The last of a three part series on
the Public Schooling Revolt
By Linda Dobson
Okay. So far the money well is running dry. There are almost as many administrators in schools as there are students. The federal government, which has no business messing in schooling in the first place, is now calling the tunes from Washington to which your child in Small Town, USA must dance. So must his teachers.
In fact, the feds’ stranglehold on what’s going on is so strong, organizations such as the American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association and, get this, the National Education Association, are asking U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for “regulatory relief from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act (the current version of ESEA),” according to Education Week’s “Politics K-12.” Remember, these guys sit in an ivory tower, totally out of touch with the daily lives of students, teachers, and principals, making up rules that, obviously, are harmful to those in the trenches.
The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, is also part of the push. The union sent a letter Nov. 15 to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asking him for flexibility in some key areas.
The wish list is long—and goes deep into the weeds of the law. It includes:
*Leeway for districts on the highly qualified teacher part of the law. The NEA argues that provision can be tough on small, rural districts. And the union contends that some special education teachers may need four or five certifications to meet the highly qualified benchmark, as its written now.
*Changes to Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, the yardstick at the heart of the law, which requires schools to test students in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools that don’t meet achievement targets for all students, or for those in a particular subgroup (like students in special education) are subject to a cascade of sanctions. The NEA wants schools that miss achievement targets by just one subgroup (say, English-language learners) to focus interventions just on that particular group, not the whole school.
*Letting districts be able to use multiple measures to get credit towards AYP. Other measure could include district tests, the percentage of students taking advanced classes, and student attendance rates (right now, AYP is mostly calculated by those state reading and math tests). This was a major bone of contention when Congress took a stab at rewriting the law, back in 2007.
*Providing more flexibility for schools testing students in special education, and English-language learners (for instance, letting ELLs test scores count for their school’s AYP calculation after the student has been in the country for three years, instead of just one).
*Giving states more flexibility to design their growth models, which track individual student progress over time. Growth models would have to go through state peer review and get the thumbs-up from a group of experts, such as the American Psychological Association, or the National Council on Measurement in Education. The department already has a growth model pilot project going.
*Changes to the tutoring provision in the law, including letting districts target tutoring services to students in subgroups that aren’t meeting achievement targets (instead of all those in the school), and letting school districts tutor their own students (like Chicago did, when Duncan was superintendent). The union also wants districts to be able to keep leftover money that has to be set aside for tutoring purposes, instead of returning it to the feds.
*Revamping graduation rate calculations so that schools can get credit for helping “late graduators” not just those who finish high school in four or five years.
*Letting all schools that are using one of the four turnaround models spelled out in the regulations for the School Improvement Grants hit the reset button on their AYP timeline, not just those using the turnaround model (which requires removing at least half the staff) or the restart model (in which schools are turned over to a charter management organization or other outside operator).
These are just the regulations the union has troubles with – imagine how many there are! Imagine how much time is spent locally checking the regs before even a tiny step can be made toward change and/or improvement on the local level. What in the world could make this picture worse?
Well, there’s one really important thing that stands out above many others. Imagine also that the man appointed to head up the U. S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan, to make everything better for your child (in part, with billions of dollars of competitive grant funds), was once the Chief Executive Officer of Chicago schools, where he regularly advocated for charter schools and against public ones. From a “Media Watch” article at Substance News:
Throughout his eight years as “CEO” of CPS, Arne Duncan (above at Noble Street Charter School in January 2007 on the anniversary of No Child Left Behind) ignored complaints about Chicago’s charter schools, covered up scandals from Chicago charter schools, and focused media attention on a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign on behalf of Chicago’s charter schools.
I don’t care if your state is getting $8 billion of the Dept. of Ed’s latest spending spree: do not sit around waiting for any of that to trickle down and help your child receive an education.
Perhaps you think a change in teacher training will end the revolt. Don’t hold your breath. A whole bunch of “experts” just studied this problem and produced “a big report,” according to Valerie Strauss who produces a regular education blog for the Washington Post called “The Answer Sheet.”
The report, titled “Transforming Teacher Education Through Clinical Practice: A National Strategy to Prepare Effective Teachers,” makes a number of smart, common-sense recommendations for improving teacher education programs:
- Admissions and graduation standards for would-be teachers should be strengthened.
- Accreditation for teacher education programs should be made tougher to weed out weak programs.
- Student education programs should model themselves on medical training programs that rely heavily on clinical training.
- Colleges and universities training teachers should work in partnership with school districts and states to change policy that promotes better teacher education.
- Higher education institutions and school districts should work together to design teacher prep programs, select students and assess their performance, and place them in classrooms.
It’s hard to argue with those recommendations. But it’s not hard to argue with this:
“All programs held to same standards; data-driven accountability based on measures of candidate performance and student achievement, including gains in standardized test scores. Data drives reform and continuous improvement.”
Standardized test scores? It’s not enough that we judge students, schools and teachers with standardized test scores? Now we are supposed to incorporate them into teacher preparation programs?
This is all nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs while the ship sinks, for reasons well articulated in a recent USA Today opinion piece by Ruth Bettelheim called, appropriately, “Outdated Teaching Is Failing Our Children.”
Our public schools are turning millions of normal children into dropouts and failures. This isn’t because of a few bad teachers or principals, but because the natural learning behaviors of children are routinely penalized instead of praised. Initiatives such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” won’t change this, because they don’t adequately take into account research about how children learn.
Our classrooms are outdated, functioning like mid-20th century factories. Each child is offered an identical curriculum, like a car on an assembly line. But children aren’t units of production, and this approach is failing. Since 1970, the rate of high school graduation has declined, and the U.S. has fallen from first to 12th among developed nations in education.
This is inexcusable given the well-documented research about what makes students effective learners. Contemporary neuroscience has confirmed that children’s learning is largely dependent on inherent interest, emotional engagement, social interaction, physical activity and the pleasure of mastery.
At last, someone is homing in on the crux of the problem.
These findings are ignored in traditional classroom approaches. If children are not interested, they won’t learn, but schools aren’t structured to capture students’ individual interests. Instead, everyone studies the same texts at the same time. Teachers reprimand children for failing to change gears with the rest of the class. Students must be quiet, sit still and listen passively, though we know that social, emotional and physical engagement enhance learning.
Freedom to make mistakes and benefit from them is the basis of intellectual growth. If researchers or entrepreneurs were forbidden to make errors, innovation would cease. But when teachers are required to prioritize standardized test preparation, children are necessarily taught that being wrong is unacceptable.
The traditional classroom needs an overhaul based on the findings of cognitive neuroscience. Rather than lecturing to passive observers, teachers should act as facilitators, introducing individual students to new concepts based on their interests and developmental state. Children should be free to move around and to choose when, for how long and with whom they will work at each task. Instead of being told facts, children should learn by acting on instructional materials, experimenting and observing until answers are found.
Utilizing all of the modern research that reveals the way children actually learn could change life and learning for your child. In fact, utilization is helping families around the world every day because they did not wait until the public school system was able/willing to change. The quickest and easiest way for your child to learn in this natural, successful manner is to leave the system and create the environment that supports it in your home.
Your child is growing up in the Information/Technology age, and you can utilize it all at home. (See “High Score Education: Games, Not School, Are Teaching Kids to Think” by James Paul Gee, “iNACOL Identifies Top Online Learning Trends” at Education Week, and “Technology – the Creative Destroyer” at Extreme Wisdom for just three examples of the efficacy of “thinking outside the education box.”
The situation at public schools is deteriorating and will continue to do so for many years to come, quite possibly the entire tenure of your chid’s “school career.” The availability of information, the ease of communication, and the willingness of the homeschooling community to reach out and help newcomers make it easier to begin homeschooling than ever before.
If you feel you can’t afford to homeschool, rethink that notion, as well. Read “Homeschooling: Cost Not a Big Factor” at Personal Finance Bulletin. Author Rachel Theus explains:
Nevertheless homeschool parents are not sure that they are spending much more than public school parents for their children’s education. Fully inclusive, full year curriculum prices for grade school children from providers like Sonlight run from approximately $850 to $1100. Many spend much less than that by hand picking their own books and reusing books over the years.
Homeschoolers also get out of some of the hidden costs of public school attendance. Veteran Indiana homeschool mom Rebecca Hunt says “I bet I save several hundred dollars a year just because my kids aren’t coming home begging for the latest tennis shoe or whatever is in fashion.”
Those aren’t the only savings. Transportation to and from school, school lunch costs, “book fees” and mandatory but often unnecessary school supplies are some of the expenses that add up for public school children. Homeschoolers also save by having the flexibility to schedule their vacations at times when tourist prices are down.
Rebecca says “We homeschool to teach our kids leadership, independence and strong moral values, but it is nice to realize that homeschooling doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cost you more in total to educate your kids.”
Today’s schools are not the schools you attended. The revolt will go on around any child within the system. Whether the system eventually changes in a decade, goes bankrupt, or implodes because of the growing exodus of families who no longer buy that training their children to take tests is “education,” you can spare your child and provide an education at the same time.
One day, your grown child will thank you.
P. S. Even as I wrote this, here are a couple of news items that popped into my e-mail. Yup. The public schooling revolt begins.
RALEIGH — Wake County school administrators painted their grimmest budget picture yet for next school year as they warned today that layoffs are inevitable and that deep classroom cuts will have to be considered.
The school system is facing the loss of more than $100 million in funding next year from the loss of federal stimulus dollars and the state facing a $3 billion revenue shortfall. With salaries accounting for more than 80 percent of Wake’s $1.2 billion operating budget, Chief Business Officer David Neter said layoffs are “inevitable” based on the scope of the funding cuts.
CHARLOTTE — Police in Charlotte are investigating threatening letters sent to two school board members after the board voted to close 10 schools.
WCNC-TV reported that board member Kaye McGarry received a threatening letter last Friday. Board chairman Eric Davis got one on Saturday. WBTV reported a third threat directed at the entire board a few days ago.
Milton Harris with the police department’s criminal intelligence unit says the letter is clear they were targeted because of the school closure decision.