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Misguided Reforms Won't Educate Poor Children

Publication Date: 2009-11-05

Here's an op ed from the East Valley Tribune (Arizona)

One of the most difficult questions in all of philosophy, a question pondered by everyone from Plato to Dewey: "How should we best educate children?" has been solved. It is simply a matter of embarrassing those lazy school employees and making sure those teachers don?t think too much.

Yes, all it takes is a bitter combination of two pills--a public shaming of "underperforming schools" and completely scripted, teacher-proof educational programs for all schools. As last Sunday's Tribune implied in two articles, the debate is finished. If we will swallow these two pills, the poor children will be saved.

But not all of us are so quick to believe the snake-oil salesmen here.

Firstly, this system of labeling schools is just plain unfair. There are a lot of really good teachers teaching in these "underperforming" schools. Even with the improvements made in the MAP process, the AIMS and Stanford 9 scores used to calculate these labels reflects socioeconomic status more than teacher performance. How are we helping the poorest children as these talented teachers leave their schools for wealthier ones? Oops, no one thought about that.

Meanwhile, Bob Schuster ("It's time to float education's dead wood downstream") points out, in an implied argument similar to one I read on the Arizona Department of Education's website, that some schools in poorer areas weren't labeled negatively. If they can do it, why can't everyone? The rationale here, backed up by Cece Todd's article ("Principal power"), is if all the lazy or incompetent principals and teachers did what they were supposed to do--no child would be left behind.

Please don't be misled by this distraction. The gist here is that they don't think poor schools deserve additional resources to deal with the problems of poverty. If some of these schools can educate (read: pump up test scores) their children with no additional resources, why can't all the schools? This is faulty logic. An exception does not make the rule.

Further, digging deeper into solving problems is different than glossing over them. Think about it in terms of our nation's defense. One could argue that every other country on Earth gets by at a fraction of our defense spending. Should we, therefore, cut our defense spending to their level and when we fail to protect ourselves, label our military underperforming?

Secondly, this growing faith in scripted programs, such as Success for All, is nothing less than the dumbing down of education. Yes, the purveyors of such programs can point to higher test scores in certain instances, but this is all they can offer. Their lack of evidence in other areas begs a number of questions. What can children learn from teachers who are presumed too stupid to teach without a script?

What kind of inequality will be produced in a system where wealthier kids learn in novel, interesting ways and poorer children are given drill-and-kill lessons? And what are the long-term effects, beyond this year's test scores, of teaching students solely with behaviorist manipulations and vapid literature?

I am not saying poor children cannot learn. I also am not saying that we can ignore the educational problems of our poorest students. I am saying that we cannot proceed in good conscience with oversimplified solutions which wrongly punish and are little more than temporary band-aids.

(John Scudder is a teacher and writer who can be reached at scudpolitics@msn.com.)

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