Saturday, October 30, 2004

Why left vs. right is wrong

I was criticized yesterday for siding with the left wing over the right wing on educational issues (see the comments below). But I'd like for readers of this blog to understand that I respect both the left and the right's views on education. Both make valid points.

I don't think that we'll ever be able to improve education if the arguments are always framed as right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, or traditional vs. progressive. An us-against-them worldview stifles productive dialog and, ultimately, stifles any hope for long lasting change. (Reforms by one group will quickly be undone when the other group gets power.)

Reflexive opposition to differing views is counterproductive. Period.

Here’s how I see the current debate in educational policy. The left says that testing should not be everything. A single-minded focus on standardized tests dumbs down the curriculum and pushes subjects like Art, Music, PE, and even History to the margins (as teachers focus on the core competencies in the tests). It also too narrowly defines the needs of students and families. Students need more than test taking abilities and proficiency in reading and arithmetic to succeed in the world.

The right says that for too long schools have failed to provide even minimal academic proficiency to many children and adolescents. If there are no consequences for failure, schools can, and will, continue to fail. The tests aren’t that difficult. We’re just trying to make sure students can read and add and subtract. Shouldn’t every child have those basic competencies?

The sad reality here is that both sides (and I must admit, I’m often guilty, too) are so busy arguing their side that they fail to slow down and acknowledge the truth of the other side. And both sides make valid and important points. I won’t allow this blog to become one-sided. We need more spaces where people can analyze issues not from the right or the left but from the sensible center. And yes, such a center does exist, even if it’s pretty hard to find any sign of it these days.

I’d like to thank Joanne Jacobs for linking to my blog. She obviously didn’t agree with most of what I’ve posted so far and she linked anyway. That’s in the spirit of her tag line – free-thinking and linking – and I do appreciate it (I only wish I’d have thought of that line first!). I hope that as the days and weeks go by more people will comment on the content of this blog and that genuine dialog will help us get closer to solutions that are representative of multiple points of view.

In the midst of this bitter election season, it’s important to remember that even though politics is competitive, setting a national education agenda should be collaborative. Your comments – from whatever point of view – are always welcome.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Stealing the Language

"...[T]he mantle of school reform has been appropriated by those who oppose the whole idea of public schooling." -- Alfie Kohn

The right has stolen the word "reform." I must give them credit. They've been extremely successful at stealing words. The supreme irony of naming an act "No Child Left Behind" that encourages schools to literally leave many children behind a grade level or two (so they won't bring down test scores) isn't mentioned enough. I think it's clear, though, why it was named No Child Left Behind: so that no politician can oppose it. In a sound bite world, to appear to say that you favor leaving children behind is tantamount to political suicide. So it passed both Houses of Congress overwhelmingly.

And now, according to Alfie Kohn's article linked above, another word has been swiped: reform. The theft has been going on for a while now, of course, but the perfidious theft of the word "reform" is now basically complete. Kohn presents some compelling evidence to at least suggest that right-wingers mean -- by implementing NCLB -- to undermine public schools and encourage their takeover by private organizations.

To quote Mr. Kohn again:
I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.

Now, admittedly, this sounds very conspiratorial. And I do not mean to suggest that every supporter of NCLB is a public school hater. That simply wouldn't be true. But it does seem like something is indeed rotten in this situation (see my blog entry from two days ago about the Undersecretary of Education directing federal funds -- $40 million -- to his own company:

I'm really interested to get some comments on this one. Does anyone have any stories, anecdotes, or other evidence that would suggest this is really the right wing agenda? I haven't made up my mind yet -- and I hate to assume ulterior motives -- but this definitely deserves some more attention.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

What happens to "high achieving" schools?

This column by Marc Fisher raises an often overlooked question: What happens to the "high achieving" schools once they're required by law (NCLB, of course) to accept students from "failing" schools?

It's an excellent read:

Fisher takes the example of a school in Southeastern Washington DC that earned high test scores after years of hard work. Now, forced to accept students without the same academic background, they're suffering.

There's a problem of logic here: There are over 5,500 schools failing now, while only a small percentage of students (set by the state) have to pass, what happens when the bar is raised to 100% (within ten years)? How many millions of students will be eligible to transfer? And how many successful schools will be left to take them in?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Battle Royal

The other night I attended a No Child Left Behind Forum featuring Stanford Professor Nel Noddings, among others. It was very interesting and I'll be reflecting on some of the insights I picked up there in the future. But it couldn't be as interesting as this upcoming forum, which just caught my eye:

Apparently Bush education advisor Sandy Kress and prominent NCLB critic Linda McNeil will be at the same Education Writers Association (EWA) event on December 3 and 4 in Houston. I can't imagine that they'll share a stage, but wouldn't it be great?

Kress was an architect of NCLB and, according to Government Executive magazine, he could be tapped as Education Secretary before the end of a potential second Bush term.

McNeil wrote Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing. It's one of the best critiques of standardized testing I've read.

It'd be a great debate if that's the format. If it is, I'm going.

For more info:

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Questionable contracts to Bennett and Hickok

Looks like Halliburton isn't the only company getting questionable contracts:

Rep. George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has called for an investigation into a $4.1 million grant given to former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett's company (K12) and a $40 million grant give to current Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok's company, American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE).

In his letter to the General Accountability Office (GAO), Miller wrote:

The awarding of these grants to applicants who do not appear to meet the standards proscribed for grantees in the statute or by independent peer reviewers raises serious questions. The association of these grantees to high-ranking Department of Education officials compounds these concerns. The GAO should independently and thoroughly review the awarding of these contracts and determine the appropriateness of the decisions awarding millions of dollars to these companies.

Can you spell "scandal," boys and girls?

For the full letter and press release go to:

Offering reassurance to children-- and to ourselves

"Philosophy consists of offering reassurance to children. That is ... of speaking first and foremost for that little boy within us, of teaching him to speak—to dialogue—by displacing his fear or his desire." — Jacques Derrida

Derrida, whose deconstructionist philosophy changed academia, died earlier this month. I just read this quote and found it to be stunning in its depth and simplicity. It's worth reading twice.

Thanks to Michael Arnzen for posting the quote:
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