Sunday, August 12, 2007

Towards an educated public: Who’s “public” is it anyway?

For those of you who don’t know, President Bush’s landmark education legislation, No Child Left Behind is up for re-authorization this year. As someone who works with teachers on a daily basis (who is not their boss), I can say that NCLB has created some serious trouble for teachers, students, and schools, especially those in resource-strapped communities. On the one hand, there are some good things that have come out of NCLB: content curriculum standards in all 50 states (though 48? of 50 had them prior to NCLB), certified teachers in every classroom (we’re getting there, but there are still shortages in specific subject areas and teachers), teachers not being punished for defending themselves when they are assaulted by students, actually acknowledging students with disabilities and English language learners, the fact that poor and minority kids are getting screwed… But there’s a lot about it that really bothers me. It would be safe to say that it infuriates me.

For instance:

Did you know that a provision was inserted into the legislation that requires all public schools to release the names and contact information of all students to armed forces recruiters? Yep. And there were some reports that the recruiters were pretty insistent and crass in their efforts to get young people to sign up. Parents have to contact their members of Congress to get names removed from the list. Oh, and that information is only made available in English and Spanish. On the surface, I am all for the idea of making that information (about the Armed Forces) available to all students. But it doesn’t work that way. The military has a lot more access to kids in poor and working class communities than they do in wealthy communities. Thus, they have a captive audience of kids who may not have the money or family knowledge about how to get into college.

If schools fail to make adequate yearly progress (on standardized tests), they have to pay for tutoring and other enrichment programs run by private organizations. That’s right, they can’t create their own programs. Instead, companies like Sylvan and Kaplan get taxpayer money. The feds are using our money for yet another form of corporate welfare. And, because the schools have to pay for the tutoring, even more money is taken out of their coffers which many of them desperately need and more money goes to privatizing education.

Parents of students who attend “dangerous” or “failing” can transfer their children to other schools in-district, Such a transfer, of course, is dependent upon proximity and seat availability. What the feds really wanted to do was be able to give vouchers (again, taxpayer money) to families so they could send their kids anywhere. The idea was to increase competition. OK, in theory (though it makes me nervous to apply this to public ed). Parents could use them for public, private, or parochial schools. My big problem with this? Public schools that receive federal funding must meet the requirements outlined by NCLB in terms of teacher certification, test scores, etc. Private and parochial schools don’t. The irony of course is that NCLB is supposed to make education accountable for how schools use money and get results. Because there is no accountability requirement for private and parochial schools, they are being held to a different standard, and still getting taxpayer money.

Oh, and don’t get me started on how they have decided to disaggregate the data. Basically, what that means is that they break down the data into its smaller representative groups (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, language, English language learner, students with disabilities, etc). Again, really good in theory because schools can no longer tell certain students to stay home on test days (trust me, happens all the time). Every student needs a score (there are big problems with this, but that’s for another diary). But, it is incredibly dangerous when you go macro to the school and district level. How can we compare a school that has 7 groups to one that has 33? It’s much easier to make adequate yearly progress with 7 different groups than it is with 33.

The feds’ definition of a highly qualified teachers simply sucks. Let me be very transparent, I am a former public school teacher who worked in a large comprehensive high school teaching ninth graders. I came to understand that teaching ninth grade was the most important place I could be. The school in which I worked had 1800 students (give or take 200-300, depending on time of year). 900 were in the ninth grade, 900 students were 10-12th grades. That’s a huge “disappearance” rate. That’s why I taught ninth grade. I was certified to teach Spanish and also taught basic schools. I was trained as a social studies teacher, but needed to take extra history courses, even though I passed the state subject area exam. So, I couldn’t get certified. But I was a GOOD teacher, especially in social studies.

My point here is that there is a difference between being certified, being qualified, and being a good teacher. The feds are pushing for content area knowledge only. As a matter of fact, at a national conference last year, one of the talking heads for the Department of Ed. (ED), noted that they were looking into ways to eliminate certification all together.

Currently, I work in a university, preparing people to become teachers. My job now is to help people become the best teachers they can be. That too, is the subject of another diary, which I will get to at some point. But the point I want to make is that knowing your content area is not enough, unless of course, all you want to do is skill and drill. You need to know your students, academically, socially, culturally, emotionally, and developmentally. You need to understand how your content are works, that is, the underlying structures and belief systems that drive inquiry into the fact and content. And you need to know how to make that content accessible to your students. That is what teaching is really about. One of the biggest problems with how math is taught today in the US is that it focuses on procedure. Students don’t learn the concepts and thought processes that lead to choosing different procedures. There’s a great book called The Teaching Gap that talks about this.

The ED refers to the study that is the basis of book’s study. But they screw it up and focus on content and standards-setting (deciding what it is that students should know and how to assess it), as opposed to the message about how teaching in the US needs to be much more complex, theoretical, and philosophical. That part was ignored because it did not reflect the approptiate vision.

Finally, NCLB punishes poor and minority kids, their teachers and the districts that serve them for being, working with, and being geographically located where they are. The ED continues to fail those who have the least and need the most support. I’ll spend more time on this in a future diary. This diary reads like a rant, I know that. It’s needs more citations, I know that, too. But I needed to get this off my chest before I go back to teaching in the fall. Teachers and schools cannot do this alone. Whether you teach or not, have kids or not, this is important. It's about our collective future.


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