Wednesday, December 19, 2007

No Propaganda Left Behind

Author Jonathan Kozol met with Senator Ted Kennedy about the re-authorization of NCLB, advocating a major rehaul rather than any "tweaks" currently being proposed. I used to be a big fan of Kozol's, but his "partial hunger strike" in protest of the education law (partial hunger strike? What the hell is that?) annoys me.

So does some of the cant embodied in the letter he sent to Kennedy, which prompted and framed their discussion:
The law is racially discriminatory in its immediate effects. In affluent white districts, where small class-size and high spending are the norm and kids routinely do well on exams, NCLB is not permitted to degrade or narrow the curriculum. In embattled and low-funded urban schools, in contrast, principals are being forced by threat of federal sanctions to impose upon their teachers proto-military and test-driven methods of instruction which they tell me that they pedagogically abhor. Teachers in these schools are often being handed scripts to read and told they must hold timers in their hands, in order to be sure that not a single minute of the schoolday will be wasted by permitting children to indulge their curiosity, enjoy a moment of healthy playfulness or humor, pose a thoughtful question, or pursue a serious line of interest that will, however, have no pay-off on a standardized exam. (emphasis mine)
By placing inordinate pressure upon inner-city schools to limit their focus to that very narrow slice of subjects to be tested, NCLB is robbing minority children of the culturally expansive range of subject-matter given to white children, while also deadening the intellects of inner-city kids by robbing them of the critical-thinking skills needed to survive in higher education or to function as discerning citizens. In a decade when black children are more segregated than at any time since 1968, NCLB is compounding the damage of their racial isolation by deepening the cultural division between these children and the mainstream of society. (emphasis mine)

All right, let's break this down. No principal is forced to take instructionally idiotic steps by anything other than his own limited vision and short-sightedness. I taught in a school that forced "proto-military" test prep methods on me and the kids, long before NCLB. NCLB doesn't mandate them or even suggest them. If schools are canceling classes and imposing regimens of test prep, they're stupid schools run by stupid people. If schools are canceling science, social studies, and art classes because the kids are so far below grade level that only by intensifying core instruction in English and math can they hope to catch up, well...doesn't that say something about the school's instructional program, or the level of readiness with which kids enter the school?

That said, there are HUGE issues around equity of input, and I agree in principle with all of the arguments Kozol and others are making here. You can't demand equivalent outcomes without providing equivalent inputs. Blame the larger economy, lingering racism, and lack of access to pre-K, if you like. But this particular law is not creating economic inequity and educational foolishness.

Meanwhile, there is much he says that's good and important:

Instead of improving the quality of teachers, NCLB is driving out precisely those highspirited, well-educated, and creative new young teachers our urban schools try so hard to recruit, while rewarding the most mediocre and robotic teachers who don't object to rote-and-drill instruction that requires no real contribution of their own....

The standardized exams mandated by NCLB are useless to our teachers since, unlike diagnostic tests, they offer no specific information on a child's areas of weakness and because the scores are not returned to schools by testing corporations until mid-summer at the earliest....

High-stakes tests administered in third grade are wildly unfair to children who have had no preschool education. Middle-class and wealthy children typically receive at least two years, often three, of rich developmental pre-K. More than 2/3ds of our poorest inner-city children have usually had none.

Then there's this, which I kind of agree with and kind of object to:

NCLB has been unsuccessful in narrowing the gap between the races.

That's certainly true, government bloviations to the contrary notwithstanding. But to say this is not to say that the law has had no positive effect. I'm out there in school districts all the time--poor, urban, challenged school districts--and the leaders of those districts are thinking and worrying about their African-American students in ways they rarely did before. And their special ed students. And their disadvantaged students. By disaggregating test data and insisting on progress in all identified sub-groups, the law has had the positive effect of denying school districts the dark and shadowy corners where they hid their lowest-performing students, showing only the overall, total scores to the world. This is precisely why some of those schools and districts have done Supremely Dumb things like canceling science and social studies classes, or instituting test prep drill. They're panicked. Well, they should be panicked--they been underserving and undermining these kids for years. The fact that they've responded so foolishly shows that they don't really know what they're doing.

Given where I work, I obviously have trouble with this (even though he doesn't mention my firm by name):

NCLB's S.E.S. requirement, compelling a low-performing school to hire what is termed “an external provider” to do tutorials with students, has opened wide the gate for forprofit corporations -- a half-way step to vouchers. While the law does not require schools to hire profit-making corporations, the marketing skills of Princeton
Review, Sylvan Learning, and similar firms have been remarkably successful at carving out a huge piece of our public education budget in return for services explicitly directed at test-score inflation but devoid of pedagogic value.

At least here he admits that it's not the law's fault. But I find his knee-jerk objection to private sector involvement in education (he's been worse on this in other articles) very short-sighted and limited. If there's a need, and the school has trouble meeting it, and someone is willing to step forward and provide help...why should the school be denied the help, just because the help has a price tag? Teachers come with a price tag, too, you know--and a pretty nasty union fighting for their salary, benefits, and work rules. Contrary to Kozol's opinion, teachers are not, by structural definition, saints or martyrs. They work for a living, like everyone else. Obviously, the best of them also have a sense of mission. But guess what? So do the people I work with.

Of course, buying lousy test prep (or even good test prep) instead of real tutoring services is a problem. And NCLB is at the root of this problem. The emphasis on testing--and state-level, rather than national testing--creates an enormous financial burden for states, which leads, in many cases, to a slate of multiple-choice tests (cheaper to make, cheaper to score) which lend themselves to strategy courses and test prep approaches. If NCLB could find broader and more rigorous ways to judge student performance, the schools who need help would have to find broader and more rigorous methods of assistance, which would drive education companies to provide broader and more rigorous assistance.

I like that remedy much more than Kozol's, which is, "Congress should prohibit the diversion of resources by our public schools to hire private test-prep corporations to inflate the children's scores by artificial means." Because what's artificial? If it's a stupid test, the score on which can be inflated simply by learning some basic strategies, then the gain is the gain, and if it can be bought, people will (and should) buy it. Make better tests, or fold in outputs beyond testing. Trust me, the companies will follow. That's just business.

Ach, I'm exhausted. There's lots of other stuff--some good, some bad. Go here if you're interested in reading the original.

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