The fundamental flaw with American educational policy is its “schools only” approach to addressing academic problems.
It’s no secret that there’s a huge achievement gap in the US. Gaps in performance correlate most heavily with economic disparities.
The “schools only” approach, loosely defined, means that the government’s education policies direct schools to overcome gaps in academic performance solely through teachers’ “in-building” efforts.
No Child Left Behind is the legislative expression of this moronic principle.
NCLB is based on a few main principles:
1) Testing: NCLB directs states to mandate standardized testing so that they can get a better read on which schools are struggling. This by itself isn’t so bad – some standardized tests are fair and accurate measures of some kinds of knowledge and achievement. The problem arises in the way standardized tests are used – and the degree to which they are depended upon for evaluation of both teachers and students.
2) “Accountability”: NCLB demands greater accountability for teachers, schools, and districts. But accountability isn’t based on the quality of the teachers’ or principals’ performance. Rather, it’s based on students’ s standardized test scores.
Consequences for failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress include purging schools of their entire teaching staff and hiring new ones. The underlying assumption, of course, is that if students in “failing schools” don’t progress, it’s because the teachers are incompetent. This ignores entirely that academic performance correlates more closely with parent income than with any other factor.
So, the teachers in suburban schools with relatively wealthy constituents are brilliant because their wealthy students do well on the tests. The teachers in inner-city schools are awful – and deserving of dismissal – because their students, facing all the challenges associated with impoverishment, don’t do as well.
The trick is that you could switch 100% of the teachers from a wealthy suburban school and a poor inner city school and see absolutely no change in the performance of the students in either school.
So all this “accountability” does is stigmatize positions teaching in poorer schools. This ensures that the best candidates – the most qualified teachers – will compete for positions teaching wealthier students.
The next step – Obama’s big plan – is to replace seniority-based advancement with “performance pay.” This new kind of accountability ensures that not only do teachers who take jobs in inner city schools risk firing, but they’re guaranteed to make less, as well.
Sounds like a recipe for success to me.
3) School choice: School choice gives students at failing schools opportunities to switch to more successful schools.
This is the most invidious part of the NCLB system. Most students in inner city schools are bound by circumstances to attend the school nearest their home. Poorer kids are far less likely to be able to find transportation to schools outside their neighborhood, and parents living in poverty are far less likely to have the time or skills necessary to pursue “school choice” options. If you’re working 60 hours a week to make ends meet, it’s harder to find time to get down to the district office to fill out “school choice” paperwork.
So what school choice functionally does is provide an escape hatch for children of more affluent parents in city schools, further isolating and stigmatizing students of poverty.
The “voucher” movement is the worst expression of this concept. A voucher system would take government dollars away from government schools and give them to students’ families to help pay for private education. However, since private school tuition costs thousands of dollars – some as much as $20,000 or even $30,000 per year – vouchers don’t really help poor students get out of struggling schools. They help middle- and upper-middle class students get out of public education altogether, ensuring that public schools are, more and more, home to only the poor.
The basic idiocy of this approach is its assumption that, while academic problems are rooted in the complex realities of poverty, teachers can somehow magically adjust their classroom strategies so as to eliminate the effects of poverty.
Here’s a website for a reform program that offers a broader, more realistic approach to education reform.