Education policy has failed kids

Education policy has failed kids

Nicholas Wishek: Education policy has failed kids

October 04, 2011|By NICHOLAS WISHEK

When I originally heard that President Barack Obama was going to allow states to opt out of the No Child Left Behind program, my reaction was that it was a good start. After hearing more details, it looks like just more of the same. All the Obama waiver appears to have done is to lift the NCLB 2014 deadline of 100 percent proficiency for all students as the price for accepting more of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top agenda for education. Neither program, though well-intentioned, is a viable solution to the massive problems facing public education in America.

Most people recognize that public education in its present form is failing. Since “A Nation at Risk,” a landmark report on education reform, was published in 1983, test scores have basically flat-lined. Too many schools haven’t gotten better in spite of multibillions of dollars spent to improve education.

A solid case can be made that many children are not getting as good an education as their parents did. Paul Peterson wrote in his “The Decline and Fall of American Education” that Americans educated 30, 40 and 50 years ago compared better with the rest of the world than those graduating today. He writes, “All signs point to a deterioration in the quality of American schools. … In the United States stagnation if not decline has been apparent at least since the 1970s.”

So why? Some, like John Stossel, in his recently aired TV special “Stupid in America,” primarily blame the teachers unions for protecting bad teachers. He suggests incompetent teachers are the main reason public education is failing.

Are there inept teachers? Well, sure. Are there so many of them that they are the cause of the widespread problems in public education? Not likely.

The fault more realistically belongs with those who make educational policy. Those decision-makers, many of whom are ivory-tower theorists who have never been teachers, demand the impossible. These policy-makers are reminiscent of some World War I generals. Safe in their tidy headquarters miles from the front, these commanders directed troops by moving brightly colored pins on a map, never equating moving a pin with sending thousands of soldiers out of their trenches to struggle through knee-deep mud, trying to cross a No Man’s Land of barbed wire, poison gas and machine gun fire.

Back in the educational trenches, teachers are ordered by detached policy-makers to meet impossible goals. These theorists might better ask themselves why students in private and charter schools so often do better than those in public schools. The primary advantage private schools and charter schools have is that most of their students either want to learn themselves, or have parents who motivate them to learn. This is not the case for far too many students in public schools.

Critics like Stossel maintain that good teachers should be able to so motivate students to become eager learners. If only it were so simple. The reality is that all teachers are not Jaime Escalante. Nor should they have to be to be effective. And, it should be remembered that Escalante, the Los Angeles teacher depicted in “Stand and Deliver,” taught students who voluntarily signed up for his classes. He helped them all he could, but the students still had to choose to attend his classes.

Compounding this lack of student motivation is the choice of curriculum offered in public schools. Aside from the fact that there are not enough hours in the school day to teach everything demanded by the bureaucrats in charge, the choices reflect the preconceived notions, almost snobbery, of what the policy-makers think is important. In truth, every child doesn’t want to be a scientist or mathematician or even to go to college. Ironically, while educational theorists recognize the existence of different learning modalities, this hasn’t translated into course offerings. By middle school and, certainly, by high school, students should be offered courses to help them be successful in skilled trades or vocations.

Students who see no appreciable benefit in courses offered have no incentive to apply themselves. This alone would make it more difficult to teach a class, but these disengaged students too often disrupt the learning process for others. To cope with this, teachers aren’t allowed much in the way of tools for classroom control.

Yet, teachers are still expected to teach unwilling students and then be judged on how well they scored on standardized achievement tests. Neither NCLB nor its presumed successor, Race to the Top, addresses these realities. Education should be more than preparing for standardized tests in reading and math.

It would be truly enlightening to see how well those who make educational policy would fare if they had to teach a year in one of the classrooms they determined was failing.