Wednesday, January 21st, 2004
From the SOTU, something I just had to bring up. The president says:
By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country. We’re providing more funding for our schools — a 36-percent increase since 2001. We’re requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents, and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child in America.
I enjoy the subtleties here. What does the expectation of literacy the law of our country mean? Is it the law that we must have an expectation or does the President mean to suggest that illiteracy is a crime? Theres also a problem with the question of performance, as if a kid gets a bad grade its automatically the schools fault, when there may be no fault to find except in the concept of education that we currently have in service. I find statements that suggest excellence in absolute quantities pure demagoguery. Logic says that if all are excellent, then excellence becomes mediocrity.
But the status quo always has defenders. Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability.
This is a classic either/or logical fallacy, a fallacy that sets up a trick dichotomy. This the way it goes: if you disagree with NCLB, then you must be against high standards and therefore agree with the status quo by default. This, of course, misses the notion that there may be better responses than the original proposal or that the problem is more complicated than the proposal articulates. The same logic is applied in the Iraq war against people soft on Saddam and his ilk: that if youre against the war, youre for Saddam and his brand of violence and style of governing. Totally false.
Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third graders to read and do math at the third grade level — and that’s not asking too much
This is fine but misses the nuances. At worst it smacks of status quo. Does anyone know what a third grade reading level is? Theres some sort of DNA reading device out there that judges what a third grader should know. Lots of kids are well beyond the Lets read about Farmer Tom and his cows today stuff thats common fare in the third grade. Grades are arbitrary. Check what publishers call young adult market novels out there and prove that this should be young adult fare, the kind of thing that young minds can take: romance, jealousy, and teen angst. At least Buffy has edge. In my mind, seventh and eighth graders should be able to find the thesis of Aristotles Poetics. Weve targeted too much in education already. A third grader is this and not that, and anything else is just strange, or a failure. NCLB sets up even more of a pressure cooker scenario for 3rd graders. We can put a big smile on this if we wish, but, as with all smiles, watch out for the hands working behind it. But now to the weirdest statement:
Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind. This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child — and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America’s children.
I know what these tests look like; I also know how much they cost in both money and time. Really, what the President means is conventional standardized tests, oh, and dont we love those. Testing is not the only way. As far as shuffling students along to the next grade, spare me.
Ultimately I think about words like accountability and performance and all the baggage that comes with the perverted assumptions behind them. I can still see one of my kids’ teachers almost in tears for having to explain to me and my wife why she was having students glue stuff to white boards rather than giving them speeches and thinking problems to work on. Because they said I had to do it this way. This is a teacher with thirty years of experience who knows how kids learn better than her superiors yet couldnt act on her own knowledge because someone else wanted students to glue beads onto a board and probably thought that would be fun. This meant the teacher had to work double time to get done what she felt she needed to get done: having her students solve problems. The teachers that I know work themselves to the bone to teach, to help, and to advise, and are always learning how to do things better. Accountability and performance in this context assigns laziness, an anything should be fine attitude, a passing description for liberalism, to an entire class of people. We gotta get all those lazy, pro-status quo, low-standard-loving liberal teachers in line. Just incredible. I work with students every day who have difficulty with the fundamentals. Most of them got tired of bureaucracy a long time ago and dont want any more of it. Get them excited and they catch on quick.