With almost religious conviction, government declared
way to teach
wake of September 11, 2001, I received a scolding email
from a Texas teacher expressing how disappointed she
was that I would print critical remarks about the government's No
Child Left Behind Act,
suggesting in tone that it was unpatriotic to do so.
Let's address that issue.
For nearly a century American educators
have labored to nail down the right and wrong way of
teaching and learning, debating this approach over that.
The greatest minds at the highest levels of academe have
wrestled with these questions. In the last 50 years,
reading has been the main focus, producing more research
investigations than any other area in American education.
But figuring the absolute right way to teach reading
was like trying "to nail Jello to the wall." The
debate often took on the vestiges of a religious
war, each side fanatically declaring it had found
the true route to literacy salvation, denigrating
opposing views as heretical, if not Satanic (see
Southern phonics advocates). "It
is not the function of our government to keep the citizens
from falling into error; it is the function of the
citizen to keep the government from falling into error. — Robert H. Jackson,
Supreme Court Justice, 1950
in 2000, the National Reading Panel arrived
with the findings that would become the foundation
for the reading plank of the No Child Left
Behind Act. With an almost religious conviction
that the NRP's findings were irrefutable, the federal
government used it as the bedrock upon which to build
not only its reading curriculum, but the report's
findings became dogmatic mandates for anyone wishing
federal funds: You either did it the NRP way or you
didn't qualify for federal funding. Of course, all
of this is predicated upon "trusting" the
findings of a government-funded panel. But is that
always a good idea?
Should we ever put blind faith in governing
agencies to always get it right? The Founding Fathers
didn't. (See Justice Jackson's quote (right) to that
effect.) They knew how often government can get it
wrong and thus created the
"checks and balances" system known as executive,
legislative, and judicial branches, each debating and/or
canceling the others' moves.
Yet a certain amount
of trust is always necessary in order for things to work. What
if no one trusted a bridge to hold? What if no one
trusted a can of soda to be safe to drink? But blind trust
in governing agencies is dangerous. Consider a partial
track record for blind trust.
If a modern government was
sending 150,000 troops half-way across the world
to unseat a foreign power, most people would assume
that modern government would plan for the aftermath
of the "takeover" when they would have to assume
control of the country. Wrong. Five years after the
U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, its Department of the
Army ( historians at the US Army's Combat Studies
Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas) released a
700-page study of its performance on
the ground in Iraq; foremost in the long list
of indictments was the failure to adequately prepare
for post-Saddam. (New
York Times report on the study.)
Nearly everyone assumed the
Iraq-vets were receiving the same kind of first-class
care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that
the President receives when he drops by for a physical,
but they didn't.
Most people think networks
like CBS, CNN, and Fox would vet the retired-generals
they use as military consultants to make sure they
don't have any conflicts of interest — like
working for military contractors who profit from
wars. Wrong. As it turns out, a New
York Times investigation April
20, 2008, showed a multitude of conflicts, even to
the extent of the Pentagon paying for their flights
to Iraq and withdrawing contracts if gthe consultant's
analysis wasn't positive.
this "blind trust" is the legend that California's low
reading scores (consistently in the U.S. bottom five)
are a product of "whole language" abuses
that caused the scores to plummet. In fact, it was
this legend that was a major underpinning for the
national movement to adopt more phonics instruction,
a prime ingredient of the No Child Left Behind Act. USC
professor emeritus Stephen Krashen tackled
this legend to see how much truth there was to it,
publishing his findings in the June 2002 issue of Phi
Delta Kappan. The article and research notes
are available online (free) at Kappan (www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0206kra.htm).
findings clearly showed "the Great Plummet
of 1987-92 never happened. California's reading
scores were low well before the California Language
Arts Framework Committee met in 1987 [when legend
holds the California whole language movement began].
Moreover, there is compelling evidence that the
low scores are related to California's impoverished
print environment. There is also strong and consistent
evidence that the availability of reading material
is related to how much children read and that how
much children read is related to how well they
read. A close look at the evidence suggests that
the skills-and-testing hysteria that has gripped
California and other states has been unnecessary." To
make matters worse, the demolition of literature-based
reading instruction in California since 1997 and
the subsequent tidal wave of phonics instruction
(at a taxpayer cost of more than $500 million)
did nothing to change the California reading scores:
they were still at the bottom in the 2002 NAEP
assessments. (See also print
some see any questioning of authority as seditious,
many others see it as the basis of good science. Richard
defined science as "the belief in the ignorance
of authority." Esteemed education researcher David
Berliner elaborated on that concept in this
questioning is what gives science its energy
and vibrancy. Values, religion, politics, vested
material interests, and the like can distort
our scientific work only to the extent that
they stifle challenges to authority, curtailing
the questioning of whatever orthodoxy exists."
the Vietnam War raged on, the tacticians in the Pentagon
and Congress were unwavering in their certainty that
their strategy was correct and winnable, while the soldiers
in the field and the pilots in the air were the ones
most likely to be taken captive or killed. Sometimes
the same disparities occur in education.
The CEO's and
politicians have the entire curriculum figured out: high
scores are winnable if we just test the students often
enough and hold educators accountable for that performance.
Meanwhile, down in the field, things aren't so simple.
For example, according to the No Child Left
Behind Act, if a school fails to make test gains
in two successive years, the school can be labeled a "failing school" and the school's
administrators must write an extensive (100+pages) school improvement paper
to justify their job and school. Sounds good so far. Now enter government bureaucracy.
New York Times reported (February 19, 2003): In October
2002, principals at Arizona's 275 "underperforming"
schools (19 percent of the state's schools) were summoned
to Phoenix for an audience with the state bureaucracy.
There they were told the law requires them to submit a
school improvement plan. One principal asked, `Who will
evaluate the plan?' The woman from the state laughed. She
said, "We don't have the resources."
his credit, Tom Horne, who became state education
superintendent last month, was upset when he heard
there was no one to read the improvement plans. So
he hired 10 retired teachers to evaluate the plans.
That will be roughly 27 120-page reports per evaluator.
Sad to say, there is no money to have the evaluators
actually visit the schools before critiquing the
New York Times February
On the other hand, just because government mandates something
doesn't make it feasible. For example, here
is the New York Times' description of the plight
in Los Angeles five years after No Child Left Behind began:
ANGELES — As the director
of high schools in the gang-infested neighborhoods of
East Los Angeles, Guadalupe Paramo struggles every day
with educational dysfunction.
For the past half-dozen
years, not even one in five students at her district’s
teeming high schools has been able to do grade-level
math or English. At Abraham Lincoln High School this
year, only 7 in 100 students could. At Woodrow Wilson
High, only 4 in 100 could.
For chronically failing schools
like these, the No Child Left Behind law, now up for
renewal in Congress, prescribes drastic measures: firing
teachers and principals, shutting schools and turning
them over to a private firm, a charter operator or the
state itself, or a major overhaul in governance.
than 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools
are branded chronic failures, and the numbers are growing.
Barring revisions in the law, state officials predict
that all 6,063 public schools serving poor students will
be declared in need of restructuring by 2014, when the
law requires universal proficiency in math and reading.
are we supposed to do?” Ms. Paramo asked. “Shut
down every school?”
Diana Jean Schemo
"Failing Schools Strain to Meet No Child Law," New York Times, Oct. 16, 2007, p. 1
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