August 4, 2013

Congress drops the ball

Paul Grasso

---- — Several years ago, a friend of mine in Oregon retired after a successful career in the waste-management field. He graduated with a degree in elementary education at a time when teaching jobs were difficult to find.

When he couldn’t find a teaching job, and his student loans became due, he did what many young people today are doing, he went back to school and earned a master’s degree — in education.

When he still couldn’t find a teaching position, he took a job with a large waste-management company as a corporate trainer with the hope of one day landing a teaching job. Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, I guess the lure of the 180-day work year was difficult for him to ignore.

Retiring 30 years later, he decided to pursue a post-doctorate in, you guessed it, education. To compound this futility, last week he asked me to review and comment on his dissertation on the impacts of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted in 2001.

Always happy to help a friend, I talked with him about NCLB, mentioning that it’s been about 30 years since the report, A Nation at Risk, documented the failings of the American public school system.

Some things never change.

I posited that NCLB is a great example of what happens when our elected representatives in Washington put aside their differences and in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation design what has to be the most cumbersome nightmare of bureaucratic red tape devised by the human mind.

Congress passed, and the president signed, probably the worst piece of legislation ever.

One day, Obamacare may lay claim to the title, but for now NCLB is pretty much the undisputed champion.

I told him that I think of NCLB as the Bush-Kennedy No Vote Left Behind Act because the legislation is masterful in pandering to both ends of the political spectrum. It allowed the political right to proclaim that they finally introduced “accountability” into the education system at the same time the political left was applauding the amount of money that would be appropriated to implement NCLB.

Did either side really believe NCLB would solve any of the real problems facing the education system? I doubt it.

At least I hope they didn’t.

NCLB certainly didn’t address concerns like the United States having the shortest school year among developed countries.

It didn’t address the fact that the United States spends twice as much per pupil as Japan and about 13 times in inflation-adjusted dollars as we spent in the 1920s with worse results in both instances.

It didn’t address the fact that the United States is changing as a society with more distractions that steer young people away from studying and fewer and fewer two-parent families to keep them focused. Not to mention the expectation that schools will take on a greater role of what once were parental responsibilities.

What the legislation did succeed in doing was to frustrate administrators, teachers, parents and students alike because of its inflexibility and the public humiliation that came with not meeting federal goals.

Even those who support NCLB and the much maligned annual testing that it mandates (NCLB is often called the No Child Left Untested Act because of its requirements that students take standardized tests early and often) are sensing that the country needs to look beyond the classroom if we truly wish to “leave no child behind.”

There is a growing body of evidence indicating that much of the achievement gap between rich and poor is related more to what happens outside the classroom than in it.

Congress was to reauthorize NCLB in 2007 but hasn’t been able to agree on how.

Surprising, I know.

So, at a time when a high-quality education isn’t just a pathway to success but a requirement, the country’s two principal pieces of legislation, NCLB addressing education and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) addressing workforce development, have yet to be reauthorized. NCLB is six years past its shelf and life and WIA is 10 years past its shelf life.

Yet people wonder why our education system is ranked 17th among developed nations and why employers are questioning the skill set of our workforce?

After listening to me rant, my friend apologized to me. Apparently, he was looking for an “objective review” of his dissertation.

Paul A. Grasso Jr. is president and CEO of The Development Corporation, 190 Banker Road, Suite 500, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 563-3100, fax 562-2232.