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NCLB Outrages

Education Reform and What Bush Leaves Behind

Correction: Coles isn't cynical. He's describing cynical government policy.

by Laura Starita

The imminent inauguration of a new president has regenerated the debate over the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education policy, and whether it is the right way to bridge the widening education success gap between poor children and their more affluent peers.

There is no lack of criticism for NCLB. Advocates argue that the assessment focus at the core of NCLB implementation is key to creating the kind of accountability that public schools need, while acknowledging that those measures have been problematically implemented. Teachers’ unions claim the assessment scores force educators to structure their curriculum in entirely test-focused ways, and then holds teachers wholly responsible for student success while ignoring contributing issues. Furthermore, with decreased funding or increased restrictions on programs such as Head Start, poor, disadvantaged kids—particularly minorities—are the ones falling even further behind.

A series on education running now in Dissent Magazine addresses the role played by NCLB’s Reading First program. University of Southern California education professor Stephen Krashen says that Reading First, a structured curriculum for teaching early reading in primary schools, exclusively addresses technical reading instruction methods such as formal phonics training, the effectiveness of which remain in question, while ignoring the importance of providing students with access to books and time for “free reading”, which has been conclusively shown to improve ability and comprehension. Education psychologist Gerald Coles goes on to cynically suggest that the $6 billion invested in Reading First allows the administration to tout its investment in early childhood education for the poor, while at the same time doing nothing about confounding circumstances, such as poverty, that have a direct impact on education success. In so doing, the government places the burden of blame for Reading First’s lack of results squarely on teachers, parents, and poor children themselves.

Both Krashen and Coles point to the idea that dynamics outside the classroom have an enormous impact on education success, and that no amount of curricular prescription will mitigate them. Primarily they are talking about the consequences of poverty: hunger, sleep deprivation, and household instability, for instance. A recent New York Times Magazine article points to the work of a number of scholars and education programs pointing to a connection between home life and academic success that is stronger than current policy takes into account.

Economist James J. Heckman from the University of Chicago attributes persistent inter-generational poverty to a lack of skills. In essence, poor kids become poor adults because they don’t learn cognitive (reading and writing) and noncognitive (social skills, planning) skills at home, and schools can’t make up the difference. Heckman’s work suggests that interventions can help, but they have to start in infancy.

The article also highlights both the work of Susan Neuman, an education scholar who has written a book about early intervention programs, and Geoffrey Canada, the director of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the most ambitious attempts to take on all the challenges faced by poor children at once. Neuman’s favorite programs and the Harlem Children’s Zone begin with very young children—even infants—and deal as much or more with the family than with the school. Many offer parenting education, health care services and personal health education, and early analysis show that program recipients are on par or ahead of their age peers in school testing.

The challenge is making those gains sustainable. As with universal pre-k and other in-school interventions we discussed in a previous post, evidence suggests that the benefits of non-school programs decline and disappear within a few years after a program stops. The difference is that the positive impact of school-based interventions probably disappear because beneficiaries are put back into the inadequate, overcrowded and underfunded school system for which the program was intended to prepare them. In the case of non-school interventions, impact disappears because the program stops while the need continues. The takeaway, therefore, is not that they shouldn’t be funded, but that they need to be funded for longer. Funding, of course, is not a trivial issue. The reason non-school programs have not received much funding to date is because they are expensive and they require a larger intrusion into family life than American society has traditionally accepted.

It is difficult as well to avoid a partisan bent in discussions such as these. Indeed, John McCain is talking primarily about school choice and vouchers while Barack Obama is tapping Canada’s program for replication across the country. But creating left/right divisions on this, as on most, subjects, misses the point: children are failing, and that failure begins often before they ever set foot in a classroom. Investment in schools and teachers is critical, but efforts to address what happens outside the class may well help make dollars invested in classroom intervention more effective.

— Laura Starita
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