03 June 2009

Washington Post Posts 10 Steps for Schools, Without Student Accountability

On May 30th, the Washington Post published an article by three folks from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). The article suggests ten steps which are supposed to turn failing schools in America into “world-class schools.” The authors claim that their recommendations are “radical” and that they will “get us where we need to go”. I was underwhelmed by the steps. Below, I will cover a few of them; text taken from the story is presented within quotes and in italics:

“Get outstanding students to go into teaching and treat them like professionals, not blue-collar workers in dead-end jobs. That means putting teachers in charge of their schools.” That sounds all fine and good, but there are roadblocks that the authors refuse to acknowledge. It would be a stretch to put teachers in the profession at this moment are in charge of their own classrooms – with regard to curriculum – let alone their schools. More often than not, curricula are dictated at the state level, either in the form of overly-complicated lists of learning objectives, mandated tests, or both. These factors end up in lowering the education bar and focusing on “bubble students” just enough to get them to pass standardized tests. For more on this, please check Booher-Jennings piece called “Below the Bubble”. The idea that individual teachers would be in charge of federally administered schools as opposed to those whose curricula are essentially dictated by the state defies current reality and the imagination.

“Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses.” After claiming a desire to empower teachers, to treat them like professionals, and to put them in charge of schools, the authors then set an honestly unattainable goal for them. Not only would the authors see these newly empowered teachers make sure students graduate, but have 90% of them ready to walk into college without remediation. Do they not realize that, even after years of testing in big states like Texas, getting 90% of students to pass their exit-level tests (which are not college entrance tests) the first time is still a tall task? And these tests are somewhat "minimal skill-set" tests, not college preparatory tests. There is another force in the classroom besides the teacher which is at work, yet the authors refuse to even acknowledge it.

Additionally, the authors obviously feel that not only is education through high school graduation a right (which has turned into an entitlement), but that college is a right as well. And whose job is it to push students – 90% of them, anyway – to be ready for college? (The other 10% would just need a little remediation in the authors' eyes before they gain their rightful places in college.) The authors would say that teachers are responsible. Perhaps they don’t understand that the verb “to learn” is an active-only verb. There is no passive tense for “learn”; no student is “learned by” their teacher. Indeed, student accountability is wholly left off the table in the authors’ bold, “radical” ten steps.

“Replace the current accountability tests with high-quality, course-based exams.” So much for treating teachers like professionals and putting them in charge of schools. I recall a time not too long ago when the teacher had the say as to whether or not a student achieved a level of understanding sufficient to pass a class, when student grades in a class mattered. Sure, teachers ought to be given a level of proficiency to which students must achieve (as a minimum), but the measurement of individual students in individual classrooms ought to be left up to each professional teacher. The teacher, as the authors suggest, ought to be in charge of his or her school and, one might assume, classroom. “high-quality exams” are already out there and in use: the SAT, ACT, et cetera; these are used to indicate a student’s aptitude to move on to college.

“Make a range of social services available to children from low-income families and coordinate those services with those students' school programs.” Here, we hit the core of the “radical” proposals. The authors realize that there are serious “social” issues within some low-income families. Perhaps their attempt is to use the framework of public schools to “fix” these family issues. If that is the case, then I suggest that federal boarding schools be opened for students who are deemed to have “social” issues too egregious for regular school settings.

Of course, this last comment is a leap in a direction I would not recommend. A government which can pull students preemptively into boarding schools – even for their own good – is a government which has far too much power. I’m not saying that the authors want to see this happen, but I do say that it is a logical conclusion to the steps they recommend. It would not surprise me to see it happen within my lifetime.

Somehow, there appears to be a growing feeling that government intrusion into private life is fine and dandy as long as it’s for “good reasons”, like protecting someone or something. We see this in America through government intervention into the economy, into banking, into industry, and soon into health care and energy production. It stands to reason that, like AIG and GM, the federal government may come to see urban school districts as “too big to fail.” When that happens, look out – cradle to grave direct federal intervention into individual lives will be here.

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