Monday, June 13, 2011

Arne Duncan: The Armor of Achilles

Sunday, under the heading:  NEWS THAT WAS INEVITABLE, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration want to offer states "relief"  before schools all over the nation begin running afoul of penalties written into the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) in 2002.

The problem is so simple even a caveman could have predicted it.  Nine years ago, with bi-partisan support and great fanfare, Congress passed a law which promised that ALL children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  Penalties were included if states failed to keep make "adequate yearly progress" toward this noble goal. 

The problem from the start was that noble goals aren't necessarily realistic.  It was kind of like calling World War I "the war to end all wars."  No matter how ringing the phrase, perfection has a tendency to be well beyond humanity's straining reach.

What exactly went wrong?  First, most states spent six years lowering standards and then gradually raising them again, to insure they showed "progress" in testing numbers, no matter how bogus, to avoid the initial round of penalties under NCLB.  From 2002 to 2008, almost no real gains were made.  In the 2008 elections many of the original backers of the law were kicked out of office; and President Obama and Arne Duncan took over shortly after and began talking about new and improved standards.  Duncan would end the "race to the bottom" which began when states began scuffling to avoid penalties and launch a true "Race to the Top."

One set of standards had failed.  What we needed, Duncan insisted, were BETTER standards.  It's kind of like when one diet plan fails. What the poor dieter tells himself is this:  "It's not my fault.  What I need is a BETTER diet plan." 

Today, nine years into the Age of the Testing Fix, an era when we are repeatedly told that we can test our way to success, states like Arkansas and Kansas are clamoring for relief.  They can't reach the noble goals set under NCLB by 2014, and can't promise that every child will be proficient in reading and math in 2 1/2 years.  They say it isn't fair to hold them accountable for testing targets set under the Bush-era law...when they're working hard to write new standards and draw up new tests to align with these standards, to comply (this time) with rules under the "Race to the Top" initiative being pushed by the Obama administration.

If you're an ordinary, brown-bag educator, the type who sits at a real classroom desk and grades real papers from real students for half your lunch every day, and eating your bologna sandwich is your idea of a relaxing break, you knew in 2002 this was coming. 

I dare anyone to read the first hundred stories you come across about "raising standards" in U. S. education today.  I doubt you will find a single sentence that includes these words:  "students," "must work harder," because in the last two years, I haven't seen those words yet.  The theorists and bureaucrats keep talking about writing new standards, about "bench-marking" U. S. standards to match with standards in countries like Finland and Japan and South Korea. 

We keep talking about testing and standards and miss the essential point.  It's like putting on the armor of Achilles.  Just because you WEAR the armor of Achilles, that doesn't make you Achilles.

Let's say, as a society, we were really committed to excellence in education.  Let's say we didn't have one extra dollar to spend.  Could we still raise standards?  Of course we could.  And we wouldn't need Arne Duncan to tell us how.

Let's say every teacher in American set their head and hand to working harder every day.  That would certainly help;  but let's be honest about the problems we face in American education and admit that we have to expect students to work harder, too.  Let's admit that parents have to stop whining if teachers are demanding.  Let's admit that if we want true higher standards, our children will need to spend more time on academics when they get home.

At some point, the diet PLAN isn't the critical factor.  The dieter has to be committed.  No plan will work unless the dieter is willing to push away the plate. 

We don't need the Department of Education to tell us what to do and how to do it--and if they really want to help, let the experts come into the classrooms and show us how it's really done.  We don't need to rewrite standards.  As a society, we have to be committed to education. 

Standards on paper don't make the Japanese schools better.  Japanese students are simply willing to work harder than American students, generally, and Japanese parents are more likely than American parents to approve of a heavy workload when educators require it.

Ever hear that America's schools are failing when compared to Japanese schools?

In the spring of 2009, the number of U. S. students taking the SAT’s climbed to a record 1.55 million. 

Those who took four years of English and three years of math had better scores, averaging 151 points higher than those who didn’t.  Go figure.  They worked harder and it showed.

Since No Child Left Behind went into full effect in 2006, however, the average score for white students had dropped 2 points. 

The average for African Americans and Puerto Ricans was down 14 points.

The average for Asian Americans was up 36.  It's not the standards the government puts on paper that matter.  It's the standards people set for themselves.

The armor of Achilles isn't the key to any battle.                            

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