Thursday, February 17, 2005

The soft bigotry of the achievement gap

Just noticed this post from Jenny D. So you want improvements to No Child Left Behind, huh? Well, I've got a list of things you could do to tinker with it here and there. But if you really want to get to the heart of it, there's one glaring problem with NCLB and so far, we, as a country, simply haven't had the political will to deal with it. It doesn't solve problem of equity.

Where are the failing schools? Why, says the supporter of NCLB, they're in the inner cities and barrios and rural areas. That's why NCLB is so swell. It will close the achievement gap.

No, it won't. Testing does not necessarily improve instruction or increase learning.

There is an alarming and abundantly clear correlation between schools that fail to make AYP and schools that are in high poverty areas. Before you roll your eyes and say I'm making excuses, remember that school districts generate revenue from property taxes. Property poor districts get portable buildings and leaky roofs; property rich districts get new playgrounds and computer labs. It's a fact of life.

So how do we fix NCLB? Quit handicapping inner city and rural schools and talking about an achievement gap and call it what it really is: a funding gap. Equity is what is needed and frankly, I think there's more than a little subtle racism in the term achievement gap: as if African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and rural students haven't achieved as much as their suburban white peers. They haven't been entitled to as much. Really, looking at the hands they've been dealt, I'd argue that they've achieved more than the suburbanites.

Let's equalize funding for schools (yes, it can be done with statewide property taxes) and give Black, Hispanic, and rural kids a chance at much more than merely passing test scores.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

California on Spellings' bad list

Well, just when you thought it was safe to say that Sec. Spellings might be a little more flexible than her predecessor, you read this. Look out, California. The wrath of the federal government will soon be at your door. (Run, Utah. Don't walk-- run from this law!)

It seems California didn't fail enough of its schools! They need to fail more, says the federal government. And when they fail, they need more resources to provide tutoring and transportation for students transfering out of the district. But don't ask the federal government for the money. They're really good at mandating things-- let's just say they aren't making "adequate progress" on the funding side of things. Perhaps we should shut down the Department of Education. Have it taken over. Or at least provide tutoring for them. Hell, I'll pay for it.

From the article about California's alarming lack of failure in the LA Times:

The Bush administration is pressing California to toughen its rules for identifying failing school districts — a change that could add 310 school systems to a watch list this year and eventually threaten the jobs of superintendents and school board members throughout the state.

The U.S. Department of Education warned that it could cut off money to the state if California did not change the way it classified struggling districts under the No Child Left Behind Act.

...Leaders of several California school systems said it would be unfair to identify failing districts in the middle of the school year without any notice or time to respond. The district officials wondered where the money would come from to create new programs aimed at improving student test scores.

"The entire notion of how No Child Left Behind has been enacted is very narrow, very myopic and very draconian," said Santa Monica-Malibu Unified Supt. John Deasy. "It sets up a very negative dynamic for schools that have successfully shown they can raise achievement over time."

We're all wondering where the money will come from. And while supporters of No Child Left Behind pooh-pooh these critiques as nothing more than excuses, there is no doubt that the cost of education is rising significantly. If the Administration is going to insist on compliance, they must provide the resources to make it possible. So far, they -- not the schools -- are failing.

Sex scandal

Nick Kristof offers an excellent op-ed today on the sex scandal in the Bush White House. Didn't know there was one? There is. It's called abstinence only education. And while the National Writing Project and scores of other worthy programs got the budget axe last week, abstinence only programs will receive additional funding.

According to Kristof:

In the old days, social conservatives simply fought any mention of sex. In 1906, The Ladies' Home Journal published articles about venereal disease - and 75,000 readers canceled their subscriptions. Congress banned the mailing of family planning information, and Margaret Sanger was jailed in 1916 for selling a birth control pamphlet to an undercover policewoman.

But silence about sex only nurtured venereal diseases (one New York doctor, probably exaggerating, claimed in 1904 that 60 percent of American men had syphilis or gonorrhea), so sex education gradually gained ground. Then social conservatives had a brilliant idea: instead of fighting sex ed directly, they campaigned for abstinence-only programs that eviscerated any discussion of contraception.

That shrewd approach succeeded. In 1988, a survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that only 2 percent of sex-ed teachers used an abstinence-only approach. Now, the institute says, a quarter of them do.

Other developed countries focus much more on contraception. The upshot is that while teenagers in the U.S. have about as much sexual activity as teenagers in Canada or Europe, Americans girls are four times as likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as French girls to have a baby, and more than seven times as likely as Dutch girls to have an abortion. Young Americans are five times as likely to have H.I.V. as young Germans, and teenagers' gonorrhea rate is 70 times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands or France.

Some studies have claimed that abstinence-only programs work, but researchers criticize the studies for being riddled with flaws. A National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy task force examined the issue and concluded: "There do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy."

Worse, there's some evidence that abstinence-only programs lead to increases in unprotected sex.

Perhaps the most careful study of the issue involved 12,000 young people. It found that those taking virginity pledges had sex 18 months later, on average, than those who had not taken the pledge. But even 88 percent of the pledgers had sex before marriage.

More troubling, the pledgers were much less likely to use contraception when they did have sex - only 40 percent of the males used condoms, compared with 59 percent of those who did not take the pledge.

In contrast, there's plenty of evidence that abstinence-plus programs - which encourage abstinence but also teach contraception - delay sex and increase the use of contraception. So, at a time when we're cutting school and health programs, why should we pour additional tax money into abstinence-only initiatives, which are likely to lead to more pregnancies, more abortions and more kids with AIDS? Now, that's a scandal.

Indeed it is. What's even more of a scandal is this ridiculous response from the Abstinence Clearinghouse. They claim that Kristof is encouraging kids to have sex. Did they read the article? He, like most reasonable people, advocates an approach called abstinence-plus. Teach abstinence first, but teach students about contraception and STD prevention, too. Hell, Kristof even plugged their website in his op-ed as a place to get T-shirts and boxer shorts promoting abstinence. I guess they have a funny way of saying thank you.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Misery loves company

Texas is in trouble. The school funding problem is a nightmare, but, as the saying goes, misery loves company. At least we're not alone.

New York's Gov. George Pataki is appealing a court ruling that said his state needs $5.6 billion in new funds. Most observers believe it's a stall tactic designed to stretch the ultimate decision out long enough to exceed the Governor's time in office. Another profile in courage.

Meanwhile, New York City will receive over $30 million more from the Gates and Dell Foundation for the small schools intitiative. I've said before this strikes me as a great idea. Break up schools with thousands of kids into smaller campuses and increase the teachers' ability to form meaningful relationships with students. If we don't want students to fall through the cracks, teachers and administrators have to know who they are. Is this a panacea? No. Is it a step in the right direction? Most definitely.

Oh yeah, $5.6 billion in new money would help, too.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Full court press

I was going to write about Margaret Spellings' interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education (which was more interesting for what didn't get asked), or the story about Spellings' newfound flexibility on NCLB, but then I saw this article.

I've been following the school finance debate in Texas very closely recently. Texas, like a dozen or so other states, has been ordered by the courts to fix school finance so that schools are reasonably equitable. As the very capable Jenny LaCoste-Caputo of the San Antonio Express News points out, they aren't anywhere near equitable now:

Shabby portable buildings sit nearly end-to-end on the blacktop parking lot.

Construction paper and faded curtains cover the windows, blocking out glare when the sun shines and drafts on chilly days. When it rains, mud piles up and water flows like a tiny river between the wooden buildings.

The narrow, dimly lit rooms are crammed to capacity with desks and chairs. In some classes, there aren't enough places for students to sit.

Here at Porter High School in Brownsville, most of the 2,100 students spend at least part of their day in decaying, temporary classrooms. The school district — one of the poorest in Texas — can't afford to keep pace with growing enrollment.

"If you had facilities like this in a district like Northside (in San Antonio) there's no way parents would put up with it," Porter Principal Alonzo Barbosa said. "But these kids don't know how bad they've got it. They've never seen anything different."

... "Our kids have to pass the same exams and face the same challenges as every other student in the state," said Daniel King, superintendent for Hidalgo School District, about 70 miles west of Brownsville near the Mexican border. "The state has the same expectations of my kids so the access to funding needs to be relatively equal."

On average, property-rich districts have $500 more to spend per student than property-poor districts — a $450,000-a-year difference at a typical elementary campus, according to the Equity Center.

This is unconscionable. And the solution is clear. School funding has to be divorced from local property values which provide hundreds of thousands more for districts in property-wealthy areas and leave property poor districts struggling to get by. All the high minded talk associated with No Child Left Behind and state accountability standards means nothing if poor schools don't have enough to be adequate. You can't have excellence if you can't even reach adequacy.

The courts are right to assert themselves in this arena and they should continue to do so. Vigorously. State legislatures have generally proven inept at devising fair funding formulae. Perhaps a little pressure from the court -- March madness is right around the corner... full court press, anyone? -- is just what's needed.
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