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

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Seize the Initiative: Put the Heat on the White House and Your Congressman

From Beyond Chron:
Federal education policy is on the brink of change. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known in its current form as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) is overdue for reauthorization. In response, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently released his Blueprint for the vision he and President Barak Obama share for our children’s education. Sadly the Blueprint carries on much of NCLB’s most destructive tactics and adds a few of its own.

High stakes testing, a narrowing of curriculum and a further imposition of a market-based framework are just a sampling of what is literally being sold to us. All this, despite the fact that none of these strategies have produced any of their promised results and that they are fundamentally in opposition to the human-centered project of nurturing our children to fully develop into engaged members of our society.

As disturbing as this vision is, time still remains to intervene, and intervene we must. With the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives still separately debating over what the specifics in the policy should look like, and with a political balance of power between Democrats and Republicans creating something of a stalemate, nothing is happening fast. This lack of alignment presents an opportunity for parents, teachers, students and others involved in working for strong public schools for all children. We can attempt to hold our policy makers accountable for the problems they have generated over the last many years of NCLB, and present the alternatives that would provide students with the type of education we know they deserve and that our society needs them to have.

On her recent tour of the Bay Area and in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch made a specific appeal to Bay Area parents to go directly to one of the seats of power around education policy – the offices of Bay Area Congressman George Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Representative Miller was a major champion of NCLB and has enthusiastically embraced the Duncan/Obama Blueprint, which will likely influence many others in Washington. We therefore have a very precious window of opportunity to provide him with some apparently much needed re-education about exactly why this Blueprint is the wrong way to go.

Below is an open letter to Congressman Miller that addresses some of the many reasons why NCLB and the Administration’s Blueprint are simply unacceptable for our kids and what we could do instead. If public education supporters throughout the Bay Area similarly contacted Miller using this letter or better yet their own stories not only of what has gone wrong with NCLB, but with their visions of the educational programs they want to see for their kids and all kids, we would be sending him a strong clear message.

Dear Representative Miller,

My name is Lisa Schiff and I am the parent of twin sixth-graders in a public middle school in San Francisco. My children’s entire education has taken place under the shadow of No Child Left Behind, a shadow that I am hoping you can clear as you work with President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other officials to craft new federal education policy. Parents throughout the Bay Area and the country are counting on you in your role as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor to listen to our voices as we tell you about what hasn’t worked for our children these past eight years and what our vision of education is for all of our children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a damaging force for our children and their schools. As I have observed directly with my own kids and have heard from many other families, teachers and principals have had to work hard to ensure that my children and all of the children in their school were able to jump through the rote, testing frameworks required by the law and developed the required variety of test-taking strategies. All of this was a tremendous waste of time and resources, but was especially a loss of precious educational moments.

But because educators and parents understood that a well educated person is exposed to more than simply standardized tests, reading, writing and mathematics, we worked together to find creative ways to bring in history, science, art, music, physical education and language. Communities accomplished all of this without the support of our federal education policy, which deemed these areas not worthy of time resources and attention.

We know now without a doubt that the high-stakes standardized teaching and testing strategy that was supposed to help all children, especially those struggling the most, has failed. This is demonstrated most clearly by the results from the independent, authoritative data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have not changed with the implementation of NCLB, and in some cases have shown declines and increased gaps in academic achievement. Even New York University Professor of Education History Diane Ravitch, who was an ardent, optimistic supporter of NCLB, has now come to reject the entire approach of NCLB for a multiplicity of reasons she clearly elucidates in her most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

I raise the above issues only to underscore how dramatic a change we need from you and other policy makers. Secretary Duncan has referred to the present economic crisis in our society as an opportunity to make radical change in education, but the Blueprint he’s given us will not provide that. In contrast to the testing, narrow-focus, competitive model the Blueprint offers, a truly transformed educational system would include:

• Sufficient funding for all schools, so that access to a complete education does not depend upon parents raising private funds;

• Complete staffing in all schools, including nurses, librarians, physical education teachers, counselors, teachers assistants, and yard and hall monitors;

• Multiple adults in every classroom, so that we could truly act on the knowledge that people learn in different ways and at different speeds;

• Enough adults in each school to form personal relationships with students and provide an environment of mentoring and apprenticeship;

• A rich curriculum covering literature, science, history, language, art, music, physical education and more, that provides students a broad but solid foundation for understanding the world;

• Promotion of critical thinking, analytical and communication skills, so that our children are able to address complex problems and can effectively express their ideas to others.

• Support for teachers, so that they receive the required training in their subjects, in educational theory and practice, and ongoing quality professional development throughout their teaching career.

• An expansion and diversification of the pool of teachers, so that more teachers have strong connections to the communities in which they are teaching.

• Assessments tools and practices that are meaningfully tied to what a student is learning and that can help teachers adjust their teaching to the needs of that student.

• Prioritization of parent involvement, not just in supporting children at home, but in shaping the school environment and partnering with teachers and principals to create productive learning environments for their kids.

• Understanding that schools are not the same as businesses and that economic imperatives are irrelevant in evaluating students, teachers, schools or educational systems.

The good news is that we already know how to do much of this. FairTest, for instance, has been offering resources and guidance about authentic assessments for years. Long-time educator Deborah Meier, has developed and been in charge of model schools that provide the kind of challenging curriculum and close-knit communities that all children need. Educators, psychologists, and other social scientists from a variety of fields have a deep understanding of how people naturally and most effectively acquire and retain knowledge and information.

These are just some of the ingredients that we need in order to provide our children with the education they deserve and that our society needs them to have. As you consider these suggestions and compare them to the plan outlined in the Blueprint, I ask you to imagine which type of school you would want your own child to be in--that should be the school you give our children too.

Lisa Schiff
Public school parent
San Francisco, California

Write a letter, send email, make a phone call and even ask for a meeting to tell Representative Miller how you feel and what you want. Now is the time to do it.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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