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NCLB Outrages

One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea

For someone claiming to be an intellectual, Susan Jacoby certainly relies on "received knowledge" in her judgments about teachers. It is shameful but not surprising that the New York Times would publish this appendage to their own editorial page.

By Susan Jacoby

AMERICAN public education, a perennial whipping boy for both the political right and left, is once again making news in ways that show how difficult it will be to cure what ails the nation's schools.

Only last week, President Obama declared that every high school graduate must be fully prepared for college or a job (who knew?) and called for significant changes in the No Child Left Behind law. In Kansas City, Mo., officials voted to close nearly half the public schools there to save money. And the Texas Board of Education approved a new social studies curriculum playing down the separation of church and state and even eliminating Thomas Jefferson -- the author of that malignant phrase, "wall of separation" -- from a list of revolutionary writers.

Each of these seemingly unrelated developments is part of a crazy quilt created by one of America's most cherished and unexamined traditions: local and state control of public education. Schooling had been naturally decentralized in the Colonial era -- with Puritan New England having a huge head start on the other colonies by the late 1600s -- and, in deference to the de facto system of community control already in place, the Constitution made no mention of education. No one in either party today has the courage to say it, but what made sense for a sparsely settled continent at the dawn of the Republic is ill suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy.

Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support to attract smart young people to the teaching profession all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments. So does a financing system that relies heavily on local property taxes and fails to guarantee students in, say, Kansas City the same level of schooling as students in more affluent communities.

President Obama's proposed revisions to his predecessor's No Child Left Behind law appear, on the surface, to offer an example not of local control but of more federal intervention. Yet many experts agree that the main reason President George W. Bush's original law has failed to raise student achievement significantly is that states have dumbed down their exams. Diana Senechal, a former New York City teacher, demonstrated this in an inventive fashion when she showed that anyone could pass New York's middle-school promotion examinations by simply ignoring the questions and answering, "A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D" in order.

The new proposals being offered by the Obama administration will not significantly change a setup that combines the worst of both worlds: broad federally mandated goals and state manipulation of testing and curriculum. Nationwide testing is useless unless it is based on a curriculum consensus reached by genuine experts in the subjects being taught -- yes, the dreaded "elites." That is how public education is administered in nearly all industrialized nations throughout Europe and Asia, whose students regularly outperform Americans in reading comprehension, science and math.

By contrast, the Texas board's social studies revision forms a blueprint for bad educational decision-making. Chosen in partisan elections, the board members -- most lacking any expertise in the academic subjects upon which they are passing judgment-- had already watered down the teaching of evolution in science classes when they turned their attention to American and world history. Thus was Jefferson cut from a list of those whose writings inspired 18th- and 19th-century revolutions, and replaced by Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. This is certainly the first time I̢۪ve ever heard the "Summa Theologica" described as a spur to any revolution.

No Frenchman could conceive of a situation in which school officials in Marseille decide they don't like France's secular government and are going to use textbooks that ignore the Napoleonic code (and perhaps attribute the principles of French law to Aquinas). But publishers will have to comply with Texas requirements in order to sell history books to that state̢۪s huge school system. Indeed, they will likely start producing one edition for conservative states and another for the saner precincts of American schooling.

That is exactly why local control of schools is often an enemy of high-quality public education. The real question is whether anything, in the current polarized political climate, can be done about educational disparities that are inseparable from our fragmented system of public schooling. I can imagine at least three baby steps that would pave the way for success.

First, even though a national curriculum cannot be imposed, serious public intellectuals of varying political views need to step up and develop voluntary guides, in every academic subject, for use by educators who do not disdain expert opinion. The historians Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who disagreed politically on many issues, advocated for just such a set of national history standards in the late 1990s. These guidelines met with approval from just about everyone but the extreme fringes of the left and right.

Second, the federal government must invest more in training and identifying excellent teaching candidates. France, faced with a teacher shortage in the early 1990s, revamped its training system so that aspiring teachers would receive a partial salary in the last year of their studies. Prestigious institutes for teacher training were also set up to replace less rigorous programs, with admission based on competitive national examinations. Which makes more sense -- investing resources upfront in attracting the brightest young people to teaching, or penalizing teachers who fail further down the road, as No Child Left Behind attempts to do?

Finally, the idea that educational innovation is best encouraged by promoting competition between schools and pouring public money into quasi-private charter schools should be re-examined by both the left and the right. One of the worst provisions in the Obama administration̢۪s $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" program strongly encourages states to remove restrictions on the number of privately managed charter schools. Here again, we have the worst of both worlds: a federal carrot that can lead only to a further balkanizing of a public education system already hampered by a legacy of extreme decentralization.

Daniel Webster, eulogizing Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both died on July 4, 1826, spoke of "an unconquerable spirit of free inquiry ... and a diffusion of knowledge throughout the community" as two of the fundamental requirements of American democracy. He predicted, "If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have upholden them." These great principles cannot be upheld if the quality of our public schooling continues to depend more on where a student lives than on a national commitment to excellence.

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Age of American Unreason.

— Susan Jacoby
New York Times
2010-03-19
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/opinion/19jacoby.html


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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