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NCLB Outrages

Another Big Thing Botched by the President

Ohanian Comment: Although this is a letter, it is a good Op Ed Outrage.January 25, 2006

by A.E. Levin Garrison

To: Harold Meyerson

Dear Mr. Meyerson:

(Harold Myerson, “Bush the Incompetent,?[editorial], Washington Post, Jan 25,2006, A19)

In keeping with the theme of incompetence, the basis of your editorial piece (“Bush the Incompetent?, I would like to suggest that missing from your list of “screw-ups?is his co-incompetent failure at policy for educational reform. I hope you will agree that this issue belongs on the list of the “big things?he botched.

Here is a review of the key issues of the NCLB act of 2002 that are well known to state and local leaders, parents, teachers, students and educational researchers nationally:

?NCLB is an unprecedented federal intrusion into an area historically reserved to the states;
?NCLB's one-size-fits-all approach ignores the realities of good teaching and learning;
?Under NCLB, valuable class time is diverted to test preparation and away from real teaching and learning;
?NCLB is too narrow in its substantive focus because students need to master the basics such as reading and math, as well as the new basic skills of communication, creative problem solving, and collaboration in order to succeed in the 21st Century economy;
?NCLB relies too heavily on standardized testing to the exclusion of other valuable measures of mastery such as portfolio reviews and performance;
?NCLB's punitive approach distracts and undermines educators and administrators; an approach that includes incentives and technical assistance to aid struggling schools is more likely to yield positive results over the long term;
?NCLB is underfunded, placing significant financial strain on states and districts and forcing them to divert funds away from programs that they know work to help struggling students such as smaller class size, early learning and after school programs and others.
In addition to numerous academic papers and statements by education researchers and administrators reporting how severely compromised the public schools have become in attempting to comply with this mandate, there are many personal experiences from teachers and students who are struggling to comply. These in particular are horrific stories of spirits snuffed out and looming despair.

I can provide you with more about this and other information if you are interested.

But, for a handy illustration of the “mind-boggling incompetence,?take a look at another article from the Post (Nick Anderson, “The ‘No Child?Law’s Flexible Enforcer,?Washington Post, Jan 24, 2006, A10). I will show you what catches my eye and saddens my heart about the “education?act and hope that I convince you that it too deserves to be on you’re A list (or “I?for “incompetence?list).

Early in the article, you will find that Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings says: “The department fined Texas nearly $900,000.00 for non-compliance with the law.?I ask you to consider the consequences that such a sizable penalty would have on a school system that otherwise might benefit from the use of this money. This is exceptionally mind boggling when you consider that the penalty is aimed at schools that are found to be struggling! Think about it?

A few paragraphs below that gem, Spellings says she will “not waiver on holding states to a target that many educators call virtually unattainable?(my emphasis). But, when you read that sentence, please tell me if you find any logic behind ignoring the input of the educators.

Later in the article, we find her joking that many of the questions she received were about educational law, issues unknowable to anyone but “a wonk.?I suppose I can appreciate the macabre humor of an educational insider getting down and wonky, but I have to add that I find this state of the public’s lack of information devastating and even more insidious because certain newspapers are doing the community a grave disservice by selectively excluding the information. (More on that if you want it?

Further along, Spellings refers to the state of Maryland, about which she happens to have cozy feelings, since our State superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, is in avid compliance with NCLB and “moved rapidly?into testing requirements. Personally, I am prepared to speak long and thoroughly about what this rapid change has done to my children and their teachers?morale (let me know if you want to hear the results?. It has been an awful experience for the students and teachers in our Maryland county, as a result of our State Superintendent’s adherence to NCLB policy on testing (standards and measurements.)

Next, Secretary Spellings says she learns about the quality of her own child’s school from the test results. I am extremely well-prepared to disagree with that counter-intuitive thought, but, many people have written eloquently and at length about the idiocy of such a statement.

Then Spellings addresses the “success?of accelerated math programs. Look at recent results in neighboring Prince Georges county for evidence of the poor results of this policy. The same thing happened in our county several years ago—the kids were pushed into Algebra earlier, and the results of this push in our county schools was enough to simultaneously kill our students?interest in math and in school, and it also moved an enthusiastic, veteran teacher to walk out of the school…forever.

Ms. Spellings describes Ms. Grasmick like this: “She is very experienced and builds consensus around tough things.?Mind you, I have no idea what “tough things?are but, I can tell you that Ms. Grasmick has never answered a single piece of e-mail I have sent to her, and I know of no one whom she has answered, particularly if the message was critical of the changes in our schools over the last four years. Recall that several years ago, when Baltimore City found itself in an urgent budget situation of millions of dollars in over expenditure and staff members repeatedly pleaded for help, Ms. Grasmick’s response was one of complete disinterest; she ignored them. You can read about this situation in the Baltimore Sun newspaper, but I would have to say her idea of consensus building and mine is vastly different.

Next comes my all-time favorite quote. I will refrain from any comment and hope that you too will see the absurdity of Spellings?words: “When you’ve got conservative Republicans and the PTA working together in the same direction about how to best involve parents,
that’s a win.?(This is comedy of the absurd, is it not?)

Then there is Spellings describing the D.C. schools: “They have a ton of work to do on curriculum reform, especially in reading.?Again, I am almost ready to laugh but for the damages done by such a statement. Would toilet paper and hand-soap in the bathrooms help? Would taking an active stand on the numerous suffocating, crucial social and medical and economic issues, needs that are primary and urgent above and before a school curriculum for many of the city’s children, come to mind for consideration?

And if that’s not enough, she tells us that the District schools, along with schools in the state of Virginia and Prince Georges and Baltimore counties in Maryland, are all getting ready to face “corrective action?or “restructuring.?Yeah—that’s the ticket. If they don’t measure up, let’s destroy them! But let’s look at her words for this: “Having schools called out, spotlighted, tended to when they are not working is what this law is about.?Wait a minute, I forgot whether I was reading about schools or jails?

There are several last comments about expanding the AP program with NCLB funds, which has been discussed thoroughly by the National Research Council as an inferior and flawed approach and which has been identified as a policy that interferes with the development of real academic benefit. But why beleaguer a well-made point.

I end this discussion of the NCLB according to the Secretary with her own summary, which closes the article by describing why raising the bar is what our public schools need to make progress: “[T]his is what real grown ups do; real college students do this, and this is what matters.?I can’t even bear to give this ridiculous thought any more words.

Learning, as most people know, cannot be fabricated by a political mandate; it is an art, an opportunity, a challenge graced by the dedication, talent, and ingenuity that a teacher brings to the classroom. It is individual and it is unpredictable. Measured by tests that dole out punishment for failure, NCLB invites desperate measures to comply with its standards; it places blame where blame is not productive. Learning that is reinforced by positive reward, practiced with proven methods, and informed by appropriate assessment is the practical dispersal of hope and opportunity for a generation of students who are growing up in a rapidly changing, increasingly demanding, and complicated world. Learning that is attached to realistic, individual goals and allowed the freedom to vary and expand in depth and breadth and that is dependent on the expertise of the teacher, as well as the accurately evaluated potential of the student encourages creativity and enthusiasm; it promotes a life-long desire to learn.

We can do better for our teachers and our students than to standardize away attention to the variety of styles, interests, and abilities of both. We can design a better vision than one that holds a minority child or group accountable for the failure of a school. We can create a better plan than to have our brightest students in a program of study that is geared for minimal "proficiency" and memorization on standardized tests, which excludes the expansive spontaneity of creative debate and discovery. And, we can do much better than to spend hours training our least able children to bubble answer sheets to cheat the system as well as the child. We can use new and creative methods to help stimulate a joyful quest for knowledge and resist the boring, rote, and meaningless learning that is geared toward a limited and small-minded outcome that substitute for real learning. Yes, our students need to learn basic skills, but more importantly, they need to learn to think independently, to reason, to be honest and thoughtful, and to decipher and apply the principles and values of our democracy. These are the skills they will need to become informed citizens in a society that will require their participation.

With the imposition of and adherence to the NCLB act, neither the rhetorical nor statistical manipulation can recover the many losses suffered by our students, our teachers, and our system of public education.

— A.E. Levin Garrison
letter to Washington Post


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