Sunday, August 28, 2005

'No Child Left Behind' criticized

"No Child Left Behind" poses many dangers for American education and perhaps the biggest one is pointed out in today's Boston Globe.
When the United States led the march toward a true public education, the primary purpose was to make sure that the populace was educated enough to be able to participate in our democratic system.
That is no longer the case.
The drive for higher test scores in math and reading and judging that by using standardized tests has pushed nearly everything else out the window. Civics or citizenship, as it was called when I attended East Newton High School, is not a primary concern any more. The main reason appears to be because a knowledge of how our political system works and our role in it is not as important to our elected leaders as what skills will help big business. And you will get no argument from me about the importance of reading or math, but there are other skills that are also important and No Child Left Behind is shortchanging those.
With the emphasis on those two subjects and on measuring them through the use of standardized tests, the goal purportedly is to improve the lot of minorities. That is a laudable goal, but we may also be permanently consigning them to second-class status.
Again using civics as an example, how can we assimilate the hundreds of thousands of immigrants into our society if they have no knowledge of how its political system works and how they can become involved and change it if they so desire?
As long as we continue this unholy reliance on standardized tests, we increase the risk that students will leave school as nothing more than cannon fodder for big business interests that want a low-paid workforce with few fringe benefits.
The purpose of education has never been to prepare students to be workers, though that certainly is part of it. Education is designed to make students productive members of society.
When we forget that, we put this country in danger of always being led by a privileged few.
Continuing along that line, the constant push toward a voucher system, always accompanied by claims that public education is failing, may be the most dangerous trend we have seen, and it is coming to Missouri big time. Governor Matt Blunt has come out in favor of a plan (though he doesn't call it a voucher plan) that would offer education tax credits and scholarships to low-income students which could be used at either public or private schools.
Blunt recently spoke at a meeting of leaders and activists for All Children Matter, in Silverthorne, Colo. All Children Matter is a pro school choice organization that poured more than $400,000 into Missouri political campaigns last year and is increasing its efforts in the state. The chairman of the House Education Committee, Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, was appointed to that post after writing a letter to House Speaker Rod Jetton declaring that one of her primary qualifications for the post was how much campaign money she was bringing into this state from All Children Matter. Apparently, that convinced Jetton that she was an expert on education, although he insists it had nothing to do with her subsequent appointment.
Experts, and I use the term loosely, such as Rep. Cunningham, can point to numerous examples of private schools and charter schools that are providing quality education. They also point out, almost with glee, that many of the teachers at private schools are not paid as well as those at public schools. Therefore, it must be the public school system that is failing the students.
While I would be the last person to say that public education is blameless, the voucher-proponents conveniently fail to mention other reasons why the private-school educations seem to be so much superior. So let's take a look at a few of them:

-At private schools, nearly 100 percent of the students who are there are there because their parents have a strong belief that a quality education can improve their children's chances for success. A majority of the parents of children at public schools feel the same way, but there is a sizable minority that do not and their children are often the ones who create classroom disturbances and who post low scores on standardized tests. Many remarkable teachers are in private schools, but let's face it, any capable teacher will achieve success when every student is interested in learning.
-Another problem is that we are facing generations of children that don't have the same reverence for reading or learning that we did when we were younger and have so many more options for things to do when they are not at school. With the added distractions of video games, cable and satellite programming specifically aimed at children, and the ever-increasing number of sports teams, both school and club, that practice ever later into the evening, the time and inclination for reading have decreased. And in many of those homes, the parents do not have an abiding interest in reading either. That can be seen in the decline of book sales and newspaper circulation. Nearly all of the students at private schools have parents who instilled in them a strong reading habit, many of them before they ever set foot in a classroom. Many public school students have the same love of reading, but the public schools also get nearly 100 percent of those who have never been taught its importance. If those children reach school without a love of reading, the teachers really have their work cut out for them. That is why people should be talking about the remarkable work being done by public schoolteachers who have managed to increase test scores in reading despite this major obstacle.
-The public schools are handling an overwhelming majority of students who have severe learning disabilities, are mentally handicapped, or who speak English as a second language, or do not speak English at all. No Child Left Behind expects those children to succeed, and while that is the right goal, nearly all of these students are in public schools. The private schools not only do not deal with these children, most of them have no desire to do so.
-Society's ills play a big role in many of the failures of education. The Joplin R-8 School District, for which I work as an eighth grade communications arts (English) teacher is requiring its teachers to attend seminars on how to deal with children from poverty. I attended the two-day seminar this summer and it was enlightening. Some of it goes back to what I wrote earlier about the lack of books and newspapers in many of these homes. It is hard enough for some families to put food on the table. But poverty is not the only evil that has plagued our children and put extra strain on public education. So many children come from broken homes, have parents who physically or sexually abuse them, or are living with parents addicted to alcohol and drugs. The epidemic of methamphetamine addiction plays a major role in whether children are going to succeed in school.
The simple fact is the politicians, Republican and Democratic, overwhelmingly passed No Child Left Behind, immediately declared that public schools were the source of the problems in today's education, but never did anything to address the social ills that have increased public schoolteachers' challenges over the past few decades.
I have written before on several occasions that I am offended, and many of my fellow teachers are offended, by the name "No Child Left Behind'; not because we don't believe in that goal, but because it leaves the impression that until George W. Bush became president in 2001 teachers were content to leave children behind; to let them fail. That has never been the case.
We now have a mandated goal to have all children succeeding in math and reading by 2014. It won't happen. I only wish it would, but there is no way No Child Left Behind can reach its eventual goal.
As long as we have families devastated by divorce, physical and sexual abuse, poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, and parents who do not instill the love of reading and learning in their children before they come to school, we will have children left behind.
The Boston Globe article I mentioned at the beginning can be found at:

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