing, and efficiency.[v]

Indeed, public schools have always been expected to prepare students for the workforce.  Nevertheless, contemporary goals focusing on preparing children to compete globally are significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which include the evolving nationalization of our public schools and the simultaneous loss of local authority and discretion over fundamental matters related to student learning.  The discourse and the educational reforms that have evolved from it illustrate the underlying belief that, if the U.S. is going to maintain economic superiority, public schooling must become a national responsibility designed to meet the edicts of federal lawmakers whose objectives are significantly driven (and influenced) by economic interests that transcend parochial state and local interests.  The further schooling moves in this direction, the more blurred our focus becomes on the individual and unique abilities of students in classrooms.  This penchant for increased centralization of public schooling is not only driven by economic interests, it is also preventing teachers from exercising their professional judgment and informed discretion when deciding what is educationally best for their students.  In other words, the professionals who work with and know significantly much more about their students’ learning abilities and the educational challenges they face, are feeling defeated by and alienated from the teaching profession.[vi]

Calvin and HobbsBill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbs
Bill Watterson

Informed by recent scholarship we now have a better understanding of the harmful consequences of policies like No Child Left Behind, including the acute focus on standardized testing and teaching to the test, uniform curricula that have little or no connection to an increasingly diverse student population, and the punitive nature of the law on students, teachers, and administrators.  What is often lost in our national discourse is a deeper and fundamentally relevant issue –our need to more fully understand the complexity of learning and the circumstances under which learning occurs including, but not limited to, individual student development and learning styles, student-teacher relationships, innovative teaching methods, how to foster student creativity and imagination, and how classroom and school environments can facilitate learning.  Not only do we need to reverse the trend of standardization, centralization, and top-down mandates, we also must empower teachers by giving them the professional space they need to respond to the distinct educational needs and learning styles of their students.

How Contemporary Federal Involvement in Public Education is Different

Reflecting on the nature of federalism in 1969, political scientist Daniel Elazar aptly concluded that in federal systems of government, “crisis compels centralization.”  Particularly since the Great Depression, we have increasingly looked to or relied upon the federal government to address problems states could not solve or refused to solve.  Due in part to the Constitution’s interpretive malleability, federal involvement in state and local matters has rarely resulted from inviolable constitutional authority, but has more often been the outcome of intergovernmental politics.  Historically, the federal government’s involvement in education has been oblique and infrequent, yet always present.  Federal involvement in education during the late eighteenth century was generally limited to token encouragement expressed in land ordinances and grants of federal lands.  During the nineteenth century, direct federal involvement emerged at the end of the Civil War in the temporary creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and subsequent federal funding of agricultural and mechanical colleges.  Aside from a few other intermittent federal policies, including funding for vocational education in the early twentieth century, temporary New Deal educational programs, and funding for school lunches during Truman’s Administration, it wasn’t until the passage of the 1958 Defense of Education Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that we witnessed sweeping federal responses that provided federal funds to public schools.  This new massive federal funding resulted in a transformation of authority over public schooling.  However, even these legislative reforms essentially preserved states’ constitutional authority and responsibility over public education.  As Patrick McGuinn asserts, “The policy image at the heart of the ESEA regime continued to view public education as the appropriate domain of states and localities and to accept that public schools, on the whole, were functioning well.”  Notwithstanding this new federal role, which remained circumscribed by “ensuring procedural compliance with [ESEA’s] equity programs,”[vii] the legislation clearly established an important precedent related to federal funding for public education, not to mention the public’s considerably higher expectations of our national government’s ability to solve education problems at the local level by equalizing funding.  While opposition to these substantial legislative measures existed, the issue of federal funding for education remained largely bipartisan and supportive of the long-standing idea that education should remain a public responsibility.[viii]  States and local school districts continued to exercise considerable discretion over curricula, assessments, and teacher certification.

Despite signs that achievement gaps were improving during the 1980s,[ix] increased political partisanship in Washington during Reagan’s administration resulted in a new political coalition with conflicting agendas.  Neo-conservatives lamented federal involvement in education as wasteful, bureaucratic, and ineffective.  Neo-conservatives were bemoaning the increased use of multicultural curricula, not to mention their discontent over the Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962, which memorialized a stricter interpretation of church-state issues in public schools.  Merely three years after the creation of the Federal Department of Education in 1980 under President Carter, Ronald Regan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk.  As Berliner and Biddle have shown, the report contributed to the perception that American schools were in crisis.  Moreover, the authors of the report, who were primarily from the corporate world declared, “American students never excelled in international comparisons of student achievement and that this failure reflected systematic weaknesses in our schools and lack of talent and motivation among American educators.”  After it was discovered that most of the report’s claims were uncorroborated “or appeared in the form of simplistic, misleading generalizations,” it became clear that A Nation at Risk served as a pretense for a larger political agenda intended to discredit public schools and their teachers.  For several years thereafter, the perception of crisis continued to be fed, and “it is small wonder,” according to Berliner and Biddle, “that many Americans have come to believe that education in our country is…in a deplorable state.”[x]  According to Madaus and others, “the authors of A Nation at Risk built…a façade using correlations between the test scores of recent graduates and indices of productivity to connect education to an alleged loss of competitiveness.”[xi]  Seen in this light, the passage of A Nation at Risk was not only irresponsible, but also it undermined the public’s confidence in America’s schools.  The report generated a perception of crisis that justified federal involvement once again, but this time groups who had an interest in privatizing public schools were empowered to move ahead.  Privatization was popular among neoliberals who hoped to remove government control over schools while increasing government subsidies for corporate control and replace them with for-profit investments .  Privatization was popular among neoconservatives who sought to use government vouchers and school choice plans to increase enrollments in private religious schools.

Additional research obtained from Gallop polling has helped explain why “crisis” campaigns contribute to the public’s negative opinions about schooling broadly while a majority of individuals view their own public schools positively.  According to Tyack and Cuban, public polls have shown that, “parents who have children in public school tend to rate public education much more highly than the average respondent, and furthermore, that those polled have a higher opinion of local schools than they do of schools in general.”[xii]  What this tells us, according to Tyack and Cuban, is that the public has expressed “growing cynicism about institutions in general.”  This variation represents a rational response if we consider the broader pessimism about schooling generated by politicians and by mainstream media.[xiii]  The Gallop Poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappan in 2010 confirms this pattern.[xiv]  Indeed, some schools are in crisis.  Just read Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, among other works, to understand this fact.  However, it is also important to understand how crises are publically constructed and for what purposes.  Similar polling has occurred with regard to Congress as an institution.  Asked about Congress, the public gives it an extremely low approval rating.  Yet, the reelection rate for members of Congress stands above 90 percent.  This reveals that citizens distinguish or disconnect Congress as an institution from their individual members of Congress who they appear to favor.

Elizabeth DeBray has shown how an unusual patchwork of interest groups and congressional Democrats and Republicans contributed to the eventual passage of No Child Left Behind.[xv]  Interestingly, supporters of the law included Republicans who heretofore favored eliminating the federal Department of Education.  Despite the neo-liberal penchant for small government, it is noteworthy that the implementation of NCLB went well beyond the goal of funding equalization established in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  Not only did it preserve federal funding of public education, but it also mandated for the first time standardized state assessments and curricula, while imposing punitive consequences on schools that failed to show measured improvement, otherwise known as annual yearly progress.  Realizing that they lacked enough support to dismantle the federal Department of Education, and because enough Democrats were willing to concede to greater accountability measures, the Republican majority in Congress was not insensitive to the fact that having increased the power of the Department of Education they could work from within to exact greater influence over education policy.  Republicans John Boehner in the House and Judd Gregg in the Senate, for instance, were not aloof to the fact that NCLB augmented their ability to privatize public schools.[xvi]  Based on the negotiations over NCLB neoconservatives were placated by the expectation that they would have greater influence over curricula,[xvii] not to mention the likely benefit of public funds going to private religious schools.  Republican supporters of NCLB, aware that they could not garner enough support to fund private school vouchers outright, were successful in “getting supplemental services in place” that included among its options, services provided by private, faith-based, and for-profit tutoring services when public schools failed to meet the law’s mandates related to annual yearly progress, opening up the possibility for additional “privatization measures in future reauthorizations,” according to DeBray.[xviii]

Since global competitiveness transcends competing ideological agendas today, perhaps we should not be surprised that the same centralizing predilections mentioned by Elazar above have been applied to or imposed upon America’s public schools as they are increasingly viewed by politicians and the media as reaching near calamity in their failure to keep America competitive.  Moreover, while Elazar’s research focused on the expansion of and rationalization for increased federal power during times of adversity, recent politics reveal a relatively new paradox: the expansion of a federal role in education policy, including greater control over curriculum and assessments and a simultaneous de-legitimization of education as a public responsibility.  In other words, the scope of federal power has now extended beyond funding education in the pursuit of equality by its adoption of “a top-down, one-size-fits-all federal reform”[xix] approach, while also establishing a pretext for privatizing public schools.  The privatization discourse prevalent in American politics emerged during the 1980s and has subsequently gained strength.  Due to the political nature of passing No Child Left Behind, a set of disparate actions, or perhaps ambiguities, were set into motion: the law clearly centralized (and increasingly nationalizes) education policy in the U.S. by imposing federal mandates on states to implement standardized curricula and assessments while privatizing many supplemental education services.  In fact, this appears to be a burgeoning development among a variety of policy areas set into motion during the 1980s and institutionalized during the mid-1990s.[xx]  In other words, since critics of federal programs have discovered that it is extremely difficult to acquire enough political support to end national programs that provide a variety of social benefits to a broad-based constituency, they have implemented legislative reforms from within in hopes of nullifying program missions and setting them up for failure, justifying privatization.  Understanding the political conflict surrounding the development of No Child Left Behind gives new meaning to what Morris Fiorina once asserted in his analysis of Congress: “Public policy emerges from the system almost as an afterthought.  The shape of policy is a by-product of the way the system operates, rather than a consciously directed effort to deal with social and economic problems.”[xxi]  Today, there appears to be a broadly determined strategy that grew from the outset of a somewhat inchoate strategy to weaken the effectiveness of federal programs.

Our public schools have always served as sites of moral, economic, political, religious and social conflict.  Common schooling was born in conflict, and as a public institution, perhaps this conflict is inevitable.  It should be no surprise then that contemporary debates over public education continue to reflect our deepest ideological differences.  However, the current responses to public education reform are unique because they have resulted in the implementation of policies that undermine learning, teaching, the teaching profession, and the public nature of schooling.  The results are often manifested in policies that reveal too little understanding of or appreciation for what best promotes genuine student learning.  While educational improvements should always be a goal of any society, it is unfortunate that we increasingly look to our schools to solve so many of our social and economic problems.  This has resulted in deflecting our attention away from many of the root causes of and appropriate responses to social problems that all too often result in misdirected approaches, ill-conceived policies, and band aid approaches.  Politicians have too often used the issue of public schooling and school reform to deflect responsibility in solving our broader problems, and they avoid blame for problems that are viewed as out of their control.  For example, how often are federal officials held accountable by the electorate over problems that are attributed to public schools?  If only teachers, administrators, and school boards would do what we expect of them, according to the political rhetoric, our global competitiveness, general wealth and happiness, graduation rates, academic advancement, comparative economic advantage, and achievement gaps would be resolved.  Alternatively, we would go a long way in solving academic achievement and closing educational gaps by addressing the broader structural issues that institutionalize and perpetuate poverty and inequality.  Increasing the number of families who enjoy greater socioeconomic status, for example, would significantly improve academic achievement.  While many politicians are truly concerned about public education, blaming our public schools has become an electoral win-win situation for politicians as they increasingly divert their responsibility for solving the nation’s problems by blaming America’s schools.  As Tyack and Cuban have elucidated in their historical study of school reform, the nation’s perception toward schooling often “shift[s]… from panacea to scapegoat.”[xxii]  It is much more electorally viable to blame schools for society’s problems and to campaign for reforms that often end up being little more than band-aid approaches to complex problems.

More to come.


[i] Michael Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, 147.

[ii] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

[iii] James E. Ryan. “The Tenth Amendment and Other Paper Tigers: The Legal Boundaries of Education Governance.” In Noel Epstein’s Who’s In Charge Here: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004, 42.

[iv] William J. Reese. “Why Americans Love to Reform the Public Schools” Educational Horizons 85, no. 4 (2007): 217.

[v] For example, see the report issued by Partnership for 21st Century Skills titled: 21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness. Tucson, AZ: Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008.

[vi] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national turnover for all teachers is 17 percent, and in urban school districts the number increases to 20 percent. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent leave within five years. Cited by Cynthia Kopkowski, “Why They Leave.” NEA Today 26, no. 7 (2008): Cover Story.

[vii] Patrick McGuinn. “The National Schoolmarm: No Child Left Behind and the New Educational Federalism.” Publius 35, no. 1 (2005): 48.

[viii] James W. Guthrie, “A Political Case History: Passage of the ESEA” The Phi Delta Kappan 49, no. 6 (1968): 306.

[ix] David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public school Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 28

[x] David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle. The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995, 3.

[xi] George Madaus, Michael Russell, and Jennifer Higgins. The Paradoxes of High Stakes Testing: How They Affect Students, Their Parents, Teachers, Principals, Schools, and Society. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2009, 25.

[xii] David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 31.

[xiii] David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 30.

[xiv] “The 42nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 92, no. 1 (2010): 13-14.

[xv] Elizabeth H. DeBray. Politics, Ideology & Education: Federal Policy During the Clinton and Bush Administrations. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006, 10 and 125.  According to DeBray, “Eighty-five percent of House Republicans voted for No Child Left Behind…while 94 percent [of Republican Senators] did so.”

[xvi] Elizabeth H. Debray’s Politics, Ideology & Education: Federal Policy During the Clinton and Bush Administrations. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006, 96.

[xvii] Lesley Bartlett, et al. “The Marketization of Education: Public Schools for Private Ends” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 33, no. 1 (2002): 6.

[xviii] Elizabeth H. Debray’s Politics, Ideology & Education: Federal Policy During the Clinton and Bush Administrations. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006, 96.

[xix] Letter from National Conference of State Legislatures to Congress of September 26, 2001, excerpted from Elizabeth H. Debray’s Politics, Ideology & Education: Federal Policy During the Clinton and Bush Administrations. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006, 102.

[xx] The most forceful articulation addressing the issue of privatization pursued by the federal government as a response to crises is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008.

[xxi] Morris P. Fiorina. Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989, 68.

[xxii] David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 14.

© Brian W. Dotts and Democratus, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian W. Dotts and Democratus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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