Sunday, June 13, 2010

No Child Left Behind: Destroying success in Minnesota

When most people talk about the problems with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law they usually first cite the onerous effects of standardized testing. But just as bad is the part of the law that virtually mandates the destruction of any school failing to meet the unreasonable and sadistic Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rules that stipulate that if even a small subgroup of a school's student population is not making progress for a few years in a row the school must either turn into a charter school, close entirely, or fire its principal and at least half its teachers.

In Brooklyn Center we've just seen what a travesty that policy accomplishes: A high school that serves some of the toughest students in the state that has been working hard and making progress for the past three or four years with a charismatic principal is now deemed "failing," and the school district must now fire him and half of his teaching staff.

While the Star Tribune blithely blames school teachers' unions for an "endless cycle of poverty and failure" in neighborhoods, the principal of Brooklyn Center High School, Bryan Bass, knows better. A report at from reporter Beth Hawkins details the real, as opposed to political, problems facing schools:
Brooklyn Center High School serves more than 800 students in grades seven through 12. Although it is a suburban school, three-fourths of students are low-income and minorities. Up to one-fourth are learning English, and about 14 percent have learning disabilities
Many of those students come to school unable to learn and Bass thought he knew why, so he set about successfully organizing the community to setup a medical clinic in the school, and found
... that 70 percent of kids who have had physicals so far have had untreated vision problems, Park Nicollet contributed eye exams and glasses. Teachers who realize a student is acting out because of emotional issues now quietly help the student find a therapist at the clinic.
Portico Healthnet has an office in the clinic where staff can work with students' families to help them find health insurance. If they can't, the clinic treats them anyhow.
The impact was felt immediately. "Overnight — overnight, it absolutely decreased the amount of behavioral issues," said Bass. "By eliminating barriers, you start to really understand what's in the way of students getting to learn."
The success was stunning:
It [the high school] boasts an 82 percent graduation rate, enviable among districts with similar demographics.;

During the four years Bass has been principal, the number of suspensions each month has fallen from 45 to about 10. The number of graduates who go on to post-secondary education has doubled from 35 percent to 70 percent...
Someone should ask the Star Tribune how changing teachers will help students with vision problems learn better.

Thus does NCLB not only not foster success, it actively destroys it. The notion that educational achievement, with its many facets, could be existentially reduced to numbers is a folly of the highest degree. Writing in The Nation, Linda Darling-Hammond explains that other nations that are high achievers in education are doing the exact opposite of what we are doing in the US:
Other nations have been transforming their school systems to meet the new demands of today's world. They are expanding educational access to more and more of their people, and they are revising curriculums, instruction and assessments to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the twenty-first century. Starting in the 1980s, for example, Finland dismantled the rigid tracking system that had allocated differential access to knowledge to its young people and eliminated the state-mandated testing system that was used for this purpose, replacing them with highly trained teachers educated in newly overhauled schools of education, along with curriculums and assessments focused on problem-solving, creativity and independent learning. These changes have propelled achievement to the top of the international rankings and closed what was once a large, intractable achievement gap.
Get that? Finland eliminated state-mandated testing - which resulted in internationally top-ranked students and the closing of an achievement gap. Contrast that to the U.S., where irrational, punitive and unfair mandated testing results in the closing of community gems like Brooklyn Center High School, and expanding achievement gaps. Rather than focusing on rote learning, other nations are subtly changing curriculums to encourage creative and independent learning.Then again, countries like Finland have lavish social safety nets that largely prevent poverty, unlike the shredded one here in the U.S.

Given the undeniable failures of school choice and "teacher accountability" movements in the U.S., the stalling of progress in education and the outright destruction of success by NCLB, one is left to wonder why Democrats have jumped on this conservative bandwagon of failure. I can imagine only two reasons, the first being ignorance and the second being political expediency. As regards our president, no one believes he isn't extremely intelligent, leaving only crass political calculations as the reason why he would work to send our public schools down the toilet.

But there is a problem with Obama's political calculations: He seems intent on destroying the coalition and constituencies which got him elected. His stiffing of labor is now well known, and one of its biggest components, teachers' unions, seems to be his favorite target. As Shamus Cooke has written in Counterpunch, a gulf has now opened between teachers and the administration, as his education secretary, and Obama himself, have cheered on the destruction of public schools. If education is to be improved in this country, it will have to be done in the face of Democrats and their harmful policies.

UPDATE: It seems like the Strib likes to give affirmations to my writings on education. Today they have an editorial that asserts that if congress were to update NCLB according to its ignorant wishes GDP in the US would increase by one to two billion dollars.   Does that sound like an incentive? They don't do the math, as usual, but I do. US GDP is $14 trillion. $1 billion is .00007 percent of $14 trillion.  A butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong would give a bigger increase. If you figure in the cost of implementing NCLB it is a sure money-loser; after all, it's not free to close schools and create entirely new ones.

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