Though it came over the holiday break everyone is chattering about Sam Dillon’s NYT story on the presidential candidates and No Child Left Behind. It’s a good thing to chatter about but only because the story seemed to almost willfully miss the more complicated realities underlying the No Child Left Behind issue right now. Perhaps Sam was distracted by all those pretty cheerleaders in the accompanying picture? Or, is this the latest chapter in a run of Dillon “sky is falling on NCLB” pieces that fit a narrative but don’t mesh so well with the actual picture out there.*
For instance, Dillon writes that:
…polls show that [No Child Left Behind] is unpopular — especially among teachers, who vote in disproportionate numbers in Democratic primary elections, and their unions, which provide Democrats with critical campaign support.
Actually, polls show that the public is all over the place and more or less split to the extent they know much about the law at all beyond its name. The bipartisan Hart – Winston poll and the Ed Next poll illustrate that. And, Tom Loveless offers an excellent walk-through of some of the issues in his chapter “The Peculiar Politics of No Child Left Behind” in Adam Gamoran’s new book “Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap.” What is clear is that the public school establishment likes the law less than the general public. But that’s no surprise. It is surprsing that reporter of Dillon’s caliber would so quickly conflate specific disconcent from vested stakeholders with generalized discontent. Don’t they train these guys to be skeptical?
Dillon then fails to engage with the fundamental reality that although many presidential candidates are criticizing the law on the campaign trail, none of the top tier Democratic candidates have actually proposed getting rid of it as a policy…you know just because Mike Petrilli says they will doesn’t mean it’s true…And that’s the more interesting story and shows the real storyline here: The tension between interest-group pressure and the need to get serious about education reform. Just bashing the law at rallies and town meetings is hardly as significant as actual policy proposals…Presidential candidates engage in strident rhetoric in a close campaign…wow…stop the presses!
As Tad Devine points out in the article, rhetorically attacking the law is a handy way to show distance with the Bush Administration, something that is, not surprisingly, popular with a lot of voters. But that’s a different kettle of fish than dismantling the policy especially while key Democrats on the Hill still support it.**
Sorting all that out would have made for a really informative article. There is an epic fight underway between educational producers and consumers that will have big implications and is a political fight that seriously cross-pressures Democrats. It’s a hell of a story and it’s going on now…Just for starters someone ought to roll up the amount of money that’s been spent fighting this law, it’s millions, and that’s pretty interesting, too…
*Recall 2004’s account of a Utah meeting focusing on how everyone there hates the law (and the Democratic presidential candidates were attacking it, natch) that was contradicted by the story in the local paper quoting minority activists (scroll way down) as saying “The law forces schools to confront weaknesses….” or the 2005 ashram episode for two examples…
**Mike Petrilli also says that Democrats might change the name of the law! It’s all over then! C’mon, he does yoga but was he raised in an ashram, too?
Update: Over at Ed Week Hoff picks-up on this, too:
As 2008 begins, the press and the political world are focused on presidential politics. As Sam Dillon of The New York Times reported before Christmas, NCLB has been a punching bag for Democrats on the campaign trail. If you read to the end, though, you’ll see that the leading candidates support the law’s goals and use of accountability.
He also reports on — yawn — another state “revolting” against the law (quotes mine). Put that one in the believe it when you actually see it file.