Sunday, June 10, 2012

I Woke Up Thinking About Children Left Behind

Years before both parties of Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act for President George W. Bush in 2001, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund used the phrase "Leave No Child Behind" to bring attention to the ways America fails poor children.

It's interesting to note the grammatical difference between the two phrases. Wright Edelman's is addressed to an assumed "you," who is commanded to leave no child behind. Bush's version is in the past tense -- somehow, no child will have been left behind. Both the actors and the mechanism are unclear.

And that's exactly how it has turned out. Underfunded, founded on mistaken or false premises of how schools can succeed, and most egregiously, assuming that children are outputs that can all be made the same, NCLB has provided a goad for anti-union, pro-business-at-any-cost forces to undermine public confidence in the one remaining social institution that had substantial support among most groups in our country.

The remedies prescribed by NCLB for failing schools were all unknowns or wishful thinking, as Diane Ravitch has shown. "Free" tutoring has led to a boom in tutoring businesses, most of which rip off families (and district taxpayers). Reorganizing schools has not led to improved outcomes for the students. Charter schools are no more likely to improve students' learning than the public schools whose funding they have gutted. Kids who got vouchers to attend religious schools don't do any better either.

Once all the cherry-picking of student populations is controlled for in research, the only school models, whether charter or traditional public, that have led to clearly improved outcomes for most (but still not all) low-income students are the ones where the school year and day are extended and students and their parents are supported with a host of social services.

Is anyone surprised by this? Having trained staff working with kids and caring about them from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week and most of Saturday as well works. Getting rid of summer "vacation" works. Providing free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus social workers, job counseling for parents, and transportation… It's no shock that a child from a family with little infrastructure will do better once there is infrastructure.

It takes more money to make up for things that poor kids don't have.

As publications like Rethinking Schools show, there are plenty of unionized teachers who think our public schools need reforming, but not with NCLB's methods. Testing, which transmogrifies learning into a vacant shell lacking art, music, history, or science, is often absurd, as well as a money magnet for companies like Pearson. And privatizing public schools into for-profit chains takes it one step further.

Leaving no child behind takes a Finland-like commitment to education as a core societal good. It takes addressing child poverty and income inequality as the root cause of the problem. It requires policy that comes from research rather than wishful thinking.


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Marsha Qualey said...

Thanks for the links and, as usual, a thoughtful post.