A noted, all four writers are nationally known figures in education. Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education at Stanford, and the respondents are sociologist and author Pedro Noguera, longtime educator and National Urban League vice president Velma L. Cobb and senior NYU scholar and veteran school principal Deborah Meier. I believe that makes the two parts of this forum, Hammond and the responses, critical reading for anyone participating in discussions about reform or repeal of NCLB. Let's start with Darling-Hammond.
We badly need a national policy that enables schools to meet the intellectual demands of the twenty-first century. More fundamentally, we need to pay off the educational debt to disadvantaged students that has accrued over centuries of unequal access to quality education.
although she argues that NCLB does not address either the forthcoming demands nor our responsibilities to the disadvantaged. She acknowledges two positive intents of the law, the disaggregation of scores which exposes when minorities and disadvantaged students are not performing as well as others, and the requirement for highly qualified teachers. On the latter point she notes
While recent studies have found that teacher quality is a critical influence on student achievement, teachers are the most inequitably distributed school resource. This first-time-ever recognition of students' right to qualified teachers is historically significant.
After describing the overall level of opposition to much of the law, Darling-Hammond presents in a few sentences the crux of most of the objections. I have added bold to one key sentence of what I will now quote.
Critics claim that the law's focus on complicated tallies of multiple-choice-test scores has dumbed down the curriculum, fostered a "drill and kill" approach to teaching, mistakenly labeled successful schools as failing, driven teachers and middle-class students out of public schools and harmed special education students and English-language learners through inappropriate assessments and efforts to push out low-scoring students in order to boost scores. Indeed, recent analyses have found that rapid gains in education outcomes stimulated by reforms in the 1990s have stalled under NCLB, with math increases slowing and reading on the decline.
At base, the law has misdefined the problem. It assumes that what schools need is more carrots and sticks rather than fundamental changes.
She attributes much failures of the law largely to an inappropriate focus on testing and punishment rather than to addressing the underlying inequities, both within and without the span of control of our schools. I have given a sense of this in the material I quoted to begin this posting. Darling-Hammond puts this as clearly as possible in one sentence:
With high-spending schools outspending low-spending schools at least three to one in most states, multiplied further by inequalities across states, the United States has the most inequitable education system in the industrialized world.
She notes that NCLB addresses neither the inequity of funding nor reaching adequate opportunities to learn for disadvantaged students, and despite the provision for highly qualified teachers there is no Federal teacher supply policy to support providing such teachers. She agrees with Gloria Ladson-Billings, former president of the American Educational Research Association, who
has noted, the problem we face is less an "achievement gap" than an educational debt that has accumulated over centuries of denied access to education and employment, reinforced by deepening poverty and resource inequalities in schools. Until American society confronts the accumulated educational debt owed to these students and takes responsibility for the inferior resources they receive, Ladson-Billings argues, children of color and of poverty will continue to be left behind.
I am often skeptical of international comparisons and rankings of student performances for variety of reasons often not accounted for in the stories we read about how poorly the US does. I think Darling-Hammond does something interesting in the comparisons she makes on teacher training and qualifications and financial support, which you will see in the opening quote. There were two other paragraphs that use matters of international comparisons to make the point on the detrimental effects of NCLB. Let me offer them both, with an ellipses for the intervening material:
Finally, high-achieving nations focus their curriculums on critical thinking and problem solving, using exams that require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems and defend their ideas orally and in writing. These assessments are not used to rank or punish schools, or to deny promotion or diplomas to students. (In fact, several countries have explicit proscriptions against such practices.) They are used to evaluate curriculum and guide investments in learning--in short, to help schools improve. Finally, by asking students to show what they know through real-world applications of knowledge, these other nations' assessment systems encourage serious intellectual activities that are being driven out of many US schools by the tests promoted by NCLB. . . .
Ironically, states that set high standards risk having the most schools labeled "failing" under NCLB. Thus Minnesota, where eighth graders are first in the nation in mathematics and on a par with the top countries in the world, had 80 percent of schools on track to be labeled failing according to the federal rules. In addition, states that earlier created forward-looking performance assessment systems like those used abroad have begun to abandon them for antiquated, machine-scored tests that more easily satisfy the law. As emphasis on drilling for multiple-choice tests has increased, the amount of research, project work and scientific inquiry has declined, and twelfth grade reading scores have dropped nationwide.
Darling-Hammond's critique is thorough, also informing us that NCLB has discouraged states and schools from reforms that have been shown to be productive and - despite the title of the law - having the perverse effect of punishing the neediest schools and students. And she emphasizes something that was known about the Texas program upon which NCLB was based BEFORE the proposal became law (and some of us wrote and lobbied about this) - that is, she does not write about what had happened in Texas, but what we are now seeing happening all across the country:
Perhaps the most adverse unintended consequence of NCLB is that it creates incentives for schools to rid themselves of students who are not doing well, producing higher scores at the expense of vulnerable students' education. Studies have found that sanctioning schools based on average student scores leads schools to retain students in grade so that grade-level scores will look better (although these students ultimately do less well and drop out at higher rates), exclude low-scoring students from admissions and encourage such students to transfer or drop out.
The impact of this falls most heavily on minority children, especially Latino and African-American. And this is exposes clearly one serious flaw in the law:
In the NCLB paradigm, there is no solution to this problem, as two-way accountability does not exist: The child and the school are accountable to the state for test performance, but the state is not held accountable to the child or his school for providing adequate educational resources.
Darling-Hammond goes on to talk about "world-class standards" as a means of addressing the issues NCLB was supposed to address. I disagree with this approach for a variety of reasons, just as I think the framing she offers about the reforms of the 1990s is flawed. However, neither point detracts from the impact and accuracy of the bulk of her critique, which I intend to ensure is seen on the Hill.
Noguera begins his response with an approach that I think is a dangerous acceptance of a preexistent framing:
Despite its failings, two basic goals of NCLB remain important: Students should be educated under higher academic standards, and those responsible for educating them should be held accountable.
His approach is to use NCLB to broaden its scope and purpose to address the real needs of poor children and struggling schools. To move in this direction he argues we would have to respond to
the nonacademic needs of poor children.If we want to insure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must insure that their basic needs are met.
This would include things like winter coats, counseling for those abused, and
Expanding access to healthcare, preschool and affordable housing, and providing more generous parental leave policies should be included on the education reform agenda.
He also argues that states should be required to
adopt standards to insure that all students attend schools staffed by qualified teachers and learn in safe, clean, well-maintained facilities.
Schools should be more accountable to parents and to the communities in which they serve, and teachers should be more involved in the mentoring and evaluation of their peers. He also offers a challenge:
Unions must take the lead in removing incompetent teachers from classrooms as well as advocating for the rights of children and public education generally.
Cobb, who was a supporter of NCLB, focuses on issues of equity:
Still, those of us who were supportive of NCLB's goals always knew there needed to be a larger conversation--a conversation on the opportunity to learn. Even in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, are we ready to talk about poverty? Are we ready to talk about race?
She notes that most poor performing schools are in neighborhoods of poor people, this usually populated by those on the other side of the racial divides, and wonders if we will address the underlying issues that contribute to the inequities we claim to want to address.
I would really like to quote ALL of what Deb Meier offers. As usual, she cuts to the heart of the matter. There are no wasted words, and she forces us to focus on some important issues. Let me tantalize you with a two-paragraph selection which requires no commentary from me:
There are two important areas in which we could work toward narrowing the achievement test gap aside from directly through schooling: narrow the health gap (as Richard Rothstein argues) and narrow the income gap. Both paths would positively affect test scores as well as real learning. Since NCLB has been in effect, we have instead widened such gaps. Although we claim to be worried about our poor international standing on tests, we might better worry about the fact that we rank nearly last in measures of childcare. These data lead me to be somewhat suspicious about our will to upgrade educational outcomes.
The continuous focus on which kids fail to live up to our ideals--higher test scores--reinforces an ugly aspect of our ever fiercer competitive culture. The idea that the poor, especially the poor of color, are pulling down our system is repeated over and over. The idea of equal human potential is a new and fragile idea; I wonder what all of this pounding away at the so-called deficiencies of "those kids" is doing to this late-twentieth-century concept. Until we pay off "the educational debt" Darling-Hammond describes, we will be forced to keep living with it and with the assumptions that spawned it: our underlying race- and class-biased interpretation of "intelligence."
She goes on to remind us that our democratic system was created as a system of accountability, and offers some pungent criticism of the way we do accountability in schools. She concludes as follows:
Schools are, first and foremost, where we turn to reinforce the intellectual and moral rationale for democracy. If the people are unwise, as Jefferson noted, we must better educate their discretion, not disarm our democracy. Yet, of late, when it comes to schooling--a process designed specifically to educate on behalf of democracy--we seem to have turned our backs on the power of human judgment.
The two articles are, as you should see, so rich in material that can challenge the conventional thinking about educational reform. I respond as I do because I find so much overlap with my own thinking, with much of what I have seen in research and commentary. I have been involved in writing about education and schools because I believe that preserving and improving our system of public schools is an essential underpinning of maintaining a liberal democracy. NCLB is a logical reducto ad absurdum of the wrong-headed approach to national educational policy at least as far back as the early 1980's (A Nation at Risk in 1983). I have not posted this diary as a part of the official effort for Education Uprising / Educating for Democracy, but it is obvious how much overlap there is between the material here and the issues with which we have wrestled as we attempt the impossible task of redesigning American education.
I truly hope this diary gets great visibility. Anyone involved in the efforts to preserve and fix our public schools needs to understand the material in these two parts of the dialog at The Nation. While my diary is not so important, I would urge people to widely pass on the links to the two pieces, to others interested in education, to elected officials and policy makers.
If NCLB is reauthorized in anything like the current format, or if - God forbid - proposals such as those by the Aspen group which would increase the punitive nature of many of the sanctions and impose even more were to become law, we likely would destroy meaningful public education in this nation. It would no longer be able to serve as a means of lifting people up. It would instead facilitate further the exacerbation of the underlying inequities in this nation.
I think this is as important an issue as faces this nation. It is a political issue, it is a social issue, and it sure as heck is a moral issue if we believe in the promise of our founding documents like the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Education must serve the goals to which our Founders aspired, and to which so much of the effort throughout our history has been dedicated, or this nation will rot from the inside out. We cannot sustain a liberal democracy with its concomitant liberties and freedoms unless we can - through education - provide meaningful opportunity for all Americans and those who aspire to become Americans to participate fully in the promise of America. Absent meaningful public education, I do not believe that promise can be maintained.
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