Saturday, August 06, 2005

My grandson was in first grade this year in the Hazelwood School District, and I am so impressed. He knew the alphabet when the year started, but that's all. A few times last summer, I tried to get him to connect certain sounds with particular letters, without much success. Now he can read, he can sound out unfamiliar words--a sea change in one year. Hazelwood is not a rich district with small class sizes, but Josh's teacher did her job.
At the Wednesday meetup, Peter Campbell spoke about the hidden agenda of No Child Left Behind, with its recipe for dismantling public schools in favor of schools managed by private, for profit companies. The means for accomplishing this goal is a requirement of the law called "Adequate Yearly Progress". It requires that every school, even high performing ones, improve test scores each year. By 2014 all schools must have 100 percent of their students passing the reading and math tests. As the Valley Girls have it, "AS IF!"
When I was still teaching, we had a new hot-shot superintendent one year who set forth high sounding goals for the district. She wasted a few hundred thousand dollars printing it all up on laminated paper for every teacher. In five years, we were going to see that 100 percent of our students were successful. I forget now what the definition of "successful" was in that piece of malarkey. No matter. The supe was gone in four years, off to peddle her silliness somewhere else. When year five rolled around, a few of us pulled out our laminated folders and had a good laugh.
Unfortunately, Adequate Yearly Progress is law in this country, and failing to meet the goals has consequences--for all schools but especially for poorly performing ones. Instead of helping schools in low socio-economic areas by giving them additional money to reduce class sizes and by providing adequate social services so that children are more likely to come to school prepared to learn, this law punishes such districts for the inevitable failure.
The consequences are severe. If any school, high performing or low, remains on the "needs improvement" list, it must stretch already overburdened funds in the following ways:
After two years: the school must pay for a transfer if any parent requests it
After three years: the school must pay for tutors
After four years: the school day and the school year are lengthened
After five years: teachers are fired and the school is taken over by a private, for profit company
Several unintended but nevertheless predictable problems result from the plan. First, many districts, worried about meeting the goals, are teaching students how to do well on multiple choice tests instead of spending time reading books and are cutting social studies, art, music and foreign language to concentrate on preparing for the test. (Only math and reading are tested now. Science will be added later.) Second, since the states are receiving inadequate federal funds to pay for writing and giving the tests, school funds are stretched even thinner. And finally, not surprisingly, many states are dumbing down the tests out of pure self defense.
Perhaps even Superintendent Kowal, wherever she is, disapproves of this bureacratic nightmare. At least her plan was relatively harmless and easy to ignore. This one, with its insidious aim of undermining public schools, has the potential to deep-six public education.

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