Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sen. Kennedy On NCLB Reauthorization

The Washington Post carries an op-ed by Ted Kennedy on NCLB reauthorization today. While there is very little that is surprising in what Kennedy says, there is a couple of things worth mentioning. Kennedy (or his staff) writes:
But the law still needs major changes to bring out the best in all children. The process for rating troubled schools fails to reward incremental progress made by schools struggling to catch up. Its one-size-fits-all approach encourages "teaching to the test" and discourages innovation in the classroom. We need to encourage local decision makers to use a broader array of information, beyond test scores, to determine which schools need small adjustments and which need extensive reforms.
Kennedy talks of growth models of measurement and I think this is an innovation that should be embraced. Perfection by 2014 is no doubt impossible (but other than pushing the date back there is little than Congress can do politically. A 95% proficiency goal simply will not be tolerated). But so long as schools are making reasonable progress I think people will be accepting. However, it is the definition of reasonable that is important.

Now the whole concept of teaching to the test simply drives me nuts. On the one hand, what gets tested is what gets taught. Time is the one commodity in schools that cannot be negotiated with and when there is not enough time, there are sacrifices that are made. Initially math and reading were all that was tested, now science is being added to the mix and I would hope that soon we would be adding history/social studies as well. That would be once change that could and should be done in NCLB.

Now if teaching to the test is a problem for instructional purposes, the focus on only one or two measurements is a broader failure of NCLB. In essence, while Kennedy notes that local leaders need to be using a broader array of measurements, so long as Title I funding and other punitive measures are focused on only one or two measurements, i.e. Adequate Yearly Progress and attendence, then those are the only measures that will count. If Kennedy wants more measurements to be used, he needs to include them in the law, otherwise his rhetoric is for naught.

Kennedy also writes:
Most of all, the law fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance. We can't achieve progress for all students on the cheap. No child should have to attend crumbling schools or learn from an outdated textbook, regardless of where he or she lives. It's disgraceful that President Bush has failed to include adequate funding for school reform in his education budgets. Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget.
This kind of statment simply chafes me to no end, because after four decades in Congress, Ted Kennedy should know better. Congress controls the budget and spending process (See Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution), not the President. Each year, the President has to ask for money to operate the government, but it is Congress and Congress alone that controls the purse strings. If funding NCLB has been too stingy, then Congress has the ability to make that change. The fact that the Democratic Congress has failed to do so is a pox on both their houses and more rampantly upon the Democrats.

But by the same token, Ted Kennedy should also know from his years of experience that federal dollars account for only about ten percent of school funding, the rest comes from state and local sources. Given that the housing crunch is going to mean fewer dollars next year for schools (and just about every other state budget category), schools will have to meet the mandates with fewer "essential resources"--to be read only as money.

Of course all of this presumes the the federal government can really make any sort of change in school success. Sure, the law has been successful in getting schools to really measure their success by a wider variety of subgroups--exposing quantitatively the achievement gap. But in reality that is about the best the feds can do. We have a local system of education in this country and absent a constitutional amendment, it is likely to stay that way.

If Congress really wants to make a change, they should consider a radical departure from the current model. But such a radical change means two things, imagination and political courage--two traits that have been sorely lacking on Capitol Hill for pretty much ever. That means change will have to come from teh bottom up because imagination and courage are much more prevelant at the local level than at the national level.

1 comment:

M-Dawg said...

I believe on some level that NCLB has made some accomplishments in our educational system.

However, I work in an inner city school system with a large migrant Hispanic population. Should there be exceptions with low scores with student populations that don't speak English within the one year requirement (as in MA)?

And, the feds really need to contribute more money instead of having everything fall on the local and state gov't. OR look at another way to pay for public education. I don't know what the answer could be but something needs to change.