Thursday, March 25, 2010

NCLB Got Us Rolling

Now we need to do something about it.  My main take on NCLB is that it was a way to show in a powerful and public way how many schools are failing to do what they were thought to be doing.  (I specifically did not say "failing", because that word is loaded and requires unpacking:  It is one thing to fail because you weren't able to do a job that you should have been able to do, it is another thing to fail to do a job it wasn't possible for you to do.)

I think most educators in relevant schools, or familiar with the data already out there for decades knew this was true, and the reasons why.  But NCLB made it public, and forced the public's hand on education-as-a-right.  At the same time, however, in trying to bring upwards, punitive pressure to low-performers (read mostly low-SES, across - but also within - schools), it also brought downwards pressure to high-performers, in the form of lowest-common-denominator, one-size fits all curriculum and teaching to the test, etc.

I think it's illustrative to look at the very title of the act from a philosophical point of view.  "No Child Left Behind" places laser-like emphasis on those kids who had previously been glossed over.  It represents a dramatic clarion call to a larger educational philosophy that is not about intervention but inspiration and a love of learning. 

30 years ago, when I was in kindergarten, I'm not sure there was any pencil-paper work at all.  We were given access to rich materials, encouraged to play imaginatively, learned cooperative songs and generally explored the classroom.  That Kindergarten no longer exists.  There is a scripted, mandated curriculum that is all about phonics, rote memorization, and discipline.  The difference is that while the former model worked fine for me and my middle class peers, it was catastrophic for disadvantaged children, who lacked the social resources at home to fill out what was not explicitly taught in school.  Research shows that more structured academic skill building - surprise - really improves results.  But what you lose is the other side of the spectrum, where critical thinking, student-centered, collaborative and exploratory learning is thrown out, or relegated to the odd teacher who is able to actually pull it off despite the prescribed curriculum.

And so you have this clash of philosophies playing out over a range of socio-economic demographics.  Inner-city parents are being pushed into hyper-structured, factory-style learning because given budgetary realities, with one teacher and 30 students (a large percentage needing intervention), that's what gives you the most bang for your buck.  Meanwhile middle class parents are freaking out because the state has now mandated this model across the board, and school has become even more drudgerous (as if that were even possible). 

We're just now dealing with the fallout of a massive sector of the economy that is routinely and systematically failing to do what we want it to do.  Yet it is less that the schools are getting worse, we are just getting better at quantifying the achievement gaps that had always existed.  We just weren't all that concerned about it.  I mean, Jaime Escalante started teaching in 1974.  1974!!! 

The "war on poverty" was just getting rolling.  For instance, the classic study that Hart & Risley did on SES and early childhood language development wasn't even completed until into the 1980's, when A Nation at Risk came out.  While in some ways that report's recommendations have yet to be fully implemented (the extension of the school day and year - being the biggest - would require considerable increases in funding), the report is laughably naive in its suggestions for correcting the real differences in SES achievement.

I think it was just a matter of the data building and building, but we've finally gotten to the point where we realize how important a quality education is.  We don't have to guarantee it.  I think that's a moral question masquerading as a philosophical one. But until we do, nothing will really happen.  We can fiddle around and fool ourselves into thinking if we just find the right way to do what we're doing better we'll ever "leave no child behind".  We might do a bit better here or there for a while.  But we won't come close until we dramatically rethink what we want education to be in society, and seriously ask ourselves how important that goal really is.

(And the Flaming Lips new album, "Embryonic" is amazing...)

No comments:

Post a Comment