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NCLB and Color-Evasive Individualism

While we refrain from using the word colorblind, NCLB is one example of what is known in the research on race-neutral practices as colorblind individualism. Using an anti-deficit lens, we instead coin neoliberal racism as color-evasive individualism, which is an ideology that absolves educational institutions from being held accountable for racist structures and practices (Bonilla-Silva, 2017; Leonard, 2007; Welton, Diem, & Holme, 2015). NCLB prompted states to adopt stringent test-based accountability systems that treated the achievement gap as a simple technical problem that could be resolved via instructional reforms aimed to remediate academic failure. Through this increased federal involvement schools were required to demonstrate Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP) based on the percentage of students who were proficient in the tested subject areas Math and English Language Arts, and then schools were assigned performance ratings based on the proficiency rates of various student subgroups (race/ethnicity, students eligible for free and reduced lunch, English learners, and students with disabilities) (Egalité et al., 2017).

However, NCLB generated fear of the consequences that came with a failing school performance rating. If a school was deemed low-performing for two consecutive years there were a number of possible consequences, one being reconstitution, a punitive process of replacing most of the teachers or school administrators depending on which option the district chose. At least two of the possible consequences for school failure under NCLB opened the door for private markets to sweep into public education as we discussed previously in Chapter 3 on school choice. One option was a low-performing school could be closed entirely and reopened as a charter school, or instead of closing the school its operations could instead be turned over to the state or a private company focused on school improvement and effectiveness. Even if a school did not close its doors, its low-performance rating could cause student enrollment to drop significantly by losing students who perhaps used NCLB’s school choice mechanism to transfer to higher performing schools (Klein, 2015). The market-driven premise of NCLB included the fear of the consequences that come with consistent low-performance and would ultimately push schools to do whatever was necessary to boost student achievement.

As a consequence, schools in danger of failing under NCLB used prescriptive curricular and instructional practices such as teaching to the standardized test, which resulted in trying to game the system instead of fixing the broken system. Plus, because of our nation’s historical and systemic disinvestment from communities of color and their schools, students at low-performing schools were primarily low-income students of color, and these students had to bear the brunt of NCLB’s prescriptive, one-size-fits-all practices. Meanwhile, predominately white and affluent districts and school communities were relatively unfazed by the negative consequences of high-stakes testing.

For instance, based on the last 20 years of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, gaps in achievement based on race, ethnicity, and family income remained very wide, and though they narrowed somewhat, these gaps in achievement are unlikely to close any time soon (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The subtractive organizational, leadership, and instructional practices that schools with higher percentages of low-income and/or students of color endured as a result of NCLB accountability pressures only further compounded the sociopolitical stressors and injustices these schools already faced (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Fusarelli, 2004; Gay, 2007; Welton & Williams, 2015).

Still, proponents of NCLB, especially some civil rights groups, found the law to be race-conscious because it drew attention to the racial achievement gap (Egalite et al., 2017). Prior to NCLB, states and districts were not required to disaggregate their student performance data by race and other subgroups, and so the thought was that examining this data at least shed light on any gaps in student achievement, especially along racial lines. However, research on the fallout of NCLB reforms found that instead of taking the apparent racial gap in achievement as a sign of how the educational system has failed students from low-income families and students of color, the data only reinforced educators’ predetermined deficit beliefs that students of color are the cause of school failure (Leonardo, 2007; Welton et al., 2015). Consequently, educators’ response to NCLB mandates was to fix the student instead of trying to fix the system. Again, as an exemplar of color-evasive individualism, NCLB created a trickle-down of blame for chronic educational failure. The U.S. government was off the hook for failing to equitably support public education and in turn blamed schools and teachers, and out of fear and resentment of this blame, educators in turn blamed students from low-income families and students of color for their own oppression. NCLB used a common neoliberal strategy of placing “emphasis on efficiency and individualism” to divert “attention away from” other “social issues that need to be solved” in order to improve educational outcomes and rectify the achievement gap (Hursh, 2007, p. 305).

Since the political discourse and spectacle surrounding NCLB essentially blamed schools, teachers, and students for the failure of public education, the Bush Administration at the time was then able to divert attention away from other social problems it failed to address like inequities in access to housing, public transportation, and the lack of jobs that offer a livable wage (Hursh, 2007). Moreover, the U.S. as a neoliberal state continues to reduce funding for public education and other social services by placing greater emphasis on privatization of these services. At the same time, “to retain their legitimacy” neoliberal governments like the U.S. “do not want to appear unresponsive to social needs” (Hursh, 2007, p. 305). So, although many of the federal mandates under NCLB were unfunded, leaving states and districts to foot the bill, the political spectacle that ensued around the agenda setting for and subsequent implementation of NCLB made it seem like the Bush Administration was “doing something” about the failure of public education (Hursh, 2007, p. 306). To illustrate this point, annual federal Title I funding was supposed to increase to $25 billion by 2007, but the federal government never delivered on this promise. By 2015, the federal government only contributed $14.5 billion to Title I, over $10 billion less than its initial promise (Klein, 2015).

Consequently, NCLB failed to acknowledge the systemic origins of the racial achievement gap that are a byproduct of the long history of racial and class-based inequities in schooling. Instead, NCLB prompted mere band-aid solutions. What was and is still needed to redress the racial achievement gap is a profound restructuring and reimagining of an educational system that does right by students from low-income families and students of color. Although NCLB aimed to be a trailblazer in promoting the use of data to unmask racial inequities in the educational system, the fear that came with the punitive, market-driven reforms under the law only continued the discourse of school failure dating back to the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk. NCLB made a big splash of what ultimately became failed promises to close the achievement gap, but in the end the Bush Administration never put the money and resources towards delivering on its promises. As a market-driven mechanism, NCLB required all schools in the U.S. to bring all of their students to the proficiency level by the 2013-14 school year, and it was clear that in 2010 when only 38% of schools in the U.S. had done so, this federal directive was never going to be accomplished, especially when it goes unfunded (Klein, 2015). Right before the transition to Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, not a single state in the U.S. got 100% ofits students at proficiency or higher under NCLB (Klein, 2015).

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