Last week, the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, came to town for an appearance on The Colbert Report to promote a program called the “Race to the Top,” which would create a reality-TV-like competition among the states for $4.35 billion in federal money. The winners will be those states that were the most “innovative,” be it by lengthening school years or merely linking student performance on standardized tests to the evaluation of administrators. As Duncan fielded softball questions from the mock-conservative host, New York’s own genteel, unarmed, and mostly liberal tea party was enraged. To them, it just sounded like an expansion and rebranding of what they saw as the worst tendencies of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which President Obama largely supports.
“Duncan’s plan is cut from the same cloth as the education policies of the Bush administration,” said Sara Bennett after watching the show from her Park Slope home. “It is misguided, disastrous for schoolchildren, and has no basis in sound research.” A Legal Aid lawyer turned activist and the mother of a tenth-grader in a public high school, in 2006 Bennett co-authored The Case Against Homework, which helped launch what came to be known as the “anti-homework movement.” Parents from all over the country, but especially in the gentle strongholds of enlightened parenting like Park Slope, Santa Monica, Berkeley, and Mercer Island near Seattle, began organizing against what Bennett and others have called a “skyrocketing” increase in the amount of homework kids are assigned. They see it as a symptom of a deeper problem—the pressure placed on teachers by school districts to improve their students’ test scores and thereby secure state and federal funding. Many of the movement’s activists are directing their fire toward Duncan’s plan, which they claim will only further enslave children to homework and testing and create a homogenized “monoculture.”
Interestingly, though several liberal Democrats initially supported No Child Left Behind, and Obama has said he would continue it with more funding, its philosophical basis was laid by neoconservatives, beginning in 1972 when Norman Podhoretz published an article in Commentary promoting “The Idea of a Common Culture.” Neocons irritated by multiculturalism and what they saw as a slippage of “standards” argued insistently that the very idea of “one America” could only be saved by public education’s training children uniformly for “entry into the common culture.” By the time of W’s candidacy, right-wing policy machers like William Bennett and think-tanks like the Hudson Institute had made Podhoretz’s idea a major plank in the GOP’s educational platform, on which No Child Left Behind was built.
And now liberal Obama supporters like Sara Bennett, who saw his election as a victory for diversity and, presumably, a more creative and flexible way of educating children, don’t know where to turn. Even as mayoral candidate Bill Thompson promised to “fire” School Chancellor Joel Klein for having instituted a rigorous and punitive testing program in the city’s schools, Duncan would induce states to adopt not only a single set of standards but also similar language and content in their tests, ironically helping fulfill the neoconservative dream of a “common culture.”