It must be close to twenty years ago now that the teachers at the high school where I taught English were presented with a glitzy PR packet that the administration, under our new superintendent, had put together.  Three-color laminated sheets in a laminated folder with pockets explained that in five years, 100 percent of the students in our district would be working at grade level.

Right.  We rolled our eyes and got back to the business of educating kids as well as we knew how.  A lot of us were pretty good at that, but when the five year target date rolled around–and the superintendent had two years since moved on to suckering some other district–some of us pulled out that laminated packet and had to admit we’d failed.  One hundred percent of students working at grade level?  Every kid?  Not gonna happen.  You’d stand a better chance of planting 5,000 seeds and having every one of them germinate perfectly.

Now, in 2007, that laminated packet has taken on a macabre life in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Schools must improve students’ reading and math scores every year.  That doesn’t sound so macabre.  That’s a good goal.  Even the special ed and minority students must improve at the same pace as the other students.  That’s tougher.  By 2014, all of them will be proficient in reading and math.  Or else.  Now we’ve moved into the realm of the impossible. 

You’d stand a better chance of turning George Bush into an intelligent, articulate, empathetic human being. What’s next?  Will we require all parents to raise perfectly behaved children so that no felonies or even misdemeanors are committed and the prisons empty out?

Penalties for not achieving the impossible are severe.  Sure, they start mild and reasonable.  Transfers to better performing schools must be offered and so must individual tutoring.  But even these fairly mild consequences are basically unfunded.  The federal government is laying the load on states, including poor schools that have no money for tutoring.  Talk about all stick and no carrot.

But those poor schools–the ones most likely to need tutoring and struggling to find the funds for it–ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.  If they fail to improve five years in a row–without additional funding from the federal government that’s demanding this extraordinary performance–consequences can range from replacing staff and administrators to closing down the school and opening charter schools. 

And bingo.  Now we’re getting down to it.  Closing public schools has been the agenda of this act all along.  The neoconservatives want to shrink government down to the size where they can drown it in a bathtub, as Grover Norquist famously said.  That starry-eyed vision of a country where the government does nothing for its citizenry includes savaging the public school system.

Time Magazine summed up the frustration educators feel:

Some offer comments like this one from a former superintendent of schools in Ohio: “NCLB is like a Russian novel. That’s because it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed.”

Missouri is starting to feel the pain, according to the article in this morning’s Post-Dispatch, “Missouri lets schools slide, U.S. report says”.  The subheading says, “Dozens of problems found.”  No doubt. 

I’m not saying Missouri’s schools are grand, that there’s no room for improvement.  I’m saying that whatever our faults, we shouldn’t have to take any guff from one of “heckuva job” Bush’s bureaucrats.  Katrina was only the most obvious instance of the incompetence W. has fostered in every government agency.  Trust me, the bureaucrats who are criticizing Missouri schools wouldn’t do any better job of running them than Brownie did in New Orleans.  It’s unlikely that any one of them could run a classroom effectively.

Now there’s a tough job.  And here’s a small carrot for those still doing it:  Keep on truckin’.