"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘education’

More on NCLB

Following up the not-so-dramatic revelation that the No Child Left Behind Act is failing drastically, I decided to post some more facts about the state of public education in America.  Unfortunately, I cannot do so, because of another failure of the same piece of legislation.  NCLB, you’ll recall, was supposed to make information about education readily available.  By any standard, I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t done so.

For example, let me take the public high school nearest to me: Rappahannock County High School, in Rapphannock County Virgina.  With a simple search, I can find the school’s website.  The front page of the site gives me fascinating information about the calendar, school lunch prices, and office hours, but no visible information about the school’s academic performance.  I look to the list of tabs on the left, and I click the one labeled “Academics”, but that only leads me to the transcript request form.  Nothing wrong with a transcript request form, but I don’t see any information about academics there.  I click the most promising of the other tabs, but none of them give me any information about the school’s performance on standardized testing or anything other solid, factual measure of how the school performs.  It’s safe to say that most public schools in this country follow the same pattern.  They are not eager to give parents direct information about how well they’re doing their jobs.

Searching a little bit farther afield, I find the site greatschools.com, run by a private nonprofit group, which has a page for Rappahanncok County High School.  They do have some actual data, all coming from the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the testing regimen that Virginia created to meet the mandates of NCLB.  They do tell the percentage of students that pass each test each year.  But that’s it.  Parents cannot, as far as I can tell, get any information more specific than that.

Obviously there’s a great deal more that a parent would probably want to know about their school beyond merely whether their child is likely to pass a certain test.  Parents might want to know the distribution of actual scores that students got on that test.  They might want to know how many students go on to college, and which colleges they go to.  Parents might want to know which areas the school is most successful in, what the pass/fail rates are in every class rather than just overall, and how experienced the teachers are in various areas.  Parents might want to know a great many other things.  This information may, for all I know, be available somewhere, but it should be readily available to anyone who looks.  It should be gathered in one place and presented clearly.  A section on the school’s website would certain suffice.

So why isn’t it.  Well, the answer isn’t too difficult to figure out.  Nobody associated with the public schools–teachers, administrators, unions, or politicians–wants this information to be readily available.  Too much of the information reflects negatively on those exact groups of people.  If word got out about how bad America’s public schools are, the public might actually demand serious change.  That’s why they do their best to hide the information.

How to turn failing schools into succeeding schools

I’ve been blogging for over a year and I’ve written 162 posts, and yet I’ve written little about a subject of great interest to me, which happens to be my chosen profession: education.  I am a teacher, and as such a follower of trends in education.  My attention was grabbed by a recent newspaper headline with the self-explanatory headline: Half of U.S. Schools Fail Federal Standards.

Let me give you a brief history.  For decades we’ve known that America’s public school system is failing, with test scores and other measures for our public school students lagging behind private school students, behind previous generations, and behind students from other countries.  In 2001 Congress and then-President Bush finally did something in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The idea was that every state would have to implement a strict testing regimen for its public schools, by which it would measure whether each school was ‘failing’ or not.  For schools that were failing, there would be consequences.  Of course, as with most federal legislation, a lot was left blurry and ambiguous.  States had a lot of leeway in how to create their tests, how to evaluate schools, and how to respond once any school was found to be failing.

The result, 10 years later, is summarized in the headline above.  Almost half of schools are failing.  That means half of schools will face consequences, right?  No more passive acceptance of mediocrity, no more pretending not to notice, no more leaving any child behind?

Actually not.   As the article explains, our Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a response.  The failures are “an alarming trend that Duncan hopes to address by granting states relief from the federal law.”  Yes, that’s right, if half our schools are failing, we should just change the law that was instituted to prevent them from failing.  But it gets better:

The numbers indicate what federal officials have been saying for more than a year — that the law, which is four years overdue for a rewrite, is “too crude a measure” to accurately depict what’s happening in schools, said Jack Jennings , president of the Washington, D.C.-based center. An overhaul of the law has become mired in the partisan atmosphere in Congress, with lawmakers disagreeing over how to fix it.

“No Child Left Behind is defective,” Jennings told The Associated Press. “It needs to be changed. If Congress can’t do it, then the administration is right to move ahead with waivers.”

So now our “federal officials” are telling us that the federal government’s own law is a bad thing.  Really?  It’s too bad they couldn’t have figured that perhaps ten years ago, before the federal government passed the law that they’re now badmouthing.  It’s too bad that even while everyone from teachers to parents to local governments was well aware of NCLB’s many large failings, the federal government wasn’t willing to listen until a year ago.  But I guess that’s just too much to ask from the federal government.

Day 26: A book that changed your opinion about something

Near the end of my second year of graduate school, Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy converted me to Christianity.  I was naturally eager to read more Chesterton.  What’s Wrong with the World was among the next Chesterton books that I read.  (It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I read entirely online.)  Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one has the clearest and most self-explanatory title.  It is, indeed, about what is wrong with the world.

Fundamentally there are two fields in human experience: the individual field and the social field.  Many great observers of humanity have one well-known book in each field.  Augustine covered the individual field in the Confessions and the social field in The City of God.  Aristotle had the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  Chesterton covered individual issues in OrthodoxyWhat’s Wrong with the World covers social issues.

Bluntly what’s wrong with the world is that people these days care about institutions rather than humans.  Capitalists have decided that we must have big businesses.  They judge all policies, programs, and ideas by whether or not those things benefit big business.  Socialists care about big government, and likewise judge all things by their relation to big government.  Neither side puts human beings first.  In the century since Chesterton wrote these books, both sides have fiddled with the details but the underlying message that we must have either big business or big government remains the same, and still drives almost all punditry and political campaigns.

A right and reasonable approach would put human beings first.  It would begin with ordinary, individual human beings.  It would have a strong awareness of their wants and needs, the characteristics, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  It would then build a set of philosophical, political, and economic thought based on what is good for humanity.  It would not try to change humanity to meet the needs of any dogma, but would instead craft the dogma around the needs of the humans.  This book explains how we might do that.  As always, the best introduction is a sample:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.” It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology.  It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure.  But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly.  Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede.  This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about “young nations” and “dying nations,” as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life.  Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth.  Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a new moustache.  Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous.  Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.  These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age.  But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs.  The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal.  The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache.  Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles.  Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes cut.  We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing.  We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one.  Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.  The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case.  We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health.  On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health . Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity.  We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them.  Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house.  It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity?  I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated.  What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

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