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Common Ground That’s More Like Quicksand

A writer in the Post speculates that the president and the new Congress might find some common ground, “ripe for deal-making” in the issue of education.

Of course there’s common ground!  When it comes to education a majority of congress critters on both sides of the aisle believe…

The way to improve education is through more and better standardized testing.

Charter schools are the magic path to improved learning (aka higher test scores), even if they use pretty much the same curriculum and teaching techniques as “regular” schools at the same or higher costs while selectively choosing their students.

Teachers are the one and only cause of bad schools (or at least the union members) and firing the “bad” ones while giving performance pay to a select group of the remaining will fix everything. Professional development for teachers? Sorry, too expensive.

And finally, schools that should educate students for their future using exactly the same structure they fondly remember from the previous century, maybe with a few computers and an interactive whiteboard added to make the classroom look high tech.

The fact that anyone believes “We need to fix No Child Left Behind.”, or that Bush’s train wreck of a law is even fixable, tells you where this “bipartisan effort” is heading.

Rep. George Miller, the outgoing House education chairman, is quoted in the story as saying, “The old days of defending the status quo have kind of evaporated over the last two years.”

That’s crap! The status quo is exactly the common ground when it comes to “deal-making” on federal control of American education, and it functions more like quicksand than a solid foundation.

Just Say No to RTTT

In her Education Week blog this week, Diane Ravitch offers ten reasons why states should decline to participate in the DOEs big money game show, Race to the Top.

I can’t speak to the validity of all ten, but I suspect most her predictions of what will happen to American education as a result of this most recent attempt at “reform” are far too accurate.

Especially number five.

By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.

All of that applied to No Child Left Behind, of course, except for the part about rising scores.

Supporters of NCLB simply made claims of major progress without even minimal statistical evidence.

Not Asking The Right Question

Lots of media attention on education lately.

The president says he wants to rewrite No Child Left Behind, re-envisioning (but not lessening) the federal role in education.

Of course, the law will continue to over-emphasize testing, except that we’re now going to use the softer term “assessment”.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers decided to create a set of national standards for teaching English and math.


But they seem to have largely ignored the national standards created by NCTE and NCTM (don’t bother, they’re just educators) and some states may decline to join this particular nation.

Meanwhile, Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, is doing his best Monty Hall impression by handing out the first round of prizes in our new billion dollar game show, Race to the Top.

I’ll offer you $500 million for the charter school behind door number 1!

And Newsweek says we should fire all the teachers.

Or at least all the bad ones. And everyone in Rhode Island. They aren’t clear on where schools will find replacements other than that good teachers can’t be union members.

Bill Maher, on the other hand, says to fire all the parents.

Ok, so we have no shortage on education experts in this country.

However, all of this frenetic activity in the name of “reform” is just messing with the appearance of the pieces on the same old chessboard.

Missing is any serious discussion of the fundamental structure and purpose of American education.

We need to start with Will’s straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter question: What’s the problem that schools solve?

Image: monty hall by debaird, from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

I Guess I Must Be Crazy

In his discussion of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Jay Mathews inserts several declarative statements of what he believes to be truth, including the assertion that I must be nuts.

And by his definition, I am.

Many education reforms have gone badly in the last 20 years, but there never has been a golden age of school improvement. No Child Left Behind had many flaws, but it left us better off than than we were before, with more attention to low-income and learning disabled children, and some gains in lower grades, particularly in math. We bumble along, doing our best, hoping that our next idea will produce big gains but knowing that all we can expect is to be a bit better than before.

If the best that billions of dollars and the establishment of a test-score-obsessive, standardized education system can produce is “more attention” and “some gains” (as measured by those same tests, of course), that is not “better off”.

Narrowing the curriculum studied by almost all students in public schools to little more than reading and math drills is more than a “flaw”.

Forcing schools to treat all students exactly the same by expecting them to learn at exactly the same rate is not “doing our best”.

There are some crazies out there who disagree with this and say an education revolution is possible. They know who they are. They don’t include the weary legislators and White House aides who put together No Child Left Behind, making the compromises that are necessary in the democratic society that Ravitch celebrates throughout her book.

I guess I must be one of those crazies, because when I take a good look around it’s not difficult to understand that not only is an education revolution possible, it’s happening.

Just not in schools.

In fact, a revolution in the way people learn and develop and communicate and collaborate and grow is happening almost everywhere else EXCEPT in our schools.

However, the reason that those legislators and aides who put together NCLB didn’t think a revolution was possible is because they didn’t want one in the first place.

NCLB and those other school reform efforts of the last 20 years Mathews declares to have “gone badly” were all designed to craft a better status quo (often in the form of charters and voucher farms) instead of taking an honest look at how and why teaching and learning needed to change and then creating schools that work for the kids, not the adults running them.

So, yes, call me crazy if you like. I do believe there needs to be an education revolution.

And it needs to happen in less than another 20 years of bumbling along.

Renaissance As Our 21st Century Miracle

You should probably be careful anytime you include a date in the name of a big reform project.

That date will eventually arrive and it’s likely people will check to see if your reforms actually happened.

Case in point is Renaissance 2010, the high profile attempt to overhaul the Chicago city school system, created by none other than our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

So, 2010 is here, how did they do?

Six years after Mayor Richard Daley launched a bold initiative to close down and remake failing schools, Renaissance 2010 has done little to improve the educational performance of the city’s school system, according to a Tribune analysis of 2009 state test data.

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.

Oh, but it gets better.

Following in the footsteps of Bush’s Texas “miracle” that became No Child Left Behind, Duncan is now incorporating all his wonderfully successful ideas from Ren10 into Race to the Top, the latest meaningless, not to mention expensive, educational-buzz-term-based national school reform program.

Duncan is using an unprecedented $4.35 billion pot of money to lure states into building education systems that replicate key Ren10 strategies. The grant money will go to states that allow charter schools to flourish and to those that experiment with turning around failing schools — all part of the Chicago reform.

Just as the previous administration assigned magical powers to high-stakes standardized testing, the current group is putting it’s faith in charter schools as an all-purpose educational cure-all.

Actually, the charter concept is not a bad one: allow educators to adapt schools to fit the needs of students instead of the other way around.

The execution, on the other hand, in most places has been mediocre at best (criminally dismal in too many cases) largely mirroring that of the Chicago “renaissance”: throwing lots of cash at charters to achieve mixed results.

Of course, there is a middle ground between the all-stick-and-no-carrot philosophy of NCLB and the quiz-show-competition, scattershot approach that is at the core of RTTT.

But finding it is going to require far more complex thinking than most of our national education “leaders” seem to be willing to consider.

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