Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I can see it in my dreams

"No Child Left Behind" is supposed to be a good Idea. A big Idea. A solution to what ails our schools.

But, like most ideas, it can only be measured by its effect in the world. Not by whether it is properly executed; but by whether the idea itself is sound, and shown by its effect in the world.

An anecdotal example: many students from New Orleans schools are now in Houston schools. Many New Orleans high school students, principals are reporting, cannot pass the classes in the Houston schools. They cannot do the work; they cannot meet the academic requirements of the Texas school system (and Texas has one of the lowest ranked school systems in the country). There are reports that some of the high school students cannot even read.

The reaction to this in the schools is now quite what it should be, but it is precisely what could be expected under the regimine imposed by "No Child Left Behind."

Between Texas' insistence on students passing courses, and standardized tests to assess the quality of a school's educational effort, and the requirements of "No Child Left Behind," which are largely modeled on Texas' efforts, punishment has become the rule of the day. If students fail, or do not perform well on standardized tests, the teachers and the principals are held accountable.

Which can be rather like holding a doctor accountable for his patients dying of diseases, old age, or automobile accidents.

But the issue is brought into sharp relief by the students from New Orleans public schools. By all accounts, those schools were non-functional. High school students who cannot read indicates a school system that was "school" in name only. In truth, it must have been more like a warehouse for kids, a daily baby-sitting service without even the distraction of television. And the principals in the Houston schools are worried about the effect these students will have on their schools.

Because the new standards of "accountability" insist that a percentage of students pass their courses. That percentage is dropping, due to students enrolled in the schools who don't have the education to do the coursework they are supposedly eligible for. The percentage who will fail the standardized tests is likely to go up. And the principals are concerned, not with how to educate these students, but with how to save their schools from punishment for a situation they did not create.

This is, in part, the problem with solving every problem through "punishment," be that solution torture, military invasion, or withholding of funds. No Child Left Behind authorizes withholding of funds for failing schools. It is supposed to allow students to transfer to better performing schools. But if no such school exists, what then? If you can't get your student there, what then? If the school district is already so chronically out of money and resources, what then? Taking a little bit more away from them is not incentive, it's perversion.

But, on the surface, that seems to be what has happened in New Orleans schools; based, at least on the stories of some of the students in some Houston schools, and the anxieties of the principals as to how these underachieving students will affect their schools. How they will be punished, in other words, for the failures of others.

It is the punishment that is the key factor here. Principals who should be concerned with helping these new students, are instead worried about how these students will hurt their schools. And they have reason to be. "Underachieving" schools lose money; and they lose principals. And very good principals could see their jobs on the line, for a situation they didn't create, and aren't reasonably responsible for. The "big idea" of accountability has bent them from ever wanting to be concerned with the children coming into their schools, to being concerned with the test scores coming out of their schools. Rather than be concerned with bringing these children up to speed, they are concerned with ways to drop them from the accounting by the Texas Education Agency.

Not quite as bad as the scandal in Houston schools were students were forced to drop out in order to raise overall test scores, but the intent is much the same: sacrifice a few, for the sake of the Idea.

But there's one more thing: the rest of us. What's the big idea we subscribed to, that we let the schools in New Orleans decay so badly? Where those students not American citizens? Are they condemned because they were born in New Orleans, and not in Dallas, Texas, or the Memorial Villages inside Houston, or on Long Island, or in Kansas? Do we ignore them because "the big idea" says education is a local concern?

At what point does being an American mean anything other than being eligible to fight in another rich man's war because there is no better future for you?

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