Sunday, November 16, 2008

NCLB : a diminished view of school reform

Dear President-Elect Obama,
As one of the millions of Americans thrilled by your historic victory, I am heartened by your pledge to pay long-overdue attention to improving – and adequately funding – America’s schools.

Your comments on reforming the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have been especially welcome. As you know, the misguided use of “high-stakes” testing under this law has brought numerous unintended consequences. Not least of these is a teaching-to-the-test mentality that has impoverished the educational experience of the children it was intended to help. For poor and minority students, children with special needs, and English language learners (ELLs), the school curriculum now consists largely of mind-numbing drills in the two tested subjects, reading and math. As a result, millions are being deprived of opportunities to learn critical thinking skills, develop talents in music and art, become physically fit, and excel in science and social studies.

For ELLs in particular, educational options have been narrowed by the high-stakes use of standardized tests in a language these children have yet to master. Despite widespread agreement that such assessments are neither valid nor reliable, they are nevertheless being used to make major decisions about students’ promotion and graduation, teachers’ pay and career prospects, and even school restructuring.

One perverse result has been to eliminate or marginalize proven pedagogies like bilingual education, which is now available to only 13% of ELLs, down from 37% in 1992. Such programs have been replaced, in many cases, with approaches that have no scientific support and essentially amount to intensive preparation to fill in the bubbles on English-language tests. It’s no accident that, under NCLB, the achievement gap is growing in most states between ELLs and their English-proficient peers.

In short, American schools are far more unequal today than they were seven years ago, when NCLB was enacted. Which is ironic, considering that the law was sold as a way to overcome “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and enhance the achievement of “all students.”

The problem, in my view, is that NCLB represents a diminished vision of civil rights. Rather than tackle the structural inequities among our schools; rather than ensure adequate funding for K-12 education; and rather than address social, health, and economic conditions that impair children’s readiness to learn, the sponsors of NCLB sought to do education reform on the cheap. It was much easier to establish an arbitrary and punitive accountability system, which placed blame for underachievement on schools and educators alone, than to hold all policymakers and stakeholders accountable. It was politically convenient to mandate a simplistic panacea – reliance on standardized tests as the instrument of reform – instead of providing serious support for building schools’ capacity to serve children whose needs have been neglected.

Clearly, the nation is far from a consensus on how to reauthorize the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In the outgoing Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, were so divided among themselves that they were unable to move forward on reforming NCLB. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that the differences are bipartisan.

While this situation will certainly complicate your leadership in the area of school reform, it could also offer some advantages. Precisely because the traditional ideological divisions play a limited role here, you are in a position to organize a broad, civil, and inclusive discussion on how to make American schools the best in the world – not just for the privileged but for the children who most need our help.

My organization, which consists of educators, parents, students, and advocates in 36 states who are dedicated to improving schools for English language learners, will be pleased to help support your efforts in any way we can. Please feel free to call on us as needed.

Sincerely,
James Crawford, President
Institute for Language and Education Policy
P.O. Box 5960
Takoma Park, MD 20913
bilingualed@starpower.net
www.elladvocates.org
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