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Pretending To Care!

Ohanian Comment: Joseph Batory lays out succinctly what we should be looking at--the No Child Left Behind Act as a convenient political mechanism to keep the American people from looking too closely at their own society and the shortfalls and failures of government not schools. I would add the chicanery of corporate power to the shortfalls and failures of government, and with his citation of Clinton Boutwell’s Shell Game, Batory does recognize this. Readers of the site know that I highly recommend Shell Game as a real eye opener. The full title is significant: Shell Game: Corporate America's Agenda for Schools (Phi Delta Kappa 1997). Boutwell spells out in detail that the need for a greater suppply of high-quality workers is a myth perpetuated by businesses' vested interest.

By Joseph P. Batory, Former Superintendent of Schools, Upper Darby, PA

From the White House to the legislative chambers of the United States Congress to the state houses and governors’ mansions, a great many elected officials continue to play an old con game with the American people. It’s called: “Let’s pretend we care about public education in America.” To prove their concern, politicians have given the nation their No Child Left Behind Act, a program that is little more than a federally mandated standardized testing that perpetually uses the results of these tests to threaten schools with public disgrace, ultimatums and sanctions.

Far from being some panacea to improve public education, the No Child Left Behind Act is a convenient political mechanism to keep the American people from looking too closely at their own society and the shortfalls and failures of government not schools. The reality is that the meaningful improvement of American education must extend well beyond some standardized testing program.

1. Has Anyone From The Government Been Out In The Real World Lately?
The United States child poverty rate is substantially higher---5 to 7 times higher---than that of most Western industrialized nations. The National Center For Children in Poverty reports that 38% of American children (27 million) live in low-income families and 7% (five million) live in extreme poverty. USA Today recently noted that 45 million Americans are without health insurance. These are phenomena that evoke little concern from too many of our leaders. Yet this unacceptable national disgrace creates enormous challenges for those public schools that serve the overwhelming majority of America’s economically disadvantaged students.

Within the affluent halls of the seats of government, too many politicians have little knowledge or concern for people in the real world who struggle in poverty and often live in crime ridden, drug infested neighborhoods surrounded by a squalor that looks nothing like an American Dream.

Lester Thurow, a distinguished economist, has offered this summary of our nation’s inattention to this issue: “America’s elite...more and more resemble the oligarchy of Latin American countries where a small handful of immensely privileged people have it very good and don’t care at all about the fact that so much of the rest of the country is doing poorly.”
Beyond the issue of poverty, 20% of the students in America’s public schools have at least one foreign-born parent. Almost 10 million pupils speak a language other than English at home.

Additionally, public school programs must address the needs of the homeless, the mentally and physically challenged, the socially maladjusted, and the educationally deprived.

It is clear that far too many of America’s leaders simply ignore the remarkable heterogeneity of our public schools in terms of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, diverse populations served, and financial resources available to them. That’s because addressing these issues certainly involves more than a political “magic wand” of standardized testing and sanctions of schools.

2. Does Anyone Really Believe That Money Doesn’t Matter?
Award-winning writer Benjamin Barber has noted that “...money by itself can’t solve problems, but without money, few problems can be solved. Money also can’t win wars or put men in space, but it is the crucial facilitator. Money is also how America has traditionally announced: We are serious about this!”

Ironically, for all of its rhetoric and mandates, the federal government provides somewhere in the vicinity of 7% of the total monies spent on public schools. As a result, most of the money for public education comes from local (real estate) and state sources. This has created tremendous inequities in educational spending and overall educational quality among school systems. In far too many urban and rural areas of this country, in terms of programs and facilities, these public schools look more like they are from some third world nation rather than one of the richest countries on earth. In America in 2005, there is a public school caste system. It features numerous well-funded and resource-filled schools who educate mostly white children from affluent suburban areas. However, our nation also has far too many under funded and educationally deprived schools almost of which serve millions of the poor and most people of color.

Added to this is the documented betrayal of special education students and their families by the federal government. From the inception of the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) some 30 years ago, the Congress of the United States has under funded school districts by more than $300 billion. That’s because these elected officials never came anywhere near the promise of their own legislation to fund 40% of the costs of mandated special education services for students in need. This shortchanging of special education children over so many years created and continues to perpetrate financial havoc for school districts and their local and state tax bases.

3. Are Schools Really The Only Player In Educational Improvement?
Focusing on improvement of education in our nation is certainly a worthwhile objective. However, achieving that goal goes way beyond a unilateral focus on beating up schools. Former United States Secretary of Education Terrel Bell once offered this perspective: “…the struggle for school reform has made one fact very clear. Even the best of schools cannot compensate for failure in the home…students must come to school knowing that their parents or guardians want and expect them to learn…”

Within that context are these chilling highlights from a three year research study of 20,000 pupils by Laurence Steinberg, Bradford Brown and Sanford Dornbusch (Beyond The Classroom): “…for a large segment of American students, just ‘getting by’ is good enough…..little of their energy is devoted to academic pursuits by this group and many of these students never read outside the classroom. . . .Nearly one in three parents in America is seriously disengaged from his or her adolescent’s education. Approximately, one-third of students say their parents have no idea of how they are doing in school. . . .And, the glorification of stupidity in the mass media has downgraded the importance of academic and/or intellectual achievement in our nation…”

The bottom line is that schools are only one part of American society and hardly operate in some vacuum. Parents of course have been and continue to be the primary teachers of their children. And beyond the school walls, young people are bombarded each day with the questionable quality of television, a pop culture that is often valueless and materialistic, and the influences of peers and adult role models which are often the key to shaping individual character, thinking and motivation much more than their school experience.

4. Let’s Bag The Nonsense Flowing From the Private Sector!
There has probably been no more blatant hypocrisy about public education than the stream of invective from business and corporate leaders. It is ludicrous to have round tables of business executives advising the federal government about something these corporate giants know so little about, America’s egalitarian system of public education.
During the 1980’s, CEO after CEO blamed public schools for the downturn in the economy. But when the economy turned consistently “bullish” year after year in the 1990’s there was no praise for schools from those same business leaders. That’s because the correlation of economic success or failure to the quality of public schools was never a valid premise (see Lawrence Cremin’s Popular Education and Its Discontents, 1989), just a convenient “shift the blame” propaganda mechanism for corporations experiencing rough times.

Another big business complaint has been that public schools are not creating the necessary quality workers that are needed for corporate success. But check the records of downsizing in the private sector where all too often thousands of highly trained and capable workers are cast aside (laid off) in order to insure the profit line for the company. Clinton Boutwell’s Shell Game offers a staggering documentary of this amoral practice by corporate leaders.

Finally, the idea that some mechanistic business model should be utilized to promote educational excellence in schools is highly debatable. Just in the past few years, the corporate misdeeds of WorldCom, Tyco International, ImClone Systems, Arthur Andersen and Rite Aid should be enough to convince anyone that perhaps business should prioritize its own institutional shortcomings before attacking public schooling.

5. The Theatre of the Absurd!
How politically pragmatic it has all been for so many politicians and bureaucrats, so far removed from the real world problems of schools and society to scapegoat the failures of themselves (government) regarding American society onto the backs of public schools. It is the theatre of the absurd that is Washington, DC. The roots of our nation’s problems with education have much more to do with societal inequities that define a huge underclass within our citizenry, a blind and uncaring government that ignores the realities of its neediest citizens, and a materialistic “Me Only” culture that has evolved away from the common good for all.

How many of these government policy makers have ever spent any significant time inside an inner city public school or just observed the diverse populations of students in a typical public school anywhere in the USA. How many of these elected officials have any idea of the social class strata of “haves and have nots” that pervades the nation. Few (if any) members of Congress worry about paying monthly bills, how to afford proper housing for their families, their ability to purchase health insurance, or how to afford higher education for their children?

Why have teachers and school administrators, those closest to the schools and the students they serve, been excluded from the national dialogue about educational reform? Ironically, school people, the prime sources regarding the needs of schools and their pupils, have been ignored. Instead, political party ideology and empty rhetoric rule on education.
For the record, our nation could much better redirect the huge amounts of money being spent for the testing programs of the No Child Left Behind Act to fund:

  • Universal pre-school education;

  • Health Care coverage for all Americans;

  • Initiatives that reduce poverty and foster a more economically equitable society;

  • Programs to build parental engagement and responsibility as partners with schools;

  • Remedial and enrichment programs for students in need;

  • State of the art professional development for all teachers;

  • Improved utilization of technology especially in schools that serve the underprivileged;

  • School modernization where necessary;

  • Programs in music and the arts for all pupils;

  • New “state of the art” vocational and technical opportunities for pupils;

  • Much smaller class sizes.

  • How tragic (or is it immoral) it is that our elected officials so conveniently ignore the realities facing American society while bashing the public schools. They just keep on pretending they care

    — Joseph Batory



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