NCLB: One Parent's View

Inspired, in part, by Jay P. Greene
I'm no NCLB expert. I'm not a professor of education, an education policy wonk or a teacher. I'm just a parent with a kid in a public elementary school that is in Program Improvement status. But I've seen the harm caused by NCLB, and I disagree with Greene's dismissiveness.

In his response to the Ohio principal's letter, Greene says, basically, "What are you worried about? Your school is doing great." Well, my kid's school is not, by NCLB standards. In the 2007 AYP report, my child's school made adequate yearly progress in every category except for the percentage of African-Americans scoring proficient or above in both English and math. (Students with disabilities also scored below the cut-off in English, but not math.) That's bad enough: Let the NCLB sanctions rain down.

Don't get me wrong: I am shocked and appalled by the discrepancies in the performance on these tests between white and African-American students. How can it be that 90+% of white students at my child's school scored proficient or higher in English and 85+% of white students scored proficient or higher in math, while the percentage for African-American students in both subjects hovered around 22%? Even given all the caveats about statistics, testing and scoring, with that large a gap, there must be something going on. And the gap does seem to be at least partially a racial, rather than socio-economic, one: a significantly greater percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students than African-Americans were scored proficient or above in both tests.

I give credit to NCLB for raising awareness (at least mine) of what seems to be an extreme racial disparity in, at least, test performance. But NCLB, with its extremely and increasingly stringent requirements and its package of sanctions, is not the answer.

On his blog, Mr. Greene says that NCLB sanctions are non-existent, and there are no real consequences for "failing" schools. That's bullshit. Or if it's not, NCLB is not being implemented the way it was intended to be: sanctions and "corrective action" are an integral part of the thing.

My kid's school, and school district, have not yet had the more serious sanctions kick in . . . yet. But I see the detrimental effects of NCLB nonetheless. It's had what we in the law might call a "chilling effect."

I've seen an explicit decision to focus educational efforts on the students who have scored just below proficient in hopes of bringing these students across the line. This strategy makes some sense, if your driving goal is to avoid further condemnation under NCLB. And given the structure and demands of NCLB, I'd have to say that this would not be an irrational choice -- sacrifice those at the bottom and the top for the greater good of getting out of Program Improvement status. If you want to educate all the kids in your school and district, however -- including those way below proficient and those well above it -- it's a very cold-blooded (at best) approach that runs counter to the public-school mission of educating all children.

I've seen heavy-handed pressure from the district on the school to use certain programs and enforce teachers' use of certain programs. I've seen a sort of administrative floundering about to find the magic bullet. A waste of time, energy and money in a district and school that don't have enough to spare of any of those.

I've seen parents who might have been interested in sending their kids to public school instead choose private school because they fear "teaching to the test." This is not what goes on at my school, as far as I have seen. But the perception is there, and I believe it has had a real effect. Maybe driving people away from public schools is what the NCLB supporters really want; I don't know. But parents who care about whether teachers at a school are or are not "teaching to the test" tend to be the kind of parents who care about and get involved in their children's education, the kind of parents that public schools really need. If just the specter of NCLB is driving them away from public school, it's done plenty of harm, in my view.

If not NCLB, then what? Tft's already done this routine: fix poverty, fix parents, fix society, pay teachers a lot more money. A few tests, a new curriculum or two and an annual shaming of the "failing" schools ain't gonna cut it.

And with that, I'm on vacation, too.

Frustrated at Hertzberg

Hertzberg mouths off about gender- vs. race-discrimination

I like what I've read from Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker, and I like what I've seen of his blog, on the magazine's website, as well. But his comment about gender discrimination in the June 23 issue (yes, I'm behind on my reading...) really pissed me off.

Hertzberg was writing about the end of Clinton's primary campaign (ancient history, I know). In the last half of the article, however, after noting that "[c]ompetitions among grievances do not ennoble," he nonetheless engages in just such a competition. He argues that, compared to "the oppressions of gender," "the oppressions of race have cut deeper." His examples:

1. "[T]here is no gender equivalent of the nightmare of disenfranchisement, lynching, apartheid, and peonage that followed Reconstruction," or the 250 years of slavery that preceded it. Slavery as such, no. But women certainly (as Hertzberg acknowledges) were disenfranchised; they also were denied the right to own property, they have been and continue to be paid wages substantially below those paid to men and they all too routinely are subject to brutal violence (domestic violence, rape) at the hands of men. Remember Tailhook, anyone? Have we passed the Equal Rights Amendment yet? States -- and a presidential candidate? -- are pushing laws that would force a woman to keep in her body a fetus that was the result of rape or incest or that threatened her health. Health insurance pays for men's Viagra but not women's birth control. Pretty nightmarish to me.

2. "Nor has any feminist leader shared the fate of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X." Have there been any feminist leaders of this caliber in the last 50 or 75 years? Who? Gloria Steinem? Oprah? My city has official holidays celebrating two of these guys (Dr. King and Malcolm X); how many holidays are there celebrating women? (Hint: zero.)

3. Hertzberg then suggests that African-Americans are underrepresented in government, compared to women, by noting the number of women and African-Americans who currently are serving as governor or United States senator (16 women senators vs. one African-American senator; 8 women governors vs. 2 African-American governors). These numbers look less dramatic, however, when you compare them to the percentage of women vs. African-Americans in the United States population (50.8% women, 12.4% African-American according to 2006 census data). [Hertzberg addresses this point, raised by someone who commented on his original article, on his New Yorker blog.] Nor is there any acknowledgment of the potential distortion/dilution of African-American votes through racial redistricting/gerrymandering -- a trick that obviously doesn't work against women. I just can't be thrilled, or find some kind of political equality, in 50+% of the population being represented by 16% of the senators or governors. And how about the comparative representations on the Supreme Court?

As with so many (all?) of the other topics discussed on this blog, this is not just a one-dimensional (in this case, political) problem. Gender inequality lives in the workplace, in sports, in advertising and in the way we raise our kids. It lives in our language, which too often embodies our assumptions about the roles we should play. One example that struck me (and not just me): Supreme Court decisions in the past year or two, instead of using a gender-neutral term to refer to a generic lower-court judge, now invariably use "he." Just a little thing, in isolation, but it gets to me.

Hertzberg agrees with Clinton that "from now on it will be 'unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States.'" I wish I could agree.

Yes, things have improved, and I hope -- maybe even trust -- that they will continue to improve. I'm thrilled that my daughters got to see a woman running, seriously, for president. I hope that no one will tell them, as I was told when I was a kid, that a woman will never be president. But I won't believe that a woman can, in fact, be elected president of this country unless and until I see her swearing the oath of office. And even then, it will seem remarkable.

All right, tft; I've had my say. You can boot me off to Shakesville now....

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