Thursday, December 21, 2006

Many Children Left Behind: a book review

Many Children Left Behind - A Review

This is a courageous book. Authored by some of the most respected American educational thinkers of our times (Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond, George Wood, Alfie Kohn, Stan Karp, Monty Neil and Theodore R. Sizer), Many CLB shows the current Educational Emperor has no clothes. Sadly, such voices have been virtually silenced in recent years as the consideration of national educational policy has been reduced to a monologue launched by grey suited ideologues quick to dismiss the thinking of true educators.

In a few years we will look back at this dark period of educational history and realize, "It was the worst of times."

Many Children Left Behind does a chilling job of summarizing the case against the NCLB educational law and the policies put into place during George W. Bush's administration. It reveals the fallacies, the hidden agendas and the distortions embedded in this act.

Why courageous? There has been too much silence, too much compliance and too little outcry about an educational policy that is likely to level a decade of damage on our schools and our children (especially poor children) before the full consequences are understood. What we are seeing and what these authors reveal is a radical, right wing experiment cleverly dressed up to seem beneficial. To challenge this approach to school improvement is to throw one's career into severe risk.

Not a team player
Subversive tendencies
Soft bigotry
Hidden Agendas and Broken Promises

NCLB contains dozens of hidden agendas that were slipped into a mammoth bill in ways that seemed to escape notice, as George Wood points out in his introduction. In addition, fundamental technical flaws undermine the capacity of NCLB to do good. Wood lists underfunding, restrictive definitions of teacher qualifications and arbitrary expectations for subgroups as just a few, but he argues that NCLB is more deeply and fundamentally flawed, throwing schools off purpose by stressing results on a few tests in ways that will actually undermine accountability and threaten the success of our children.

Missing the Point

Ted Sizer argues that NCLB fails to address the true causes of school failure and to advance an agenda for real improvement:

While NCLB was accompanied by much rhetorical emphasis on "research-based" education policy, the breadth of this research is narrow, largely settled on specific pedagogies and curricula that are "measurable."

Compelling research on larger themes --- the social reasons for school dropouts, the weakness of social capital in regions with apparently low-performing" schools, the misdesign of many schools, the evidence of growing inequities among population groups and communities, the impact of now ubiquitous media on the basic learning of children and adolescents, for example---find no place in the act. Page xxi
Testing is Not Fixing

Linda Darling-Hammond points out that NCLB fails to address many of the resource failures of education, whether it be inadequate textbooks, falling ceiling tiles or lack of heat.

Although the act orders schools to ensure that 100 per cent of students test at levels identified as "proficient" by the year 2014---and to make mandated progress toward this goal each year---the small per pupil dollar allocation it makes to schools serving low-income students is well under 10 percent of schools' total spending, far too little to correct these conditions.

Most of the federal money has to be spent for purposes other than upgraded facilities, textbooks, or teachers' salaries. Furthermore, while the law focuses on test scores as indicators of school quality, it largely ignores the important inputs or resources that enable school quality.
Page 8
According to Darling-Hammond, "The biggest problem with the NCLB Act is that it mistakes measuring schools for fixing them." She goes on to illustrate ways that NCLB has forced many states to lower their standards and how it has perversely encouraged some schools to improve performance by making sure low performing students leave. Rather than lifting the performance of low achieving students, NCLB can increase the number of dropouts and pushouts.

As with each of the authors of this book, Darling-Hammond offers a list of suggestions for policies that might actually lead to improvement. Not content to criticize, she takes on the issue of teacher quality, for example, and offers specific recommendations.

Overhauling NCLB

One of the best sections of this book is offered up by Monty Neil, whose group, FairTest, has been one of the most outspoken critics of NCLB.

Not content to criticize, Neil offers very specific alternative strategies for school improvement. Neil's section of the book is called "Overhauling NCLB."

Unlike the rigid and unrealistic demands of NCLB, Neil's focus is much more authentically local and much more realistically tied to the development of programs from the school and community level. He advances ten principles worthy of consideration:

Shared Vision and Goals
Adequate Resources Used Well
Participation and Democracy
Prioritizing Goals
Multiple Forms of Evidence
Balance - Bottom Up and Top Down
What does he mean by these? Good reason to buy the book!
A book well worth reading
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