Friday, January 04, 2008

Finding Success in Failure, II

Having shared his insights on Iraq, Gerson also shares his equally valuable insights into education policy.
Attacking No Child Left Behind is a reliable campaign applause line -- Hillary Clinton promises to "end" the law, because it is "just not working." Actually, the imposition of educational standards and testing has improved math and reading scores and begun narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and affluent students.

There is an angry backlash against NCLB among some Democratic interest groups. Suburban districts resent being labeled as failures just because some minority and disabled children aren't making progress. But that is the whole purpose of the law -- to prevent districts from hiding the poor performance of minorities behind the success of other students. Such districts should feel less resentment and more shame.
If he were to inform himself of the facts, Gerson might learn that the problem is not that the "failing" schools aren't outperforming other "successful" schools, or that they didn't have far better performance by students from minority groups or with disabilities, he would find that they were "failing" due to the fact that they were not showing sufficient "improvement" over prior years. Under the silly NCLB rating system, the best school in the state can be deemed "failing" while the worst can be deemed to be "succeeding". Also, where much of the "success" in lesser schools derives from "teaching to the test", there is a legitimate question as to whether education has actually improved along with the test scores.
Teachers unions object to standardized tests, preferring more subjective, nonacademic measures of school success. And that, from one perspective, is understandable. Failing corporations do not like accurate financial disclosures. Slow runners resent those pesky stopwatches. The unions want underperforming schools and ineffective teachers to be shielded from objective scrutiny. But testing is the only way to determine when disadvantaged students are being betrayed -- and by whom.
It would be more correct to say that teachers oppose standardized testing (not all of it, but the excessive focus created by NCLB), and that the unions are reflecting the positions of their members. This has nothing to do with teachers fearing that standardized tests will demonstrate them to be poor teachers, and Gerson should know that - part of Gerson's complaint appears to be that these tests do not affect job security. And as previously noted, if Gerson knew anything about school ratings under NCLB he wouldn't be describing the school ratings it promulgates as "accurate". Whatever accuracy might be derived from raw scores, it is lost in the system of rewarding individual school "improvement" even if it means classifying the worst schools as succeeding and the best as in need of improvement. It is noteworthy that in his attack on teacher's unions, as with everything else in his column, he omits any facts to support his slur. How worthy of a Bush Administration alumnus.
Instead of attacking a successful education reform, it would be helpful to hear some practical ideas for improving teacher quality. In the real world of failing schools, the main problem is not too much accountability; it is too few effective instructors. Why should teacher pay be determined by collective bargaining instead of teacher competence, especially in low-income schools that need to reward and retain good teachers? Why not give districts more flexibility to fire teachers who would serve children better by changing professions?

And again we have Gerson demonstrating his abject ignorance. He should pick up a phone and talk to some good teachers in the public school system, and get a sense for how NCLB has demoralized the profession, discourages good teachers from entering the profession, and has a lot of good teachers considering early retirement. Gerson's silly notion that teachers will line up to teach in failing schools because they may get a raise or bonus pay if they don't "fail" by... whatever measure he wishes to impose, be it a standardized test or the subjective assessment of a school administrator... and have no job security whatsoever? What planet is he on, where there's an abundant supply of teachers, and the only constraint against firing bad teachers and replacing them with good ones is the teachers' unions? What's he smoking?

People like Gerson also embrace a fanciful notion that no matter what else is wrong in a child's life, and no matter what educational or language deficits the child experiences, any "good" teacher can find enough time in the day to bring that child up to grade level (along with the thirty or so other kids in the class), and the only person who should face consequence for a child's lower-than-grade-level achievement is the teacher. If we assume that a teacher has six hours of classroom time per day for thirty students, and manages to pour all of that time into one-on-one mentoring... that's a whopping twelve minutes per student. Add, you know, teaching to the mix, and....

Well, Gerson likes to talk up his Christianity, so maybe he believes in educational miracles.

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