Tuesday, January 18, 2011

School improvement; preparing for the fight over NCLB/ESEA

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign is now preparing for new debates around re-authorization of "No Child Left Behind" (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). NCLB has continued to be in force despite the clear lack of improved student outcomes and the law's expiration four years ago. Whether Congress engages this year in the long-overdue reauthorization process or again defers action, BBA will be a vocal participant in the debate. In particular, we will emphasize these key points:
  • Discussion around education reform has come to focus excessively on improving teacher effectiveness as the means of raising student achievement, especially that of disadvantaged students. While educational improvement should include greater support and professional development opportunities for weak teachers and, if that fails, their removal, many other problems faced by schools also demand attention. Learning is impeded by curriculum that is often of poor-quality, lack of school leadership that understands and can improve instruction, and drastic budget cuts that limit teacher recruitment, increase class sizes, and eliminate essential student supports (such as nurses, counselors, and librarians).
  • Increased reliance on low-quality standardized tests of math and reading to measure the quality of schools and of teachers is doing real damage to American public education. These ineffective test-based accountability systems narrow the curriculum especially for disadvantaged children, whose schools have been forced to reduce time devoted to the subjects that make for well-rounded parents, employees, innovators and citizens: the arts, music, literature, history, science, civic education and physical fitness. Pressure to increase scores on tests of basic academic skills channels class time to test preparation, leaving little space for reasoning, critical thinking, and creativity. Today’s low-quality tests are also widely condemned by experts as inappropriate measures of school and teacher quality. Their excessive use results in the misidentification of both excellent and ineffective teachers, leading to the removal of many of the excellent teachers we need badly, rewards for many who are less effective, and widespread confusion and disillusionment.
  • The most serious problems facing American schools lie outside the school walls. Persistent high levels of poverty and rising unemployment mean that children arrive at school each day from homes and communities in stress, without adequate nutrition or health care. The housing crisis has exacerbated low-income families’ instability, with increasing numbers of children homeless. The re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should address these problems by funding and encouraging the coordination of schools with health, social service, parent support, and high-quality after-school and summer programs for low-income children. Failing to do so guarantees that even children with excellent teachers will face additional hurdles to learning.
  • Research continues to reinforce the need for dramatic expansion of high-quality early childhood and preschool programs. The achievement gap between middle-class and disadvantaged children is already well established by three years of age, and the majority of children who enter kindergarten far behind never catch up. Early childhood supports must be reinforced with continuing high quality education, but failing to establish the early foundation renders later attempts at remediation very difficult, costly and frequently futile.
BBA supporters seeking advice or assistance in advancing the BBA campaign should contact Elaine Weiss at eweiss@epi.org.

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