Disclaimer: I love Congress, state and local governments, and my fellow Americans. I may flip out on them a little this week. They can take it, and besides—they yell at me and my fellow educators all the time.
At some point, I knew this blog would address the education reforms we are currently implementing in this country, but I have avoided it because of the level of nastiness surrounding the public discourse on the subject. During the past two weeks, however, I have seen citizen reactions to reform reach such alarming levels of inaccuracy and inexplicable rage that I have decided to dip my toe in these hostile waters.
Regardless of your thoughts on school reform, by all means, keep talking! For too long, teachers, parents, and administrators have played ball with misguided education policy (myself included), and we all hoped that, at some point, the cavalry would ride in and save the day. That’s not going to happen. We must all be advocates for children and for the future of this nation, and we must all be heard. Right now, a very narrow set of views is dominating the public discourse on education reform, and that must end. Ask questions. Read. Listen. Then make noise.
My first foray into the grit and grime of school reform will largely concern what I consider to be a huge instructional issue for many of the debaters: the most vocal of the bunch don’t know their vocabulary terms. I have heard “Common Core” used to refer to every reform that is occurring in education, and I have heard really ugly partisan word-drool, even though all of our education policy problems were created by bipartisan tomfoolery (True bipartisanship! It can happen!).
Each day this week, I’ll write about one of the key terms in reform. I will define the term as objectively as I can, and then I take off the gloves and let you know what I think about it and public reaction to it. Fasten your seatbelts!
Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz Friday!)
No Child Left Behind (NCLB): The current education law in play regarding the funding and requirements for American public schools. It is the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and this version was a joint endeavor of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy (in other words, both parties are to blame for this law, and we must all accept that). These well-meaning parents of private school students (who themselves never darkened the door of public schools as students) aimed to reform American public education by creating testing targets for all schools so that we would have all students testing at a proficient level in English and mathematics by 2014. Each state could adopt its own standards and create its own tests for this purpose, and thus its failure was assured.
NCLB matters because it was the most dramatic federal intercession into day-to-day ops in schools to date, and the new reforms under Race to the Top are the federal response to NCLB’s problems. As for NCLB itself (which many people do not understand is still the law), schools are not going to make 100% proficiency next year, and anyone who knows anything about the way students learn knew from the get-go that this would be the case, not because schools suck but because students do not learn at the same rate or to the same degree in tandem with their grade levels. They are humans, and that complicates things.
Remember how these proficiency targets were devised: In broad terms, students were given a test in 2002 to set the baseline achievement score for a school. That achievement percentage was subtracted from 100% to indicate the gap that the school needed to fill to reach 100% by 2014. The government then divided that gap number by 12 (the number of years schools had to reach 100%), and schools had to make that designated annual improvement target (Adequate Yearly Progress) each year or face dire consequences. That arbitrary math is in no way reflective of whether good instruction or real improvement occurred, but it makes people who do not understand education feel as if they are addressing The Issue. They did not address The Issue; rather, they created new ones.
This law should have been revised and reauthorized by Congress years ago, but Congress ultimately doesn’t know what to do about education (I’m not being sarcastic here—I believe they genuinely don’t know because education’s complexity makes this stuff really hard), so its members will continue to delay and spout tirades about education policy on cable news channels as a defense mechanism.
Lessons to learn from NCLB:
1. When lawyers (the most common profession among our nation’s lawmakers) make education policy, no one wins. Lawyers typically did very well in school and on standardized tests, so they think that those tests are valid and reliable and awesome. They do not know a thing about sound assessment or the complexities of students who struggle. This is best evidenced by the fact that any time student issues that affect achievement and that require resources arise regarding education policy, these folks say that these issues are “excuses” that schools make for students not achieving instead of acknowledging what they are: real factors that jeopardize students’ futures and must be addressed at all levels, including the distribution of federal monies. This ignorance will likely always be the case, and you, the voting American taxpayer, can change the future by voting for lawmakers who understand (or are willing to learn) how children learn.
2. NCLB fails because its fundamental premise is not true: All students do not learn at the same rate across the grade levels. The notion that they do so is tempting because it is so much easier to decide who’s doing a good job and who is not if that premise is true. The key problem with the US public education system is also its most noble characteristic: it is the most enormously inclusive school system in the world. We take every child, regardless of their situation. If they learn on schedule, we’ll keep them around until they are 18 or 19. If they do not learn on schedule (i.e., have a documented learning disability or other significant issue), we’ll keep them until they are 21. That is absolutely the moral thing to do, but it is also why we will never have the standardized test scores of the rest of the world. We’re shaping democracy here. We have taken on a larger, nobler task in walking the talk of the US Constitution by including everyone until they reach adulthood (and sometimes beyond). Comparisons to nations that do not do that (i.e., nearly all of the world’s nations) are exasperatingly nonsensical.
NCLB’s big sister is the 1983 federal document, A Nation at Risk, which lit the fuse on this toxic set of premises. The media and lawmakers have fed off of a steady diet of its conclusions for the past 30 years, and the chickens have come home to roost. We need to get to the place where we accept the hard, cold, ugly truth about education: it must be individualized, it must be continually evolving as our knowledge of students evolves, it must no longer be a reflection of the misconceptions of policymakers, and it’s expensive—it’s really, really expensive. It’s also worth it, America, so let’s get down to business.