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Leave This Blueprint Behind

The Obama/Duncan policies raise troubling questions. Perhaps the most obvious is: Who will want to teach English learners and other students who face academic challenges if educators will be blamed and punished, on the basis of faulty data, for failing to work overnight miracles?

By James Crawford

President Obama’s "Blueprint" for school reform, released March 13, features lots of familiar promises: Providing "every child in America a world class education"-- Placing "a great teacher in every classroom" -- "Closing achievement gaps" -- Graduating "college- and career-ready students" -- "Fostering a Race to the Top."

We've heard it all before. Remember "No Child Left Behind"? That misguided experiment has failed to meet any of its lofty goals. Worse, it has created a tyranny of testing in our public schools that requires key decisions to be made solely on the basis of student scores. Among other perverse effects, it has dumbed-down the curriculum, eliminated subjects like music and art, demoralized educators, frustrated parents, and short-changed students --especially those who most need our help.

Recognizing the unpopularity of this law, candidate Obama denounced the "data-driven" madness of No Child Left Behind throughout his campaign. He often used the applause line: "Teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests."

So what does the President propose now in his Blueprint for elementary and secondary education? More filling in bubbles.

On the brighter side, some of the harshest No Child Left Behind mandates would be eased, along with other improvements such as restoring federal grants for bilingual education programs. But what Obama gives with one hand, he takes back with the other.

His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has complained loudly about the low quality of standardized tests. Yet the Administration still intends to rely on those tests to punish, dismantle, and privatize thousands of public schools each year whose scores fall in the bottom
5 percent. Equally troubling is its plan to extend the use of unreliable test data to evaluate, pay, and even fire teachers.

None of these radical ideas has been validated by research. To the contrary, there is considerable evidence that "high stakes" testing can do considerable harm to schools and to children.

To visualize the likely impact, let's set aside the Blueprint's flowery rhetoric and consider the Administration’s recent actions. Last month, in a public show of support, Obama and Duncan endorsed the dismissal of all staff at a so-called "failing" high school in Central Falls, RI . The students -- 70 percent Latino, with a large percentage of English language learners -- turned out to support their teachers and administrators. But the superintendent and local politicians refused to listen, threw out the union contract, and carried out the mass firings, without regard to whether individual teachers were successful or not.

Adding to the injustice, this decision was substantially based on the scores of students not yet proficient in English, the language of the test, despite the fact that nobody even pretends that such results are valid. The Blueprint includes ideas for improving assessments for English learners -- a worthy goal. Yet, meanwhile, it would continue using invalid test data to make important decisions.

The ugly saga of Central Falls is just a preview of what’s in store for large numbers of urban schools if the Obama administration gets its way. No doubt many of these schools need help. But "turnaround" strategies, such as transforming them into charter schools, with a new staff and different kids, have proved disruptive and harmful in many cities -- notably Chicago, where Arne Duncan ran schools before coming to Washington. And there’s no question that many students, especially children of color, have been left behind by these actions, proclaimed -- ironically -- in the name of civil rights.

Such draconian policies raise troubling questions. Perhaps the most obvious is: Who will want to teach English learners and other students who face academic challenges if educators will be blamed and punished, on the basis of faulty data, for failing to work overnight miracles?

As Leo Casey, a New York union leader, put it recently: "If the price of working with America's neediest students is a game of Russian roulette with one's professional careers, many teachers will reasonably decide that the price is too high. And the losers will be the schools and the students who need accomplished teachers the most.”

James Crawford is President of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research-based advocacy for English language learners.

— James Crawford
Institute for Language and Education Policy


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