Hey, Politicians! Leave those schools alone!

I left most of this as a comment on a guest editorial by Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners.  Mr. Aldeman’s article appeared in the Tulsa World and extolled the virtues of the No Child Left Behind law which has been supplanted by a law that is an improvement.  (This is, however, faint praise.) I was surprised to find anyone extolling the virtues of NCLB, so I thought I would respond.     Here is a link to his article for those that like to read pieces by people who think they know something.

An education law that leaves schools behind

Since I wrote the comment I bothered to Check Mr. Aldeman’s online resume at Bellwether. Many will not be surprised to learn that he has never worked in a school in any capacity. This would explain why he thinks NCLB was such a good thing. He has an op-ed in the New York Times headlined “In Defense of Annual School Testing.”  I will not print what I thought when I read that headline.  It should, however, give a clue about Mr Aldeman’s agenda.  Voices of people who an intimate understanding of education should be heard. Perhaps they will eventually be valued.   Mr. Aldeman is not one of those people.

My comments follow.

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It is hard to know where to start . I remember watching the news coverage of the signing of the first No Child Left Behind law. All schools would be required to improve yearly. Over a period of years every student would have to achieve to a certain standard or there would be consequences. The year-by-year consequences for schools that did not measure up were listed. Teachers all over the United States (including two at our house) looked at the way test schools needed to improve and the consequences for failure and they all immediately knew. They ALL knew. They all talked about it at school the next day. This was going to fail. It would take five years for the process to play out and at the end of it nothing in the law was going to make any improvement. And there would be lots of paperwork and time-consuming worthless things that they would have to do in order to prove that it did not work.  We all knew.  No one asked us for our thoughts.

And that is how it played out. If improving schools was easy, moderately hard, or rather difficult, all schools would improve. Improving schools is incredibly difficult. Changing curriculum doesn’t work. Testing teachers doesn’t work. Taking the power away from the local schools and discouraging local innovation is not going to help.  Making real improvement in education is a tough challenge.  Pat answers are no answers.

Here are some things that have not worked….

  • Ditching phonics in favor of whole language.  (We did learn from this.  As far as I can tell reading teachers use an eclectic approach that considers how students learns and draws from a variety of strategies.)
  • New Math (I was a victim)
  • Outcome Based Education
  • No Pass No Play (Used for athletes and applied to virtually all non-academic activities in some schools)
  • Various modified calendars and schedules (Block, Trimester, Year round, modular)
  • School to Work

It comes down to the fact that students who have good support outside the school tend to be engaged in school and do well, at least as well as can be expected. And students who come to school hungry, tired, or from a home culture that shows little interest in school achievement do not do as well. Teachers that teach in school with many difficult students can get very discouraged. There was an excellent series in the Tulsa World by Andrea called “Inside an F School” that told this story very well.

Inside an ‘F’ school

I must note that my father’s family was one of those families. They were not about school and not about higher education.   He was the first in his family to pursue a college education.

There have been local innovations that involved in reaching out to the student and their families in an effort to insure that the student comes to the school ready to learn. People should search Community Schools and Academic Intervention. These programs were just beginning to show results when they were put on the back burner by the current round of curriculum based reforms, which were pushed in a bi-partisan fashion. Community Schools worked because they addressed the fact that children needed to have basic needs met before they were ready to learn. This has been understood since Maslow described it with his hierarchy of needs diagram. This has a chance to work. But local innovations are discouraged when schools are micromanaged from Washington. It does not matter who does the micromanaging.

School choice, value added, common core (or any other curriculum), testing (even modern and improve ones) all will fail if the students are not engaged in school and ready to learn. It doesn’t matter what the lesson is about if a student does not pay attention, and does not do the work. Unilateral consequences by the school or teacher are not going to help if the student is not able to understand the positive benefit of education. Students only spend a few hours a day at school. Their total environment must be considered. And that is a lot to consider. It does not do to point fingers. That has also been tried to no avail.

One last word about school choice.   Colleges work they way they do by excluding students from the educational mix.   They compete for the best students.  The best colleges teach the best and shoot the rest.  Not literally, but one of the important things about great colleges is great students.  Private schools do this.  They have entrance exams and/or prerequisites.     Charter schools do this by using various methods to encourage low performing or problem students back to the traditional public schools.    Home schools do not do this, but a huge part of the home school demographic is two-parent middle income families.  Children from these families generally do very well in public schools.   (Home school is a complex issue and there are many reasons for choosing home school. Some are not academic.)

The new law is not perfect. It is really not very good.  There are still too many federal mandates that serve no purpose.  But it is a step in the right direction however small.  That said, it is far better than No Child Left Behind.  Perhaps it is, all-in-all, one less brick in the wall.

That’t enough for now.

 

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