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NCLB Outrages

Why Obama's education reform plan can't work

Valerie Strauss: My guest is Jim Horn, who teaches at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass., and is a contributor to the Schools Matter blogpost. Here he writes an open letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about Duncan's and President Obama's proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind.

Dear Secretary Duncan:

I am writing to express my two chief concerns regarding policy development and implementation around the ideas presented in the Blueprint for revising No Child Left Behind.

The first has to do with the implications of using student test score gains in teacher evaluations. I need not remind you of the forewarning already provided to you in a letter by the National Academies Panel last fall regarding the premature use of untested growth models to design teacher reward or punishment systems. The development of such systems at the state level, which the Race to the Top point system encourages, would show a thorough disregard for the best scientific opinion.

There is a deeper concern related to using test scores to make high stakes decisions about teachers, however, and it has to do with the sacredness of the age-old bond that is established between children and their teachers.

Despite all the politicizing of the teaching profession, at heart teachers remain child advocates and cultivators of the next generation of citizens. Teachers want children to succeed and flourish, but it is not because they have been paid to do so. A student̢۪s growth and well-being remain the teacher̢۪s most ardent concerns, despite the fact that she is undervalued, demonized, ridiculed, mistrusted, and paid less than most other professions that require the same level of education and training.

If a child's test scores are to be used to make decisions regarding a teacher's most basic needs for adequate sustenance for her family and for a dollop of dignity from her principal, then you risk damaging the teacher-student relationship that goes as far back as Socrates.

And this says nothing about the threat that pay based on test score plans bring to present and potential collaboration among teachers who must begin to worry, then, about whether her students are pulling ahead of the students next door or the students in the school down the street.

Teachers will work no harder when their tenure or their salary depends upon their students' test scores, but the kind of work they do, if such plans are adopted, will not resemble the work of the attentive gardener tending these tender tendrils of humanity that constitute our future.

My other primary concern is related to what appears to be a missed opportunity to make civil rights once again a priority of the Education Department.

Recently you announced more resources going to bring court challenges against schools that have breached the current Civil Rights laws and regulations.

That is a positive step, but can you imagine what an impact the Department could have if equity, civil rights, and social justice planning were part of the criteria for awarding the $4.35 billion in grants to the States. So far no points (0.00) are offered in Race to the Top to incentivize potential grantees toward novel or innovative solutions to the accelerating re-segregation of American schools.

Unfortunately, the "innovative" choice option that is being advocated in the Blueprint heavily favors charter schools, with the "No Excuses" KIPP Schools as the model to emulate.

Now it doesn't take Margaret Spellings to see that the KIPP schools that your Department is holding up as models are intensely segregated by race and class, and there is nothing, unfortunately, that KIPP or your Department can do to attract white or middle class students to them.

Why? Because those parents in the leafy suburbs or in the townhouses of the D. C. would never allow their children to be treated like the economically disadvantaged, black and brown children who are being KIPP-notized daily in the KIPPs and the KIPP wannabes, all with the Department̢۪s blessings.

There are other school choice options such as magnet schools that provide more robust and public forms of choice, and magnet schools have years of documented success and plenty of research to justify their proliferation.

By ignoring the documented successes of magnet schools in increasing parental involvement in public schools, integrating and energizing school communities, narrowing learning gaps, and offering many varied choices to parents in terms of curricula and instructional models, the current Blueprint limits urban parents' choices to either a neglected and largely segregated public school or an intensely segregated charter school with a harsh behavioral and compliance regime that most parents would not allow for their children if they could truly choose something more humane and effective.

Even though the public schools of Wake County, N.C., have been recently hijacked by anti-diversity conservatives who are in the process of blowing up the best example yet of magnet schools and limited two-way busing to effectively achieve true socioeconomic school integration, the Wake County results stand on their own, as Gerald Grant documents in his recent book, "Hope and Despair in the American City" (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Your friend, Bill Gates, has recently made it his personal mission to make sure the world reads "Work Hard, Be Nice," Jay Mathews's celebratory story of KIPP founders, Mike Feinberg and David Levin.

I would challenge you to use some of the department's professional development fund to make sure that Mr. Gates and all of his former employees who now work for your department get a copy of Gerald Grant's important book. Here is the way he concludes it:

. . . this tale of two American cities [Syracuse and Raleigh] is not just about test scores. It's about the kind of nation we hope to become. We should not want, nor shall we ever achieve, a nation of equal test scores or equal incomes. But we need to decide whether we want schools segregated by race and class, or schools that provide equal opportunity for all children—schools where students are enriched by relationships and ways of thinking that help them break out of the boxes of race and class that our flawed history has constructed. Do we believe in a nation that welcomes all comers, provides a level playing field in all its public schools, relishes the clash of ideas, and, as a consequence, enjoys one of the highest rates of upward mobility in the world? Raleigh’s reinvention of the ideals of the American common school made it an exemplar of those dreams and hopes (p. 191).

— Jim Horn
Washington Post: The Answer Sheet


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