Whenever the US government passes major legislation with overwhelming majorities in rapid fashion, and the President signs it enthusiastically, it means one of two things has happened. Either we’ve been attacked by Japan and it’s 1941. Or the country has collectively decided, policy-wise, that we think we heard once that chocolate cake is actually super nutritious, so what the hell, have an extra slice.

With that in mind, the federal government threw No Child Left Behind to the curb recently, to thunderous applause. (For those who don’t know, in my book anything greeted with ‘thunderous applause’ is usually bad.) Pretty much the states can return to business as usual – doing whatever they want. Keep in mind that NCLB passed originally because the states had raced to the bottom, with cheeseball academic standards, meaningless high school diplomas, and tons of college students taking remedial reading and math. Giving the states more of a say in education is the equivalent of deputizing bank robbers. Remember, the vast majority of adults don’t have bachelor degrees.

We as a country have decided that an academically-rigorous education system is just not a good fit for us. NCLB tried to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, minorities and whites, special needs and regular students. And it raised standards and made sure schools aimed their students to meet those standards. This was a bipartisan, nationwide effort trumpeted by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy. So what does it say that it has been repealed, demolished, and stomped on by a huge majority of the polarized, self-hating Congress?

Lots of educators, state officials, and parents really didn’t like the focus on the achievement gap. Some of that was a simple dislike for resources going to those groups that were falling behind. Some of it was opposition to possibly misguided details of NCLB (expecting schools to show continual progress on test scores every year – forever). And some of it was old-fashioned racism, which the country seems to be on a bender about demonstrating at the moment. NCLB meant that “those” kids were going to start getting money, attention, time, that white kids were getting before NCLB: a zero-sum loss for the white tribe.

The Common Core math standards could also be blamed for this turnabout. Not because they were bad, but because they were about teaching actual mathematical thinking and training. They confronted the apparently uniquely-American, bowel-emptying panic about math. Math panic is what gives math-heavier jobs huge pay premiums: Graduates from engineering and sciences command higher starting salaries than the arts. We throw extra money at math magicians, partly because most of us can’t do math (or finance), while we complain that our kids’ math homework is beyond us.

The math standards made this all especially acute because testing tossed all the shortcomings out into the open. People decry not keeping score in kids’ sportsball contests, but they lose their minds if anyone tests their kids, their schools, or their teachers. Why? It could be that:

A) they care more about soccer games than academics

B) they can’t handle the truth

I’m going to invoke the 80/20 rule here and say it’s 80% B and 20% A. People think their schools are great and everyone else’s stink. (I’m linking here to a must-read, jaw-dropping PDK/Gallup Poll about public attitudes toward education. TL;DR: academics aren’t important.) But everything that went with the NCLB era, including the standardized tests, took a hot, steaming dump on that Lake Wobegon fantasy. Not only was everything tested, but it was compared to other school districts AND against decent standards from education experts. And guess what? Everything wasn’t awesome.

What the reformers and the academics need to remember (and I keep reminding myself) is that education is only partly about academics. It’s also about values, culture, and entertaining kids. You try to turn a blue collar community into college-bound nerds, and people get upset: you’re attacking their culture. If you make sports yield just a little to academics: you’re attacking some rich community’s values. If school isn’t “fun” and students aren’t “engaged:” you’re not adequately entertaining the kids (or, more importantly, the teachers). People just don’t think learning or knowledge is very important other than the minimum needed to land a job out of high school. So when academics rears up and demands their time, attention, and becomes the least bit inconvenient, people get angry. NCLB and Common Core are not the first time this has happened in the course of American education.

With that in mind, maybe this is just another pendulum swing in a back-and-forth between the enlightening and lazy sides of the education world. Unions versus academics, reformers versus status quo, public school haters versus teachers, however you want to mis-portray it. It’s good not to overly dramatize pendulum swings.

Still, it feels like a sucker punch to the gut when we take a step back like this. We’re dooming yet another generation of kids to the same crappy education and job outcomes that previous generations had. It’s even more bittersweet because we were on the cusp of delivering so much more and maybe closing the gap between us and the rest of the world.

Except your school. It is a special shining snowflake of educational excellence, with top-notch teachers and brilliant kids.

America to academics: Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here
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