Politics Should Not Affect What and How Our Kids Learn (Part 2)

OK, so it took me a little while to finally add to my previous post on Politics and Kids Learning but I knew that I would find the inspiration sometime.

In Mother Readers' Thoughtful Thursday post (yes, I am a couple of days behind my reading!) she not only had a link to a great perspective on NCLB but also this very interesting Washington Post article that talks about the politics of NCLB and how the rhetoric behind No Child Left Behind is actually hindering the adoption of realistic goals…after all how can a politician admit/vote for something that says that some kids will be left behind? But how realistic is it, really, that "all students tested in reading and math will reach grade level by 2014″?

"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent target," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "But because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant, politicians are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't want to be accused of leaving some children behind."

On the surface, it seems to makes sense that we should be trying for a "100% target". After all kids deserve that, don't they? However, we do not live in a perfect world. Some kids, due to a variety of factors, are not going to be able to get to grade level. That is because children are not robots…it is not just a matter of giving them instruction and they learn. Different kids learn at different levels. So what is the harm in having 100% as the goal? The harm is that it is impossible, yet schools are going to be penalized if they do not meet that goal. Sounds liking a loosing situation to be in.

But critics face an uphill challenge because of the rhetorical power of the argument for a universal proficiency target and a deadline. Anything less, advocates say, will hurt children, especially society's most vulnerable: poor and minority students.

"We need to stay the course," U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon said. "The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that right now."

Hmmm…seems as if we have heard this one before from this administration. For some reason the Bush administration seems to think that despite evidence to the contrary, they can just will things to happen. It does not matter if evidence, experts and the current track record say that it is not doable. They know better of course.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and supporter of the law, said Americans don't want politicians to lower standards.

"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85 percent of men are created equal?" Alexander asked. "Most of our politics in America is about the disappointment of not meeting the high goals we set for ourselves."

Well, when you put it like that…please! This is feel good politics at its worst. This type of rhetoric sounds great. Who could not get behind something like this? The problem is that it is not doable! No one is saying not to try to help all kids or that you should give up on any kid, just that it is not realistic to penalize schools for not having a 100% success rate. There are too many variable for which they can not control.

But testing experts say there are vast academic differences among children of the same racial or socioeconomic background. Countries with far less racial diversity than the United States still find wide variations in student performance. Even in relatively homogenous Singapore, for example, a world leader in science and math tests, a quarter of the students tested are not proficient in math, and 49 percent fall short in science.

Gasp! No! You mean kids are not robots? You mean that you can not just pour the knowledge in and have it take? I also wonder what this emphasis means for kids for which math is not their forte? What about the kids who are wonderfully talented in areas outside of math and science? What message are they getting in school? If you always focus on a child's weak area, what kind of effect does that have on them?

Although no major school system is known to have reached 100 percent proficiency, Education Department officials pointed to individual schools across the country that have reached the standard as evidence that it is possible

The only school they cited in the Washington region as having met that mark was the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, a regional school with selective admissions. Principal Evan M. Glazer said his school, which has an elite reputation, was hardly a representative example. On whether the nation can replicate that success, Glazer said: "I don't think it's very realistic."

TJS&T is actually right down the road from where I live. It is a state magnet honors school. There is an extremely competitive selection process. Most kids don't get in. This is the cream of the crop of Virginia students. I would actually worry if this school did not achieve 100% proficiency! To hold this school up and say of course it can be done is extremely disingenuous.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said it was "absurd" to expect total proficiency, especially when federal officials require immigrant children who have been in U.S. schools for little more than a year to meet the standard. His 164,000-student system, the largest in the Washington region, is sparring with the Education Department over the immigrant testing rule.
Dale and other critics of the law have called for No Child Left Behind to measure the growth of students from year to year instead of expecting them to meet fixed benchmarks. But Dale said he understood why federal officials and lawmakers take a different view.
"How can you publicly state it's okay to have some children not meet standards?" Dale said. "Politically, you're committing suicide if you say it."

Dr. Dale (who is the superintendent of my county and pretty much leaves us homeschoolers alone) makes a very good point and one that makes sense. Instead of holding all kids up to the same arbitrary level of "achievement", why not look at personal growth? Has the child made progress? Looking at a child's progress would be a much better standard. But that is also harder to measure. And harder to collect statistics on and harder to trumpet in headlines.

In Virginia, homeschoolers do need to provide "proof of progress" at the end of the year, either through the use of a standardized test (of the parents choosing) or an evaluation (again, using an evaluator of the parents choosing). For the most part this means showing that the child is at "grade level". But it is nice to know that if needed, the standard is progress. This allows us to evaluate our child based on their individual needs and individual growth.

Some experts predict that states will weaken their definition of proficiency to make it appear that all students are on track. The law requires students to meet "challenging academic standards" but allows each state to define proficiency on its own terms and design its own tests.

Ahhh. And herein lies the rub. By setting impossible standards, the administration is pretty much forcing schools to do just this. And I remember reading an article (will have to see if I can find it again) that talks about how most of the focus is on getting the borderline kids above the border (because it helps the schools stats) and actually results in the extremely poor performers getting less help because there is no chance that their scores would ever be high enough so why bother. (And yes, I know that this is a generalization and that there are many teachers out their doing their best for these very at-risk children. The point that I am making is that the way that the system is set up actually provides very little incentive for helping these extremely underperforming kids who need the help the most.)

NCLB and all the encompassing problems is one reason that I have major issues with the federal government being involved in education. It is hard enough for an individual school to come up with ways to help their individual children. Trying to set federal standards for all children just seems ridiculous to me.

Education should be a very personal and individual thing because all children are individual and have different needs and learning styles. The more you try to standardize it, the more children are going to "not fit". I also have major problems with the emphasis on testing as the main evaluation method. I have seen during our annual testing we do to satisfy the state's "evidence of progress" requirement (the only time we test) how little the test actually reflects what my kids know.

NCLB seems to forget that children have their own timetables and strengths. Not all children are going to know how to read at 6 or have their times tables memorized at 9. No matter how much "schooling" they get. Some kids just aren't ready. What does it matter if a child doesn't read until age 8 or 9 or has does not have their multiplication facts down cold until 11 or 12?

NCLB (and the Virginia SOLs) is another reason that I am glad that I am homeschooling. I have the freedom to let my kids develop on their own timetable. I can focus on their strengths while working on their weaknesses. My children have the freedom to learn in a way that works for them without worrying about the federal governement and their "standards".