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

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Broken Rhetoric of Sec. Spellings

From the Home Tribune News:

As I was driving to Perth Amboy the other morning, I was listening to a radio report about the fifth anniversary of the "No Child Left Behind" program.

It was apropos, because I was on my way to the McGinnis School on State Street to appear at a career fair for seventh- and eighth-graders.

I have a tendency to say "yes" to any invitation that comes from Perth Amboy, and especially from the school district, and I especially like going to the McGinnis School, where nearly 40 years ago I went as a reporter to cover meetings of the city's Board of Education.

Talking to pupils at McGinnis is a lively experience.

Some of them go through the motions — gathering only the required information — but many of them seem to have the reporter's bent themselves, asking questions like, "What time do you get up in the morning?" and "How much money do you make?" and "Do you regret staying in the same job for 40 years?"

While I'm sure some of them raise hell when they get the chance — as kids that age will — I am always struck by how courteous they are when they approach the visitors to their school.

All of them say "thank you" when they're through asking their questions, and many of the boys offer their hands.

I get a kick — and a little education — out of watching them interact with each other and with the teachers and guidance counselors who stroll the gym among them.

And I must say I think wistfully about their futures.

No Child Left Behind is a noble ambition, and I'm sure the program by that name was established with the best intentions — and I imagine it's having a positive impact at least in some school districts in the country.

But programs like that tend to approach public education as a kind of vertical structure, as though the academic progress of youngsters like my friends at McGinnis can be improved by measures taken only within the institution.

Unfortunately, education is a horizontal structure. In the lives of many children, progress depends at least as much on what happens outside the institution — especially at home — than on what happens in the classroom.

The radio report I heard the other morning included clips from a speech by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in which she repeated the premise that the American "public-education system is broken."

Generalizations like that in a country this size are always suspect — and probably can't be supported — but I would challenge it even on a particular level.

I don't believe, for example, that the education system is broken at McGinnis or in the Perth Amboy school district as a whole.

What's broken is the lens through which public authorities look at the education of kids. It's a lens with a narrow focus that doesn't permit bureaucrats to see that setting performance standards in school, without seriously addressing economic and social issues that the best teachers in the world are helpless to control, is a method sure to fall short of its goals.

Charles Paolino is executive editor of the Home News Tribune. Contact him at (732) 565-7210; cpaolino@thnt.com.

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