Poor policy doesn’t improve with time. We learned that during Prohibition. We’re learning it again with No Child Left Behind, the federal education act that’s all stick and no carrot. Failure only compounds failure.
I watched “Prohibition,” the new documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns and his team. On the final evening, as Prohibition-the-policy’s expansive failure finally forced its abandonment, an idea hit me; I could easily scratch out prohibition, pencil in NCLB and find an eerie policy parallel. Both piously expected simple solutions to solve complex problems. Both masked powerful, hidden agendas.
I’m a Ken Burns fan. I started with his second film, “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God.” Some films speak more strongly to me than others. I like “Huey Long” and “Jazz.” I think that sitting through “Baseball” captures the interminable boredom that sometimes occurs in the game itself.
Burns is a storyteller first and a historian second, if at all. He diligently labors to present a historically accurate narrative but he loves spinning a good yarn. Consequently, he embraces strong personalities that move his story forward. Mostly, that makes for a better film but occasionally the history suffers.
Prohibition-the-film is a three-parter, initially broadcast by PBS over successive evenings. It begins by exploring the rapid, transformative change of 19th century American life, including the growing concern with alcoholism’s debilitating impact on family and community. Alcohol became a stand-in, however, for cultural resistance to economic change’s upheaval. Prohibition-the-policy resulted.
Burns doesn’t miss this point but making it isn’t as much fun as rolling out characters. So, let me underscore the issue. The temperance movement publicly posited alcohol as society’s chief problem when leaders and adherents really sought to maintain traditional hierarchical structures. Banning alcohol was a substitute for fighting the tide of eastern and southern European immigration. In other words, the Temperance Movement wanted temperance for other people. Particularly, they wanted to force temperance on Irish, Italian, Jewish and all recently-arrived immigrants, people they saw as threats to the American way of life.
One more time. Temperance meant temperance for other people.
The simple solution—prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol—proved woefully inadequate to the complex problem, a complete economic transformation of American life, shifting from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and that transformation’s reordering of social and cultural life. But, in periods of change and social upheaval, simple solutions proliferate.
Prohibition-the-policy was a complete failure. Not only did it not solve the problems that its advocates were sure that it would solve, prohibition created new problems—violence, corruption, lawlessness—in a monumental example of the law of unintended consequences.
Today, we no longer have Prohibition as federal policy. Instead, we have No Child Left Behind, the education public policy initiative that compels schools to achieve an impossible level of student performance. Schools failing to meet NCLB’s rising standard are declared failures. They lose federal financial assistance and districts must spend declining resources reorganizing schools that will still fail because failure is the designed outcome.
Educating young people is always a challenge, made more so by our age’s rapidly rising standards. The constant is found in our need for strong, flexible schools, capable of preparing students for a changing world and marketplace.
NCLB is a vehicle for transferring anxiety about change. It’s mechanism that selects scapegoats and assigns blame. Teachers have born blame’s brunt but deeply encoded in NCLB is its fixation with facilitating a permanent underclass. NCLB creates failure, allowing a predetermined judgment to drive a conservative assault on public confidence in public schools.
An already anxious public is falsely led to believe that punitive measures will remedy complex societal problems, clearing the path for educational budget cutting. Savings accrue to the highest income earners through tax savings; community benefits are reallocated as individual benefits, affecting an increasingly select few.
NCLB, like Prohibition before it, wants to create a conservative order. And, like Prohibition, NCLB dupes even well-meaning people into believing that a simple solution will solve a deeply complex challenge.
Today, half of Minnesota’s schools failed to make AYP. Over the past ten years, Minnesota has cut state K-12 funding by 13%. Unless something changes, both trends will continue. More schools will be declared failures and Minnesota will continue defunding education. When public policy fails, it’s time to change the policy.
It took the Congress and the States nearly 14 years to repeal the 18th amendment. Despite widespread agreement that NCLB is failed policy, federal legislators haven’t crafted a better replacement. The lifecycle of a bad idea shouldn’t match or exceed Prohibition, an even worse one. Change is overdue.