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

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Flunking Feds

Commentary from the Tucson Citizen:
Published: 07.10.2007
The good news, U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords report, is that most members of Congress want a full overhaul of our education plan.

The No Child Left Behind Act has done great harm, despite all the spin by President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

The bad news is: The elephant in the living room probably is here to stay.

It's rarely discussed now, but once upon a time, America had a thing called "states' rights," and schools came under something known as "local control," by which school boards, PTAs, parents and other community members made their priorities and concerns known.

Not any more. The advent of NCLB in 2002 put the federal government squarely in charge.
Now we're stuck with federal control, which wouldn't be so bad if the lofty goals articulated - standards, accountability and closing the achievement gap - were intelligently pursued and adequately funded. But they're not.

So we can only hope that Giffords, Grijalva and other thoughtful members of Congress will get us an elephant that provides props instead of penalties.

NCLB's reliance on tallying up scores from multiple-choice tests has led to what some bureaucrats call "more focus" and what educators and parents call dumbed-down curriculum, with a "drill and kill" focus on only questions that will be tested.

The high stakes, by which "failing" schools can be closed and reconstituted, have led to some desperate measures.

Some schools have encouraged poor-performing students to leave, even drop out, so as to improve the institution's scores average.

Others have tried to deter enrollment by certain kids, i.e., those from families that are poor, minority or both.

Many schools have eliminated fine arts, social studies, history and anything else that isn't tested, though research keeps showing that music, art, field trips, experiential learning and other creative approaches have profoundly positive effects on kids' academic achievement.

But some schools are doomed to failure no matter how hard they try to meet the mandates.
That's because they're in poor neighborhoods, have a high percentage of English language learners or maybe a high number of special education students.

NCLB doesn't make allowances for such challenges. It deems those schools failures even if they have propelled their students forward by miraculous measures.

Grijalva and Giffords understand this, thank God.

"NCLB accountability has become punitive instead of supporting schools' efforts," Grijalva said last week. Under its framework, "the obvious became obvious": Kids of color, poor kids, non-English speakers - none fared as well as the other students.

"It's not fair or even moral" to expect developmentally disabled students to perform on a par with the rest of the student body, Giffords said.

Ditto the notion that kids who don't speak English should be able to score high on tests in English.
Democrats Giffords and Grijalva both understand that much of NCLB is sheer lunacy.

Both know the act has failed to tighten, much less close, the achievement gap between poor and minority kids and the rest of students.

Most important, Grijalva and Giffords both understand that along with reasonable expectations, the federal government must provide actual dollars to improve the worst schools.

"If the federal government is going to make demands of local schools," Giffords said, "then they should also accept their responsibility as a partner for reform and fund the mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act."

Long before NCLB, Americans knew which students and schools were in trouble. As Grijalva recently learned, "Fifteen percent of our high schools are responsible for 54 percent of the dropouts. Isn't that an amazing statistic?"

It's amazing but not surprising. For decades, extensive research into what's wrong with America's schools has all boiled down ultimately to the economic gap.

Yet nowhere does NCLB exhort states to instigate new funding mechanisms so that poor schools get resources equal to those in rich neighborhoods.

A new federal act "must finally address the deep and tenacious educational debt that holds our nation's future in hock," said leading education expert Linda Darling-Hammond, "and ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities and quality teachers.

"Federal education funding to states should be tied to each state's movement toward equitable access to education resources."

That's a novel idea indeed in Arizona, where education funding always is an afterthought.
Congress now has an opportunity to set an example for the states.

It should invest heavily in creating a stable supply of qualified teachers, providing scholarships for those who specialize in math, science and other shortage areas.

It should subsidize teachers who agree to work in high-challenge schools where they're needed most.

And it should hold states accountable for equalizing funding, so even poor kids' schools get the fair share desperately needed to ensure their learning.

This may sound too utopian to some. But corny as it sounds, the future of our nation is riding on it.

As American students lag far behind those in other industrialized nations, it's time to look at what those nations are doing right - and recognize that NCLB does the exact opposite.

We are, most assuredly, in need of a new elephant.

Billie Stanton may be reached at 573-4664 and bstanton@tucsoncitizen.com.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Thanks for posting this interesting (and sad) article. I came across your blog while doing some research to answer a 'question of the week' on our Web site. One of our members asked us to post a thread where people could make suggestions to improve the US education system and, more specifically, reduce the functional illiteracy rate.
    Given your vast knowledge on education, it would be great if you would stop by and post a comment.