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Friday, April 22, 2005

NEA sues administration for not funding NCLB

So the God-awful "No Child Left Behind" Act (PL107-110) is finally getting its comeuppance. The National Education Association (NEA) has filed suit in Eastern Michigan District Court to make the federal government pay for its program rather than forcing states (and in turn local school districts) to pay for the program. The suit, Pontiac School District v. Spellings, will hopefully get rid of this awful program.

The No Child Left Behind Program (alternatively called by some of my Democratic friends during last year's campaign as No Child Left A Dime) does a few horrid things that I'm still scratching my head over, some time after its passage.

  1. It forces teachers to take time out of curriculum studies to make them prep for standardized tests.
  2. Standardized tests do not actually test anything other than a student's ability to take a test ... During my high school years, I was forced to take a stupid standardized test that at the time was not required for graduation (but it was by the time my sister graduated). That year, fully half of the people in my graduating class's honors program failed (er, "did not meet goal") on at least one section of the exam. If it had been just me, I could have rationalized that it was my problem, but when so many honors students are failing, there's something fishy going on ... Namely, those of us that had been constantly taught to think "outside the box" were having a great deal of difficulty restraining ourselves to the narrow confines of what the graders were looking for. To put this another way, the multiple-choice exams often had more than one answer depending on how you looked at it, and the open-ended essay questions were being graded on such a low level that those of us who wrote normally (i.e. at the honors level) were graded down for not following the strict structure that they were looking for. Some people were able to change how they thought for the test, but how does that help anyone?
  3. NCLB forces states to adopt these measures with no funding from the national government (which is the key issue NEA has). This is causing states to pass on the funding problems to the local school districts. So not only do teachers have to stop teaching to "teach to the test," but money for extracurriculars such as music and art are being cut so that these school systems can afford to implement the mandatory changes.
  4. NCLB actually does leave kids behind. If enough students at a school fail these standardized tests, that school's funding goes down. Right--let's punish poor students and poor schools by making them poorer. Instead of spending money to try to fix failing schools, let's withold money from those schools, so the good teachers leave, textbooks become wildly out-of-date, and maybe then the students will do better.

Now, don't get me wrong: there are many, many (many, many, many, many)things wrong in public schools today. The fact that students of mine are allowed to go to college without actually being able to write a grammatically correct sentence, let alone a full-fledged paper, is disturbing enough. But the responsiblity needs to be on the heads of the teachers, not some bureaucrat in DC. Think of this:

  1. Student repeatedly does poorly.
  2. Teacher does not have time because of overcrowding and the simple time constraints caused by having papers to grade, etc. to give that student the one-on-one time he needs.
  3. Teacher passes student (albeit barely) because he does not want to deal with the ire of parents, etc., who seem to think that it is Student's right to pass the class, regardless of the work Student has (not) done.
  4. Student believes it is his right to go to college, and finds one that will accept him.
  5. Professor likewise passes Student because she is afraid Student might sue (this sounds far-fetched, but professors have been sued before over this ... And I've been threatened, myself, because I have "unrealistic expectations"--like making sure students hand in their work on time and penalizing them when they do not)

So what is the point of education? If you've spent as much time in the education system (like I have), you must wonder. The more I think about it, the more I truly believe that colleges place a greater emphasis on athletics than they do on education. Primary and secondary education likewise is being told that there are certain things that are unimportant (i.e. art, music), but other things are vital (sports, stupid test-how-well-you-take-this-test tests).

I wholeheartedly agree with other NEA positions: better pay for teachers (to attract those that want to teach but also want to make money), smaller class sizes (so students get more one-on-one attention and so teachers aren't so overwhelmed with work that they can't have a personal life, which drives many more people from the classroom), and loads of other issues.

The system in this country his seriously broken, and by no means is NCLB the way to fix it. If American children are to compete internationally in the next fifty years with those overseas, we need a system that will allow students to learn and not submit to sue-happy parents.


Brian C Merrell said...

I'm sitting here with my wife reading this and -- as I've mentioned before, she is a high school teacher -- she has some thoughts on the matter. She doesn't want to post a comment herself, so it'll have to be channeled through me.

She wholeheartedly agrees with this, it seems, and has something to add. Because teachers are held responsible for the performance of their students, there is additional pressure to pass kids just to not be yelled at. If an entire class of students fails, it reflects poorly on the teacher with the administration. This is not a healthy thing; it sets up an adversarial rather than cooperative relationship with the very people who are supposed to be supporting each other within the education system!

My own thoughts are that fewer kids should attend college. Parents, and society in general, pressure children to attend college and treat it merely as a vocational school. We have kids going through four years of college and performing miserably because of a perceived need to be trained prior to entering the workforce, when it is unlikely that they are ever to apply such skills as they ostensibly learn in a college setting.

The obvious objections to this are: 1) they still should gain a general education, and 2) there are many things that they will need to learn in college prior to a career.

My responses are: 1) that's what high school is supposed to be for, and 2) for the most part, bullshit. Most 'careers' these days are pencil pushing careers, and do not require the academic background that college should provide.

Bah. Soon everyone will have a college degree and it will mean nothing; it will merely serve as grades 13-16.

6:28 PM  
H. Abiff said...

I have--for several years--believed that a college education is neither a right nor is it necessary for everyone. There are too many students (some of my own included) who have no idea why they're in college. They don't want to be there, and they don't really need the education.

Furthermore, these are the students who were never taught how to be students. Instead, they go through the motions and wonder why they are failing their intro to political science class.

I had one student complain to the head of my department last semester, saying that I was too tough. What had I done? I had given the kid a "D" because he wrote a great paper but had absolutely nothing to do with the question they were supposed to answer. His logic was that if it was such a good paper, it should have gotten an "A." My response: "Had you written a paper that was on-topic, this would have been an 'A' paper."

But looking back at the bigger picture, my heart goes out to elementary- and secondary-education teachers. One reason why I didn't pursue education as a career (this will likely be the last semester I ever teach) is because of this pressure to pass students who don't deserve to pass. If a kid flunks, he flunks. Period.

Fifty years ago, this wasn't an issue. The kids who wanted to become professionals went to college; everyone else went to vocational school, the military, or straight into the workforce.

There are many more problems with the educational system than what we've covered so far, but I'm sure we can think of more ...

11:10 AM  
Anonymous said...

"The system in this country his seriously broken, and by no means is NCLB the way to fix it. If American children are to compete internationally in the next fifty years with those overseas, we need a system that will allow students to learn and not submit to sue-happy parents."

Great, so how do you propose to fix it?

Simple fact is, tossing more money at schools (or less, for that matter) isn't a solution. The problem is parents and our overall culture - no law or bill is going to fix this.

Although, I would point out that many of those foreign countries don't waste nearly the money we do coddling poor performing children. They take their stars and give them the best education they can. The rest can go to hell. Is this what you want?


6:23 PM  
Brian C Merrell said...

Yes. We need to Leave Behind a few Children. That might be hard to say -- but it's the truth. Not everyone can be an honors student, no matter how hard certain counties try to force it to be so (I'm looking at you, Montgomery County!); not everyone should go to college; and, by consequence, not everyone will have a wonderful high-paying job.

I do agree with you, though, David; it's the parents and our culture. And I don't mean our consumer culture or our love of profanity, although perhaps it's marginally related to that. What I mean is that a very significant portion of the population whose parents cannot and do not encourage/push them to do well in school end up thinking that they then will grow up to be a rap star or basketball player or Britney Spears. Our celebrity culture destroys non-celebrities.

Of course, in some ways the celebrity world can't be faulted, because it's just doing what it's supposed to in America: make money. And it would be unfair and absurd to "ban" celebrity behavior. Perhaps, though, what we need is a new genre: the failure culture. We need more movies like "Requiem for a Dream" that show the tragic downfall of those who reach for false happiness. :\

8:35 AM  

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