I am taken by Deb’s post about influencing the political discourse in this terribly important election year. Her call resonates with other recent posts (for example, Jessica’s). There are people in education who have been talking to key political players–often concerning NCLB–but many more of us need to e-mail our politicians, write letters to the editor, write first-person opinion pieces for our local newspapers, and so on.
As I wrote in my previous two posts, a huge problem that faces us is that the national conversation about education has become so narrow–and has been that way for so long–that it’s hard to find the space to talk about issues other than test scores and economic competitiveness. NCLB, for example, is not only the 800-pound beast in the classroom, but in the media as well. I think of something a seasoned education reporter told me: he could not recall another topic in all his experience that so dominated news about schools.
It’s clear that NCLB is going to continue to hit tough political waters, and in a recent article in The American Prospect, Richard Rothstein predicts its demise. My guess is that NCLB will be maintained in some revised form, but even if it isn’t, the emphasis on high-stakes accountability mechanisms will continue to dominate political discourse on education, along with talk of economic competitiveness. Our challenge in this election year is to insist on holding schools accountable and to affirm the goal of preparing young people to make their way economically, but to do this in a way that opens up the discussion of what schooling is for in a democracy.
If readers are interested, I wrote a short essay on NCLB for Education Week (11/7/07) that is pertinent to this discussion. There is a link to it under the “News” section of my web page.
I excerpt a few paragraphs below:
A score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests. (And there are also concerns about how schools and districts can manipulate them.) “In most cases,” writes measurement specialist Robert Linn, “the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands placed on them by high-stakes accountability.” No wonder, then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student’s or a schools’ achievement?...***A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher’s district has issued a page-long checklist on each student to be used in each class the student takes. Every teacher is to mark every time he or she assists a child, asks if the child understands, notes a behavior problem, and so on. This requirement applies to all students, every class–though principals, in an attempt to keep instruction from collapsing under the regulation, tell teachers to pay special attention to their students who are most at-risk. The intention here is a good one, but the means by which it is accomplished is so formulaic and cumbersome that it devastates teaching. Care becomes codified, legalistic, lost in reductive compliance. This kind of thing is not unusual today. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response to good legislation, but the pressure to comply is great and when there are no funds available to mount professional development or changes in the size and organization of schools, or other means to foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then districts–in the context of a high-stakes, under-resourced environment–will resort to all sorts of draconian and, ultimately, counterproductive solutions....***I think that one indication of the value of a piece of social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the issues it gets us to ponder. Civil Rights legislation, for example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a self-examination of our history and first principles. NCLB does raise important questions about equity and expectation. But unless the testing program is part of a larger effort that includes other student compensatory and professional development efforts and social programs aimed at vulnerable populations, we get, instead, a focus on scores, rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration and compliance. More sustained consideration of equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public schooling, of the nature of learning in a democracy–this all gets lost in the machinery of testing....