Arthur Levine

No Child Left Behind … fact or fiction?

VTR Date: September 8, 2004

Arthur Levine discusses the realities of "No Child Left Behind."


TGUEST: Arthur Levine
VTR: 09/08/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And, as I frequently do when there’s a question I feel we really must discuss here concerning America’s children … and the education we provide them … I turn again today to my friend Arthur Levine, President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College. He’s never failed to call such issues precisely as he sees them.

It is, after all, our youngsters’ education that concerns Americans most. And whether during the years since the last Presidential election “No Child Left Behind” has indeed proven to be more than just a spinning and winning political slogan is a particularly timely question. And I would put it just that way to my guest. Tell me about the spinning and the winning of that slogan. How has it worked over the past four years?

LEVINE: If you look at the basic idea, it was a great idea. Just a great idea. What they’re going to do is focus on the poorest kids in America, who are doing the worst in school and what they’re also going to do is hold schools accountable. We’ve never done that before. We’d only hold kids accountable; they didn’t do well, we left them back. The reality has nearly matched the idea.

The notion of campaigning on this thing is … an embarrassment. For this reason … while the idea was good, it was never funded. So the result is there are all kinds of accountability measures that are built into this thing … if schools don’t achieve by a certain time, students can transfer. Technical assistance will be provided.

The problem is … none of that’s funded. And so what we have now is a system of poor education, the kids are failing, particularly kids of color and poor kids in our inner cities. And when we have our series of tests and outcomes … it’s sort of like having an AIDS patient and what you do is you bring your AIDS patient into the doctor’s office … he says … “you have AIDS”. And you call the patient back in three years and you test the patient again, and you say, “I don’t understand, you still have AIDS”. Nothing was done in the interim. And nothing’s being done in the interim here.

HEFFNER: How can that be possible, Arthur Levine? How could anyone, any party, any Administration, any group of Americans get away with simply sloganeering?

LEVINE: Oh, I think we’ve done that for time immemorial. There’s what was called in Germany, “The Big Lie”. If you tell it enough and people hear it enough, they believe it. It’s also true that 55% of Americans have never heard of “No Child Left Behind”.

HEFFNER: Seriously?

LEVINE: Seriously. According to the latest polls.

HEFFNER: Then you’re saying that it’s not all that effective a campaign instrument.

LEVINE: Well, improving education is. And f you look at the polls, education’s still the fourth ranked issue in the country, in terms of the agenda of the public setting. The problem is, really the reason that they can … the reason that the Republicans and the President can campaign on this issue is that if you look at America’s schools, our urban schools are very different than our suburban schools. Our suburban schools are quite good. If you compare our suburban schools to any country in the world … we’re at the top. It’s our urban schools that are failing and the kids who go there are kids of color and they’re poor kids and by and large their parents don’t vote.

The result is that you don’t have to take it that seriously. You have to express concern, but you really don’t have to improve the schools.

HEFFNER: Does that mean then, that over the past four years and here I’m really going to put it to you … that you and other people in parallel positions have been blowing the whistle and blowing the whistle and blowing the whistle and saying “you’re not doing what you said you were going to do?”

LEVINE: Yes. A number of articles, a number of talks, number of media appearances by critics have been legion. But so have supporters. The interpretation of this thing has been fascinating. There have been blow ups. States … it’s an unfunded mandate that’s costing states billions and billions of dollars. So some states, like Oklahoma, threaten to pull out, said, “we’re just not going to play by those rules.” Which would have been devastating. Oklahoma’s a heavily Republican state and the last thing that was wanted was for Oklahoma not to participate.

So what happened was the Administration officials met with the Legislature, met with the Governor and a compromise was arranged. So there have been events like that. There have also been problems in … some of the rules were very rigid. There’s something called “Adequate Yearly Progress.” Every school in America has to make “Adequate Yearly Progress”.

HEFFNER: That’s a wonderful slogan, isn’t it?

LEVINE: [Laughter] It is, indeed.

HEFFNER: If you say it enough times then, well, we’ve made adequate annual progress.

LEVINE: Except it’s really bad for rural schools. It’s really bad for small schools, and it’s bad for excellent schools. If you’re already at 95% of the students passing the exam, how do you get higher?

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

LEVINE: So for top schools, they’ve been put on the list of under-performing schools. Small schools, you have to have 95% of your students taking whatever test it is … third grade test, fourth grade test, fifth grade test … and so, if you’re a little school and two kids don’t show, you’re under 95% and you’re on the list as a failing school.

HEFFNER: Has it actually happened that way?

LEVINE: Yes. It’s happened in a number of schools around the country. So the rules have been problematic. But that’s only a matter of tinkering. There are far more fundamental problems.

HEFFNER: Like what?

LEVINE: Well another one is, the law’s been interpreted in very ideological fashion.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVINE: Well, take reading for example. Reading is … reading is a provision … there’s something called “Reading First”. And it’s been highly funded for this act, and the way it’s been interpreted by the administration is to say that reading needs to be largely phonics. Which is the conservative approach to teaching reading. Reading’s an ideological war between Liberals and Conservatives, with most educators falling somewhere in the middle. Thinking phonics are important, but so are other approaches. And …

HEFFNER: But who are the ideologues then?

LEVINE: Well, what happened is, the administration said, “you can only use the following three approaches to teach reading.” And if you looked at the performance of different cities around the country, two of three of the cities that were performing best were San Diego, Boston and New York. And they didn’t use any of the three approaches. And Washington said, “we’re going to cut off your money unless you move to one of those approaches.” New York changed the way it was teaching reading in 59 schools to qualify for the money. Boston refused the money and so did San Diego.

It made no sense, these schools were doing better than other schools around the country. They just weren’t following the administration plan for how you ought to teach reading. And I think that’s incredible that Washington is determining the reading curriculum in our classrooms.

HEFFNER: Even though we have, presumably, a tradition of local control.

LEVINE: Local control and beyond that our Constitution is premised on the point that any responsibility that’s not assigned to the Federal government is, in fact, a state responsibility. So …

HEFFNER: You’re a “states-righter” now?

LEVINE: … [laughter] No. We’re in a very odd situation. What happened was education became a major issue. Largely the baby-boomers pushing that issue and saying it’s very important because we have children in school. And more was being demanded by this group which makes up almost 60% of the electorate. What was being demanded by the group was, you run for any office in the United States whether it’s dog catcher or the President of the United States, we expect you to have an education agenda.

So Washington ended up playing a major role because it was being forced upon them. Had to play a major role in education. No candidate for the Senate or the House of Representatives or President could say, “Look, we’re not supposed to do that. The States are supposed to do that.” They wouldn’t have been elect-able.

HEFFNER: If the States were not interfered with, would you be happier?

LEVINE: I’m not sure. What, what has happened is we have several states that are weak, very weak in education and there was really no incentive to improve. And what Washington did was give them a poke in the ribs and said, “do something” and that was a good thing. What I’m concerned about is, that this was just so specific, with no money to make it happen and little likelihood of success.

As a matter of fact, one of the things that is truly troubling to me is that we’ve really not been fair to kids in urban areas … poor kids. We’ve done is … we’ve called … we’ve labeled teachers, according to the Act, a highly qualified teacher is someone who’s studied the subject matter … history, math, English … but never studied how to be a teacher.

And the only regions in the country that are hiring those highly qualified teachers are cities because they can’t get teachers who’ve been prepared in pedagogy. The other thing that’s done is, when test scores are too low, a number of states have dumbed-down the test. So what we’ve actually done is, if one looks at cities, we’ve given them poor teachers and labeled them highly qualified. We’ve given them tests, which are watered down and said that represents passing.

That’s really a shame. It’s Orwellian to the extent that what we’ve labeled is war is peace, unqualified teachers are highly qualified, passage of low, low demanding tests represents adequacy. It’s not fair.

HEFFNER: You say it’s not fair. It’s not unique in the world of teaching and students and educators. It’s something we seem to be doing. It seems to me when Howard Gardner was here recently, I, I asked him whether it could be anything other than a truism that the … what we’ve inherited from the 20th century has been learning how to manipulate minds, how to use slogans, how to use “quick-speak” in, in the place of real understanding. Let me turn then to ask you what you would like to see done. Simply a matter of funding … “leave no child behind?”

LEVINE: No, it goes beyond that. The real remedy is in terms of … again urban areas, which is the only ones that aren’t performing. Are … if you look at the kids … what we really want to do is … we have these outcomes that every state expects kids to achieve in order to graduate from high school.

HEFFNER: Do you accept that?

LEVINE: Yes, I do. And, what we used to do is focus on process … we made sure every kid went to school from 8 to 3, they all got five courses a day at 45 minutes, they all went to school for 180 days, and the result was we had common processes and variable outcomes.

Which isn’t real good. If you ended up on the bottom end of those outcomes, there used to be jobs for those people, they could work in factories, they could support a family. Those jobs are gone. If we can’t raise the achievement level of kids, then they have no future.

So, going back to the point, which is, for those children, what would it take for them to hit those outcomes? They’re not coming to school as well prepared as kids coming from affluent suburbs. They don’t have the same background as kids from Wake Forest or Bloomfield Hills, or Scarsdale, New York.

HEFFNER: Because of the nature of the family background.

LEVINE: Absolutely. So, you begin to ask, can the kids coming from poor neighborhoods do the same thing in 180 days, which is a normal school year, that the kid from an affluent suburb can. Probably not.

So what do you need for that kid? Well, pre-school wouldn’t be bad. Let’s start them earlier than other children to enrich their background. And if they can’t do it in 180 days, we probably ought to extend the school year.

HEFFNER: Arthur, you say “let’s start them earlier than the children who have the background.” That wouldn’t be accepted, you know that, because the middle class people would want their children to start earlier, too, so they’d still … like, like the Sesame Street business.

LEVINE: That’s the problem. Therein lies the problem. If you had the other two pieces that are going to be essential, which is a longer school day, a longer school year and the kids in our cities need the best teachers we can find. But the suburbs pay higher salaries and have better working conditions. The only way the city’s going to be able to attract them is pay higher salaries.

So everything I’ve just suggested means pumping more money into cities, not throwing dollars at the problem, but making investments in specific activities. You’re right, it’s politically unacceptable. What I’m talking about now is investing more heavily in cities than we do in the suburbs. Allocating more money to the education of poor urban kids than we do with affluent, largely White kids.

HEFFNER: You mean the way we’re doing it with protection against terrorist attacks.

LEVINE: How so?

HEFFNER: Which is what we’re not doing and that’s what I really mean. We’re not doing the very thing that you’re saying we need to do, we’re not doing it in other areas.

LEVINE: Right. But it’s even worse than that. If you think about it … what would happen if we ran the war on terrorism the way we run urban school reform, urban school improvement. Well, the President of the United States would come running out and say, “you know, we don’t need one dollar more, not one, to improve the quality, to, to fight the war on terrorism, it’s just re-allocation.”

Then he’d say, “you know what we need to do, we’re going to take our best troops and we’re going to station them in London, Paris and Tokyo and to fight the war on terrorism, we’re going to bring in this whole group of people who’ve never been trained to be soldiers, but they’re very patriotic; and they’ll learn to fight on the battlefield.

The second thing we’d do is we’d say, our top armaments are going to be critically important in this battle. They’ll be in London, Paris and Tokyo. What we’ll do for the war on terrorism is we’ll give them World War II surplus. After all, we won the greatest war with that.” We would never allow that to happen. But it’s precisely what we’re doing in inner cities.

HEFFNER: What should we do then? What … but, but in terms that are … even you and I might agree realistic … given who we are, where we are.

LEVINE: Unless we make the kinds of investments I talked about a few moments ago …


LEVINE: … we’re going to do triage. What’s going to happen is, we’re going to save a few schools and a few kids. This one’s a real battle and it’s not going to change unless we’re committed and make the kinds of investments that I talked about. And the reality is that we’re seeing that the courts take these decisions. So that New York and 19 other states have made decisions that cities are being inadequately funded … versus the suburbs.

And what I suspect is that if the Supreme Court changes, which may be one of the most important things that will happen in the next Presidential term, regardless of who is elected. If the Supreme Court changes I think we’re heading to the equivalent of the next Brown versus Board of Education decisions which ruled separate, but unequal in schooling and segregation to be inappropriate, unlawful.

What we have now is two systems of education in America. One for affluent, suburban, largely White kids and another one for low income, largely of color, inner city kids. And in this economy without an education, you have no future. And when a kid’s future is determined simply by the income of their parents, or the color of their parents’ skin. That’s not bad social policy, that’s immoral.

HEFFNER: Silence. From both of us, after that. You know that it’s immoral, I know that it’s immoral. It is, then, you’re saying, a political decision.

LEVINE: Yes. It’s a political decision.

HEFFNER: What are the judicial positions that are dependent now upon the political decision that we make, that you find so important?

LEVINE: What are you asking me?

HEFFNER: Well, I’m asking … you said that, that the judges and the courts … you said that if the Supreme Court moves in a certain direction, or is peopled in a certain way that’ll have an enormous impact upon the educational question we’re dealing with. How so? That there will be another Brown versus Board of Education? Only on the level of the problem that you’re describing, rather than the problem of simple racial discrimination?

LEVINE: Yeah. That’s where I think we’re heading. But I think that the problem doesn’t require legal action entirely. What is possible is for minority communities in inner cities, poor people, to say “we’re going to act” and the way we’re going to act is in the following fashion … we’re going to organize and vote. One of the things we learned in 2000 was that when people of color came out to vote, we elected Governors and Senators who tended to focus on progressive issues. When they didn’t vote in 2002, the outcome was different. So the 2000 election, the Governors of Mississippi, Alabama, and I think, South Carolina, got elected based simply on the difference in voting rates for minorities.

If communities organized and say, “look here’s the deal … the most important issue for us is schooling. That’s what our children need. We’re going to vote for whichever candidate promises to really fix our school. Not rhetoric, but actually fixing schools.” If parents came out into the streets and said, “We’re mad as hell, we’re not going to send our kids to schools that are failing; other people’s children don’t have to attend those schools”. If parents threatened and said, “if you don’t fix our school, we’re going to introduce a charter school … many states … most states now … have provision that independent schools can be set up by communities, by particular groups which don’t go by the rules, or aren’t forced to operate by the rules … traditionally … especially the public schools … and what they do is use the resources that have already been given to the public schools. That’s a real threat. Every time a charter school is set up, public schools lose money. They’d have to respond.

HEFFNER: How do you interpret the figures that have been produced about the success or lack of success of charter schools?

LEVINE: Oh. They’re a mix. There’s nothing magnificent about charter schools in general. When they’re really good, they’re wonderful. And when they’re really bad, they are terrible. There’s nothing intrinsic to the mechanism that makes them enormously successful. What they do promise is safety, which a number of urban schools don’t.

What they do promise is higher expectation for children, which a number of urban schools don’t. And simply the threat of taking the money away might be sufficient to motivate cities to act.

HEFFNER: What, in your estimation are the most important issues … is the matter of charter schools a most important issue whether we pursue them? What, what do we focus on here?

LEVINE: It’s … I’d come back to what I’ve said already.


LEVINE: It’s … it’s not only money … it’s targeting. Suburban schools work. They’re very, very good. What we have is a problem of inner city schools and rural schools. Focus on them and put in the money that it’s going to cost. And again, I want to stress something I said a little while ago … I’m not talking about throwing money at problems. I’m talking about investing in things that we know work and make a difference in kids lives.

HEFFNER: Why do you want to make that point? I’m not talking about throwing money at problems.

LEVINE: It’s almost a universal response … whenever one talks about putting money into education, invariably the response is “you’re only talking about throwing money at this problem. We’ve thrown money at problems, it doesn’t solve them.” And I agree. Throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them. Investments and answers do.

HEFFNER: What have been the reactions recently … there have been times when we’ve spoken, I’ve spoken at this table with other people “in the know” educationally … about the rate at which we Americans reject school budgets that seem to impose higher taxes. That do impose higher taxes upon us. What’s been happening in that area?

LEVINE: It’s going up. And part of it’s the aging of the population.

HEFFNER: You mean we’re rejecting more …

LEVINE: Yes, we’re rejecting more and more school budgets. And part of it may be fatigue with school reform. But another major part of it is the population’s ending … oops, the population’s aging and fewer people have …

HEFFNER: It’s the same thing.

LEVINE: [Laughter] I sure hope not. [Laughter] The … and more older people are less likely to have their children in school, so for them it’s less of a priority. But I think the whole issue of school reforms can go away. And I think what’s going to drive it is this … earlier I said that Baby Boomers were responsible for putting the issue on the …


LEVINE: … well they’re just such a large percentage of the population, every stage they go through … we describe the whole country in terms of where they are. So when they were in school in the sixties, we described America’s torn, divide, angry. When they finally got jobs, we described America as a “yuppie” nation, young, urban professionals. Well, they sent their kids to school and lo and behold, the biggest issue was education reform. Well, they have a different problem now … their parents are aging, it’s taking a lot of their time, a lot of their money, their parents have serious health needs; the parents Social Security is an issue. Beyond that, what’s going to happen is they, themselves are going to retire, starting in 2011 … we’re going to have two generations on Social Security; two generations on Medicare and what we’re going to see is increasingly Baby Boomers asking …help with elder care, help with health insurance because their kids are graduated, or near graduation …

HEFFNER: And vote down school budgets even more.

LEVINE: They’re going to vote it down, they’re going to ask less of it from politicians and politicians are going to hear the call. And I think we’re going to hear a lot about health care and elder care from politicians in the near future.

HEFFNER: This is a very grim picture you’re painting about the future of teachers in America and education and our children.

LEVINE: I’m more troubled about this issue than I have been in a long time. We have never successfully turned around an urban school district. Never. The only one that looked as if it were being turned around was Houston.

HEFFNER: Looked.

LEVINE: Looked. And we found out they’d cooked the books and fixed the numbers.


LEVINE: So, there’s none. And, again, there’s no political reasons to do what’s necessary to improve this. Which is why I’m suggesting the courts … it’s why I suggested civil disobedience; it’s why I suggested charter schools. It’s why I suggested voting. All of those things are going to be necessary. Urban communities are going to have to let the public know and our politicians know … help them figure out how to finish the agenda.

HEFFNER: Grim. Grim picture and we’re at the end of our time. Can’t you make up for that grimness?

LEVINE: Sure. I believe those communities can do it. I believe it’s the right thing to do. I believe eventually this country does the right thing. We want to do the right thing. And I think the courts are going to move us along. If the political process doesn’t. So, I’m enthusiastic about it, I just want it to happen tomorrow.

HEFFNER: It darn well better happen tomorrow. And we darn well better say, good-bye. And thank you very much for joining me today, Arthur Levine.

LEVINE: My pleasure, it’s always good to be with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.