The Class Lessons of No Child Left Behind

How Class Works Conference

SUNY Stony Brook

June 7, 2008

Steven L. Strauss


            I am sure that most people here are familiar with the basic characteristics of No Child Left Behind, the misleadingly named 2001 revision of the 1965 civil rights era federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  My purpose today is not to review these characteristics, but to draw from certain aspects of the law lessons that are more in keeping with the stated theme of this conference, namely, how class works. 

            The lessons go well beyond this or that principle of schooling and education.  In fact, they have to do with the very brutality of class society, especially as it exists under capitalism and imperialism.

            The 18th century Prussian militarist Karl von Clausewitz is famous for formulating the principle that war is merely the pursuit of politics by other means.  This is eminently reasonable, especially to a materialist conception of history.  But what, then, is peace?  I want to explain why No Child Left Behind teaches us that, in class society, what is commonly referred to as “peace” is merely the pursuit of war by other means

In other words, peace in class society is an illusion.  Though bullets may not be flying, they are poised to fly, should the power of the ruling class be threatened.  It is this readiness to use force against the working and toiling classes that constitutes the state of war.

Just as Operation Iraqi Freedom has nothing to do with Iraqi freedom, No Child Left Behind is not about guaranteeing quality education for all.   It is not even about quality education for anyone.  Instead, it is about the ruling capitalist class attacking, invading, and occupying a piece of domestic territory -- the U.S. public school classroom -- in order to carry forth its own class agenda. 

For this reason, a more apt title of the law is Operation No Child Left Behind.  This makes it clear that the law is a virtual declaration of war.

            We can appreciate that No Child Left Behind is a declaration of war by the ruling capitalist class against U.S. workers by considering its origins.  We can begin by asking the question:  Who actually thought it up and drafted its provisions?   Obviously, the document didn’t just fall from heaven and land on the president’s desk for his signature.

It is ludicrous to imagine that grade retention, withholding of federal funds in the event of failing test scores, and a stifling narrowing of the curriculum to reading and mathematics is the brainchild of teachers, parents, and students.  And, in fact, these are not the people who came up with NCLB.

NCLB was conceived, drafted, and written up in the back rooms of corporate America.  Its leading architect was the Business Roundtable, a coalition of about 150 CEOs of the nation’s leading corporations.  The Business Roundtable communicated its agenda for public education directly to the president, both Democratic President Clinton and Republican President Bush II, through its corporate representatives on the President’s education advisory panel.  These included Norman Augustine, former CEO of Northrup Grumman, and Ed Rust, former CEO of State Farm Insurance.

            The Business Roundtable outlined its plan to create a workforce for the 21st century that would keep corporate America ahead of its competitors in Europe and Asia.  It was motivated by an intense fear of losing out to these overseas capitalists, of becoming “irrelevant”, as Augustine put it.  It identified reading and mathematics as the fundamental skills needed by the new 21st century U.S. workforce.  It characterized the workforce as one skilled in “digital literacy”, the capacity to create and troubleshoot software and hardware.  Its notion of literacy is exceedingly narrow, nothing more than a working class skill that elevates information processing to the level of literary genre.

            It demanded that the public schools not deviate from its plan.  It warned that administrators needed to closely monitor “progress”.  It conceived of graded curriculum as a factory-based assembly line.  The school is the factory housing the assembly line.  Teachers are the machines that would take the raw material of young, malleable student brains and turn them into information technology workers.  Quality control would be achieved in the classroom in the form of high stakes testing and accountability, in which students, teachers, administrators, individual schools, and school districts would be punished for failure to reach the stated goals, referred to as “adequate yearly progress”.  As in more conventional assembly lines, products of poor quality would be discarded, in other words, failing students would be kicked out.

            The Business Roundtable accepted the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health’s National Reading Panel on using intensive phonics in the classroom as a way to initiate students into the mindset of information processing literacy, which is reading as a working class skill, not reading as a form of communication that can enhance mental life and critical thinking.  The head of the NIH branch that produced the report, Dr. Duane Alexander, declared before Congress that “the significance [of the NRP report] for the future literacy of this nation and for the economic prosperity and global competitiveness of our people is enormous.”

            No democratic input from teachers, parents, and students was entertained in formulating the NCLB plan.  This was, pure and simple, a corporate agenda from start to finish.  The toll it has taken on the quality of public school education and on the mental health of students is nothing short of child abuse.

            Norman Augustine was blunt in his characterization of No Child Left Behind as an act of class warfare.  He declared that “competition in the international marketplace is in reality the battle for the classroom.”  The Business Roundtable echoed this sentiment by noting that “in the integrated global economy, workforce quality drives national competitiveness.”

            No Child Left Behind is class warfare brought into the classroom.  It is an attack by corporate America against working people, the classroom teachers, and future working people, the pupils and students.  It is an attack because it imposes, by means of the power of the state, the agenda of corporate America on the daily lives of workers and their children, without the democratic input of the latter.

            And, as with every imperialist war, it has received bipartisan support from the very start, from Massachusetts Senator Kennedy to President Bush.  Disagreements over this or that detail only emerged when the public outcry against the toxic effects on children became visible from the schools’ chimneys, and the masses needed to be reassured and subdued. 

            There was also generous bipartisan support for the Business Roundtable’s goal of convincing “ Americans [to] expect students to master the difficult substance on core academic subjects that is routinely expected of the most advanced Asian and European countries.”  For example, one of the current presidential candidates put the matter as follows:


China is graduating four times the number of engineers that the United States is graduating. Not only are those Maytag employees competing with Chinese and Indian and Indonesian and Mexican workers, you are too.

If you've got the skills, you've got the education, and you have the opportunity to upgrade and improve both, you'll be able to compete and win anywhere. If not, the fall will be further and harder than it ever was before.

So what do we do about this?  How does
America find its way in this new, global economy?  ………. we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity. That's what's produced our unrivaled political stability.

Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy?


You can find this not on John McCain’s website, but on Barack Obama’s.  Of course, we are “all in it together” only in the sense that, as Mobil says, “we’re drivers too”. 

            The remarks of Augustine and others demonstrate that No Child Left Behind is just the domestic reflection of neoliberal globalization, and that Barack Obama is quite prepared to carry out the neoliberal agenda of corporate America.  The goal of this agenda is to prepare the international stage for penetration and control by U.S. capital while creating a domestic workforce whose information technology skills will allow it to keep corporate America’s production for the world economy unsurpassed.

            No wonder the elitist mindset of corporate America refers to public schools as “workforce development systems.”  No wonder as well that NCLB does not apply to the private schools of the privileged elite.  It is an attack by corporate America on working class America.

Is this really war, or just a metaphor?

Let’s consider the logic behind Operation Iraqi Freedom and compare it to No Child Left Behind, or Operation No Child Left Behind.  First the government announces a crisis.  Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and intends to fire them at us in 45 minutes.  The crisis creates an audience out of thin air.

Next there is the misinformation, like Colin Powell’s travel photos of Iraqi vans allegedly housing chemical and biological weapons.  The misinformation is supposed to be evidence for the crisis.

Next, the attack is launched, and the media provide all the necessary fanfare and self-censorship.  In the course of the invasion, it is discovered that the intelligence was not very intelligent after all.  No matter, we now have new reasons to justify the invasion.

No Child Left Behind was launched under the pretext of a literacy crisis, with some claiming that 40 million Americans are functionally illiterate.  More than 45 million without health insurance is not a crisis, but this is.  The crisis is that our sons and daughters will not be able to find jobs if they can’t read, that is, if they can’t read software and hardware manuals.

The NIH created the intelligence to justify the crisis.  This included pseudoscientific research on reading, using fancy MRI machines, in which they claimed to have demonstrated that readers read by using phonics, even though phonics was built in as a premise in their experiments. 

Just as Saddam Hussein was the enemy in Iraq, whole language and critical pedagogy was the enemy in the U.S. classroom.  These were the culprits behind the literacy crisis.  To save democracy, we had to eliminate democratic practices in the classroom.

But the faulty intelligence was discovered by honest academics, who wouldn’t give up in challenging the NIH.  Finally, leading architects of the NRP report admitted the “misinformed” nature of their reports.  No matter, they added that it was still right that the government was directing public school education, since teachers were mistrained, students were illiterate, and we had to do something.

In the end, this is what we have:  occupation.  Occupation of Iraq and occupation of the U.S. public school classroom.  The state got away with it, with all their lies and deceptions.

So is this war, or just a metaphor for war?   

In war, no gun needs to be fired.  Just ask the prisoners in the camps who know that the guns are pointed at them should they try to fight back.  The threat of firing the gun is what counts.  A petty criminal on the street used his gun against you to take your wallet even if he didn’t fire it.  As long as the armed battalions of police and paramilitary thugs are in a state of readiness to use their weapons, they are using their weapons.  Whenever the United States threatens to use nuclear weapons against a sovereign nation in order to compel it to alter some action, it has used those nuclear weapons.

What is the state, after all, other than the readiness to use armed force by the ruling class against the exploited classes?  It is precisely the mass’s awareness of this readiness that limits their freedom of action and thought.

Also, and as any military strategist will tell you, anything at all is a potential weapon.  This can be a stone, a coke bottle filled with gasoline, or a legal document, like NCLB.

            There are serious consequences for the understanding that living in class society means we are living in a permanent state of war.  We need to think about whose side we are on and how to win the war for our side.  Marx was more than a philosopher when he wrote that philosophers have merely interpreted the world, while the real task is to change it.  He was a political activist who recognized that we are in a war, and we must participate and fight to win the war.  That amounts to changing the world.

We must discuss strategies to win the war.  For example, Lenin’s idea that a combat party is needed in order for working people to win takes on an importance that cannot be dismissed just because Lenin didn’t publish his writings in peer reviewed academic journals. 

We must also think about the political strategies and tactics of ruling class politicians as embodying the same militaristic types of ruses and deceptions and ambushes and traps that are the staple of armed combatants.  Demagoguery that calls for a vague notion of “change” is the carrot that beguiles the unsuspecting into casting his or her vote for a representative of the enemy class.

Suppose we were actually being attacked by an enemy state.  We resisted, but were making little headway.  Suppose the enemy state tried to subdue our resistance by telling us that they would allow us to vote for their commander in chief.  There would be two candidates.  They differed on the types of weapons to be used, but both promised to continue to wage war.  Should we vote for either of them?

That’s what voting for Obama amounts to.  Voting for their commander in chief, for someone who has promised to continue waging the neoliberal war against us and the rest of the world’s working people.

Everything they do is sold through lies.  They can’t tell us the truth because their interests are opposed to ours.  They can’t say “we are occupying Iraq to control their oil for our economic gain.”  They can’t say “we are occupying the public schools to make sure your kids become our exploitable workforce.”  No one would accept that.

Our job is to work out the truth and use it as a weapon against their lies.  But we need more than the truth.  We need to be organized to win.  This is not easy.  But it is the most important thing we can do.  This is what this conference should be discussing – how to win!