The federal government attaches sticky strings to its principal education programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The strings are an inducement, a carrot, a cudgel. In reality, they’re bribes; and if your state or school district is strapped for cash, as most are these days, you not only plug your nose as you take the money. You may find yourself painting lipstick on the pig, as much to assuage one’s guilt as to rationalize the corrupting quid-pro-quo.
So it is with Washington state’s political leaders, who jumped into the federal bed, strings and all, in exchange for much needed dollars. As a result, children and their teachers have been subjected to a cruel testing regimen that does nothing to improve education while surely stifling whatever intellectual curiosity existed before kids entered their first classroom.
The reformist premise is that public schools are forever “in crisis,” their alleged failures responsible for the decline in civilization and national fortunes. With each new crisis claim comes a program or initiative promising to bring educational nirvana.
After all, have you seen the latest test scores? Our kids are flunking. Repeat. Reform. Repeat. Reform.
In her latest book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch systematically debunks the crisis claims. Take test scores. She looks at the 2010 PISA results (a test given randomly to children within the OECD).
First, the scores of American fifteen-year-olds had not declined. In reading and mathematics, the U.S. scores were not measurably different from earlier PISA assessments in 2000, 2003, and 2006. In science, U.S. students improved their scores over an earlier assessment in 2006.
More important, and we should always keep this in mind, test scores track poverty rates. The higher the level of poverty the lower the test scores. Thus, Massachusetts, which has a relatively low poverty rate, records better results on PISA, whereas Mississippi, with high percentages of poor people, does worse.
Yet, even with higher poverty rates than other western industrial nations American students do well against their international peers. Here’s Ravitch:
Second, American students in schools with low poverty— the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor— had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. In U.S. schools where less than a quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the federal definition of poverty), the reading scores were similar to those of students in high-performing nations. Technically, the comparison is not valid, because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools in the United States with the average score for entire nations. But it is important to recognize that the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average, higher even than the average for top-performing nations, and the scores decline as poverty levels increase, as they do in all nations.
Writing for the New York Times, Frank Bruni throws his two-cent hat into the reformist ring. He’s touting a “bold” initiative in Colorado that requires voter approval, as he begins with broad, unthinking strokes:
If there’s a key to this nation’s sustained competitiveness, it’s education. And if there’s a key to the kind of social mobility that’s integral to our country’s cherished narrative, to its soul, it’s giving kids from all walks of life teachers and classrooms that beckon them toward excellence. But like all aspects of American policy making these days, the push to improve public schools bucks up against factionalism, pettiness, lobbies that won’t be muted and sacred cows that can’t be disturbed. Progress that needs to be sweeping is anything but.
Amendment 66, as the ballot measure is called, enjoys unusual support from a disparate array of interests, including the Walton family, which heavily funds education reform efforts, especially charter school initiatives, and two national teachers unions. U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan, according to Bruni:
…has said that the success of Amendment 66, which is what voters will weigh in on, would make Colorado “the educational model for every other state to follow.”
While it’s easy to see why corporate reformers back the initiative, what’s in it for teachers and their unions? Here’s the bribe part, and I’ll quote Bruni:
Part of what rallied the unions to the overhaul, which many unionized teachers initially resisted, is its infusion of an extra $950 million annually into public education through the 12th grade, a portion of which could go to rehiring teachers who lost jobs during the recession and to hiring new ones for broadly expanded preschool and kindergarten programs.
Increase spending, by all means, but remove the strings. Also, get smarter about public education.
Finnish schools, perhaps the best in the world, have no charters or”Teach for Finland,” Ravitch’s slam against Wendy Kopps’s Teach for America. There are no standardized tests in Finland. Teachers, among the best prepared in the world when they start their careers, actually spend less time instructing students then their American counterparts. As for funding, all education in Finland is free, or, if you prefer, completely subsidized by the government. Yet, per-pupil spending in Finland is far less than in the U.S.
So, if we wish to talk about reform and eliminate the bribes, we might look at the Finnish example. Do a search on this blog using the term ‘Finland’ to find more. Here’s a start.