"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Talk Is Cheap

A supporter of NCLB recently characterized the opposition’s views of the law. According to him, opponents of NCLB say the following:
  • NCLB is wrong because it does not "fix poverty."
  • Schools are doing everything right and the reason that disadvantaged children do less well in school than their more advantaged peers is entirely due to their economic circumstances.
This characterization of the anti-NCLB position underscores the need to make our critique of NCLB much sharper and broader. As we prepare for the reauthorization debate, it's crucial that we anticipate these kinds of moves and arguments that supporters make.

We must make two broad points:
  1. socioeconomic reform is crucial
  2. school-based reform is equally crucial
One without the other will not produce meaningful, lasting results.

NCLB focuses exclusively on school-based reform, completely ignoring the inextricable link between students and the reality in which they are immersed (their homes and neighborhoods).

Joseph Bottini, a retired teacher who spent 35 years in the classroom, posted recently to the Assessment Reform Network (ARN) list: “If a kid comes to school high, tired, hungry, abused, jaded, or otherwise not ready to focus, the best teacher in the world can't be successful with too many of them. It is not the kids, teachers, school or not even the tests; it's the life they are living. Tests do little more than tell us what we already know and steals time away from teaching/learning.”

NCLB, through initiatives such as Reading First, defines "school-based reform" as an obsessive focus on basic skills like phonemic awareness. Such "reform" comes at the expense of a comprehensive education that all students need to grow and thrive. The recent report from the Center on Education Policy confirms what many of us already knew anecdotally, that such "reform" comes at the expense of non-tested subjects such as history, music, and foreign languages. Most disturbingly, this narrowing of the curriculum occurs most often in schools with high percentages of poor minority students, the very subgroups that NCLB was ostensibly designed to serve.

In order to accomplish substantive school-based reform, we need to focus on the factors that most contribute to the reasons why schools struggle in the first place. Do schools struggle because children are not as phonemically aware as they need to be, or is something more substantive involved? As has been consistently emphasized, one basic yet powerful reform is class size reduction: make classes smaller, especially in urban school districts, and watch what happens.

Of course, making classes smaller means creating a lot more classes. More classes means more buildings. And more buildings means more teachers. More classes, buildings, and teachers means a lot more money. Quite a lot more.

We can also commit as a nation to improving the quality of teacher preparation and dedicate the funds necessary to provide on-going, high-quality professional development to people charged with shaping the future of our country, i.e., teaching our children.

Guess what? This will cost a lot more money, too. Quite a lot more. Richard Rothstein, in his book Class and Schools, estimates it will cost somewhere around $156 billion.

But this is not a money issue. This is a political will issue. Love him or hate him, George W. Bush summoned the political will to invade Iraq and commit more than two billion dollars per week to its care and feeding . . . with no end in sight. On occasion, a voice such as Senator Russ Feingold’s is heard, raising objections to this new adventure in imperialism. But by and large, we do not say, “This costs too much.” The reason? Because it is believed to be vital to our national security. And so we spend whatever it takes to get it done.

But for the cost of a year and a half in Iraq, we can create smaller classes, we can train and support teachers, and we can take substantive actions towards closing the educational achievement gap.

And why would we do this? Because it is vital to our national security to do so.

So the Bush administration can talk all it wants to about its educational priorities, about how much it wants to leave no child behind, and the need to stay competitive in the global marketplace by improving math and science education. But as long as the federal government contributes a paltry 10% to the education of America's children, such talk is cheap.

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