No “Change” in Education Policy Either

March 13, 2009

This past week President Obama made a major education speech in front of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  In the speech Obama laid out his policy proposals for improving America’s schools.  The good news is that his plan, at least for now, proposes no new legislative initiatives.  The bad news is that the president did not propose to end Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program.  Thus, the president of change is once again reneging on his campaign promise.Then there are the interventions for learning disabled students and English language learners that are needed if these students are to achieve high scores on the tests.  The problem is that NCLB does not allocate any funds for this purpose.  The program is essentially an unfunded mandate for the states.  Schools are held to high standards but are not given the resources by Uncle Sam to carry the mission out. 

This wouldn’t be so bad if our education system was in good shape.  The previous president was a Neanderthal in many ways including his views on education.  As a teacher myself, Bush’s NCLB legislation is one of the many reasons why I chose to teach abroad.  I can honestly say that I have never spoken to an education colleague that has any fondness for the program.  The reason is simple: the NCLB program is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing to prepare our students for the world of the future.

So what does NCLB mandate?  Essentially, the mandate is for schools to improve the academic achievement of their students.  That sounds fair enough, but the problem is that it seeks to measure this achievement through standardized testing.  What is wrong with this assessment approach since teachers have traditionally used tests to grade their students? Lots.  First of all, and this is from my personal experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, enormous pressure is placed on teachers from school administrators to constantly work to improve test scores because if schools do not improve scores there are strict penalties like a cut in funding or outright takeover of the school by federal and state officials.  Consequently, teachers have become test preparers instead of instructors of

critical thinking and problem solving skills.  The tests trump all beneficial features of a holistic education.  There is not enough time for field trips, music, the arts, and physical education because maximum time must be given to drill and kill exercises in math and English to prepare for the tests.

Lastly, NCLB provides for no consideration of other school issues like developing a school culture, addressing the emotional needs of children, and assimilating new immigrant students into the mainstream of the school.  For schools to be totally successful in carrying out their mission to provide a quality academic program, these issues must be addressed first.  The federal government’s program has it backwards – academic achievement measured by constantly improving test scores will develop a school’s culture, meet the emotional needs of all students, and assimilate new immigrant students into the mainstream of the school.  Anyone with a logical mind knows this is absurd.

Naturally, NCLB is not the whole problem with our education system.  The program is carried out by the Department of Education (DOE) and its $46 billion annual budget.  $46 billion dollars a year and the best this department of the federal government can do is give us an education policy that is better fit for the long gone Industrial Age than for the Information Age?  What we need is a new paradigm.  The teachers’ union dominated DOE is not the institution to provide it.  After all, the DOE has had 29 years to improve our education system and it has failed miserably.

Again the solution to our problems can be found in the private sector.  In 1999, Morton Egol, the managing director of Arthur Andersen’s School of the Future Program, gave an address that outlined the changes that were needed in the American education system.  He envisioned a system that moved away from the “mechanistic ways of working and organizing ourselves” to a system that instilled higher order thinking skills, creativity, self-directed learning with a collaborative foundation, and technology.  Somewhat radical in his approach, he rejected the “factory-like, assembly-line structure of schools” where “rigid grade levels and “fragmented” time slots prevailed.  Most of all he rejected the old system based on examinations which he claimed, rightly, contributed to squashing the love of learning and high dropout rates.  In its place, he proposed a dynamic system that provided the latest in computer technology for students to work in teams on real world issues.  Less than 2 years after Egol’s address, the Bush Administration put into law NCLB.  Fortunately, Egol’s legacy lives on at the Alameda Community Learning Center.

Obama had a golden opportunity to live up to his campaign mantra “Change We Can Believe IN” at least as far as education policy is concerned.  It would have been a no brainer to abolish NCLB.  In fact, if he was really for change, he would have scrapped NCLB, abolished the Department of Education, and returned education policy to the states and the people where it belongs under the 10th Amendment.  Given the teachers’ union’s stranglehold over the Democratic Party that is too much to expect.  I was just hoping for the demise of NCLB.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing – Thomas Jefferson

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