For the past six years, the education world has been roiled by debate over the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law, critics charge, is sucking the life out of the public schools, turning teachers into test-driven automatons and driving talent from the profession. It's a legitimate concern; some schools have clearly gone overboard in adopting "drill and kill" strategies that put teachers in a pedagogical straitjacket. But the real problem in public education isn't too little teacher autonomy -- it's too much. As a result, teachers are undervalued, underpaid, and becoming more so by the year. Paradoxically, only by relinquishing some autonomy will teachers finally be able to attain the true professional status they deserve.
For Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, filing a lawsuit against the No Child Left Behind Act must have seemed like an obvious winner. More and more attorney generals around the country were using splashy litigation to boost their profiles. (It was August 2005, and Eliot Spitzer was a lock for the governor's mansion in neighboring New York.) By taking on the increasingly unpopular Bush administration and demanding more federal funding for education, headlines and support from fellow Democrats were sure to follow. "Give us the money," Blumenthal demanded at a press conference, or relieve the state from having to test elementary school students once a year in reading and math. And for a few months after the suit was filed, it seemed to work.
Every spring, the media send a bolt of fear into the heart of the upper middle class. The message is clear: "Your children are never getting into a good college."
As Ivy League universities report -- once again -- that admissions rates have fallen to record lows, newspapers rush to publish stories documenting the increasingly "frenzied" (variants: "frantic," "brutal") competition among students vying for a coveted slot in an elite school. The stock characters include the tearful student -- dreams crushed under an avalanche of rejection letters -- the angry parent, the frenzied guidance counselor, and the college admissions official or other expert who notes with grateful wonder, "If I had to apply to my alma mater today, I couldn't get in."