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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Race to the Bottom

This past week we received the news that 200 teachers were being fired in Washington, DC because they were "failing to perform".


So the next time you are looking for teachers to work in those poor, inner-city, low-functioning schools you are going to find them where?

The problems with Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind are multitudinous. Let's just start with the kids.

In both cases, these programs assume that all children are ready for school at age 5. They assume that kids will have been read to, have books in their homes, and parents who value education. It assumes that these children live in homes where the parents are not doing drugs, fighting constantly including with physical violence, gang members, prostitutes, or serving time. These programs also assume that these kids have enough to eat every day, a warm and safe place to sleep, and clean clothes and a way to keep themselves clean as well as a stable, long-term place to live.

Unfortunately, for a lot of kids in inner cities and poor rural areas too, kids live in the kinds of homes described above - not in some Mr. Rogers neighborhood.

So what happens when these kids come to school? First off, pre-school experiences (being read to, having their own books, having parents who value education) mean children are either very well prepared for school, or they are simply not. The work that has been done before a child reaches the school classroom cannot be underestimated when looking at educational outcomes.

Kids who are not fed are not able to learn. They are hungry, sleepy, distracted, and they just cannot learn unless they are well nourished. That is the main force (and science) behind school lunch and even more importantly, school breakfast programs. The nutritional status of kids goes even beyond the day to day in that if their mothers were not well-nourished during their pregnancies, it can result in the lost of IQ points for the child, and even more drastically if the child is born prematurely or underweight. Or drug-addicted.

And finally, children raised in homes where there is constant fighting and violence do not do well in school for several reasons. First, they may not be getting adequate sleep due to fears for their own safety or the safety of siblings or even the safety of their parent(s). Violence in the home causes PTSD-like symptoms in young children, resulting in kids who are withdrawn, paranoid, fearful, or who act-out, are irritable, etc. In the latter case, many of these kids are wrongly diagnosed with ADHD/HD and medicated to make them more calm. ADHD/HD medications create their own obstacles to learning.

Funding for Head Start and Early Head Start has never been adequate to the task since it is funded on a block-grant basis. What this means is that even though a child may be eligible - only about 50% of kids actually receive funding to participate. In recent years both these programs have been under intense attack because by the fourth grade the Head Start kids are no different from their peers. Which is the exact result you should be expecting - but the conservatives have decided that somehow these kids who start out behind the starting line should not only catch up but actually sprint ahead of their peers. That was never the expectation, and the science simply does not back that up as an outcome. Never has. Parity was always the goal.

So at this point we have huge numbers of children entering school in DC. The school system there has its own set of special problems. Since DC is the capital of the US, and is not part of any state, its funding does not have the state property tax flow of all other school districts in the country. Instead, DC must rely on funding when and if Congress gets around to it. And the Representative, Eleanor Norton, has no vote. She is just there to speak (if they let her) and then observe if anyone chooses to do anything. As we have all seen recently, expecting Congress to do the right thing is an exercise in futility.

As a result, the schools are crumbling around the ears of the students and faculty alike. There aren't computers in the classroom. Most of the kids don't have books to take home to help with their homework. In many cases they don't have pencils, paper, or any of the other "normal" supplies kids need to do their work. So the schools rely on donations from local merchants, parents who have no money, or the teachers buy the stuff out of their own pockets. What a way to help kids learn.

The next thing that happens with these so-called school reform programs is the Orwellian "accountability" provisions. Some commission that has no educators on it has set standards for achievement for every school in the entire country. No adjustments are made for poverty or wealth, for regional differences, for culture (Native American springs to mind), or for language. (Let's not get into the immigration wars here - in some communities with LEGAL immigrants like San Francisco, there may be as many as 50 different languages spoken as the primary one for kids in some districts). And perhaps even more importantly, there is no account taken for where the students are/were on Day One of these programs.

I'm sure you can see that if the students in Burlingame California (one of the wealthiest districts in the entire country) are at level 80 on Day One, and the students at the Five Valleys District (on an impoverished Indian reservation) are at 25 on Day One, the likely outcomes when you set the bar at 85 for the end of the first year are going to be quite different. The kids at Burlingame will make the new goal with ease - having to only achieve 5 points on the test after a school year of excellent instruction by teachers with MS and PhD degrees, each child with their own set of books and supplies furnished by the school, their parents encouraging them to do their homework, and a computer on every desk.

On the other hand, that goal is impossible for the Indian kids. Even if they double their previous scores (from 25 to 50) with teachers who have a BA, no books, no supplies, no computers, and with all the other problems living in poverty causes, the school is still deemed to be failing. So it gets put on probation. At that point, all the parents in the school are offered to have their kids bussed to a different school that is performing better. So the kids whose parents are concerned about their education (usually the smart kids) will opt out of the school district. This has the effect of depressing the overall scores even further since the poorest, and the poorest performing students are the ones left behind. Oh, forgot one thing. The underperforming school district is required to pay the transportation costs of the students who are leaving the district.

And then....wait for it...the standard is moved up from 85 to 90 for the next year. The cycle repeats itself, and now the Five Valleys School receives a huge cut in its funding to "punish it for not doing better". That's all it takes to make it do better - right?

And in the third year, Five Valleys School can expect to have all of its dedicated teachers and the principal fired. Now the school will be taken over by the State, or turned over to a private company to run. The teachers and administrators are now on unemployment on a reservation where the unemployment rate is already over 80%. Due to the history of the school, and the distance it is from other towns in the area (45 minute drive in the summer, roads impassable due to downed trees and landslides in winter) how do you recruit teachers? Any teachers? And no private corporation wants to take over a school like this where they can't make money off it.

What to do?

In this case, what the Five Valleys School District did was admirable. But most inner city districts don't even have this option. The local Tribal Council voted to set up a casino. They used the casino money to offset ALL federal and state funding and told them both to take No Child Left Behind and stuff it.

Then they cleaned up the school, raised the salaries of the teachers, and implemented a number of cultural programs, like teaching the kids their own language, and traditional arts and crafts. They set a goal of having each individual student make 10 points of progress each year. If they didn't, tutors and other mentors were brought in to help these individual children. And guess what - the school is doing much better. They still aren't at 95% (where the bar is today) but they are above 50% now. And that's quite an achievement.

If these mass firings, cuts to funding, privatization and other schemes such as this continue, we will have no more public schools. Millions of kids will be left behind - illiterate and completely unemployable. Is this what we really want?

President Obama says that education is an economic issue. That is correct. But the simple cost-benefit analysis does not work for education. How do you measure the value of a child learning to love learning? How do you measure the value of a child enjoying a finger-painting class? (Those disappeared along with all other art, music and physical education classes). How do you measure the value of kids who don't know how to understand critical thinking? (Not taught in K-12 under either regime) There are hundreds of positive aspects of a well-rounded, positive education that simply cannot be measured in dollars and cents. And basing teacher firings on test scores on tests that do not measure a child's true learning - or their potential for future learning is not helpful in the least.

Arne Duncan is really pushing hard for charter schools. The verdict is in on them. Some are better, some are worse, and most are the same - just like public schools in general. And charter schools are unaccountable, discriminatory, in a majority of cases, religious. Where the real advances are is in Magnet Schools. These schools are accountable to the voters, are run by public school districts, and achieve far greater results with their focus on real-world application-type learning. Magnet Schools are by almost every measure - far better than regular public schools and charter schools alike.

I don't know what the best way is to reform our schools. But the way we are going now is only going to ruin everything. In this Race, far too many of our children are truly being Left Behind.

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