The new movie "Won't Back Down" is to public education what Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" was to the meatpacking industry -- a needed spotlight, but not for the squeamish. In this case, the product unfit for human consumption is, unfortunately, the instruction of children. The movie chronicles the struggles of the mother of a dyslexic child in a failing school. The villains are clock-punching teachers, apathetic parents, change-resistant union officials and unreachable administrators. The movie adds a happy ending, which seems the most unrealistic portion of the script.
Union officials naturally find this portrait offensive. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls the movie "divisive" and a presentation of "stereotypes."
This argument would be more compelling if it were not for another recent little drama, played out in Virginia. The Commonwealth is one of those states granted a broad exemption by the Department of Education from No Child Left Behind's "unrealistic" requirement that all schools dramatically improve educational performance for every ethnic group. Virginia's superintendent of public instruction pronounced this change "a long time coming and very much appreciated."
The state's replacement targets, in the manner of such documents, were expressed in educational jargon so thick that few understood them. But eventually it came out that Virginia was codifying the goal of having 57 percent of African-American students proficient in math by 2018, compared to 78 percent of white students. (Currently, 52 percent of black students in Virginia are proficient.) It is an educational objective so "realistic" that it is difficult to distinguish from racism. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called these new standards "insulting and narrow minded," involving the categorization of children "in a way that hearkens back to Virginia's inglorious past."
Once exposed, both Virginia and the Department of Education were forced to backtrack. A do-over is now in the works. But this is the general direction of "flexibility" in No Child Left Behind waivers, which now cover most of the country. Few states have been as blatant and controversial as Virginia. But most have adopted new expectations that are lower, sketchier, less binding and less connected to real accountability. Much of the American educational system -- enabled by the Department of Education -- is in the process of backing down from the highest goals for minority children.
In most cases (with a few notable exceptions such as Florida and Oklahoma), the new expectations are more difficult for parents, teachers and principals to understand -- the mystification that often hides mediocrity. In some instances, the worst performing schools will only be designated for intensive intervention every two or three years, which is not particularly useful if your child attends a failing middle school. Some states are trying to get around rigorous graduation reporting requirements and are downgrading their importance in accountability decisions. New interventions and consequences focused on the lowest 15 percent of failing schools leave students in the 16th percent without much hope.
Whatever excuses are made, whatever euphemisms are employed, the waiver revolution is the broad institutionalization of lowered expectations.
And all of this is being done in the best, bipartisan spirit. When conservative Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., proposed a committee amendment to gut the "turnaround" portion of No Child Left Behind -- a portion of the law that requires the reconstitution of consistently failing schools -- some of his largest supporters were the teachers unions. One contemporaneous tweet: "GOP Senate aide spotted hugging NEA lobbyist ... after the vote on the Alexander amendment giving flex to states on turnarounds."
The coalition that passed No Child Left Behind consisted of strange bedfellows -- civil rights groups fed up with educational failure and business groups hoping for more capable workers. The bedfellows intent on overturning high standards are even more unnatural -- conservatives opposed to a federal role in just about anything and an educational establishment that has adopted a policy of massive resistance to effective accountability.
What is most shocking is the utter lack of urgency. The "parent trigger" approach depicted in "Won't Back Down" -- permitting parents to take over and reorganize failing schools -- would seem a minimal response to an educational emergency. But the general reaction of federal officials, governors and legislators of both parties, school administrators and unions is to loosen standards and lessen pressure for reform. They are simply assuming that a separate and unequal educational system for minorities and the poor is inevitable and that a generation of children is expendable.
The villains in this story are even broader and stranger than fiction. And a happy ending is far from assured.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group