Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Optimist or Pessimist? (Education) -- In this Week's News

From Ash:

While we're spending a couple days exploring some of the larger issues in education, there are a couple new reports focusing on the successes and failures of the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" legislation. And both of these reports seem to be grappling with the same issue in much the same way we are: should we be optimistic or pessimistic about these results? No one seems quite sure.

The Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition ran stories on a new report by the Center on Education Policy on the effect of "No Child Left Behind." The L.A. Times (on 3/29/06) ran "Math, Reading Crowd Out Other Classes," while NPR did "Reading and Math Gain Ground with Education Law," (audio, 3/28/06).

According to those reports, CEP has found that "No Child Left Behind Law" has resulted in students' improved over-all academic achievement, particularly in math and reading.

Of course, there are critics disputing the results because of flawed methodology (I haven't yet read the report, so I don't know either way).

But what seems to be of greater concern and debate is that the students' improvement in math and reading has come at the expense of almost all other school curricula; history, social studies, science, the arts, are being taught less because of the increased focus on the two core subjects. There's a potent argument here. Without reading and math, a student might not have the basic skills to master the other subjects. (e.g., You can't do well in Chemistry if you can't do the math. I remember that all too well.) But, on the other hand, subjects like music and the arts are consistently shown to entice reluctant learners into studying the core subjects, so to shorten those may jeopardize getting those students to be interested in school in the first place.

The White House seems to share the concern of educators on this point -- at least where science is concerned. Today, Associated Press is reporting that President Bush is floating adding tests for science proficiency to the "No Child Left" math and reading requirements.

On the other hand, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has begun her retirement by writing an editorial with Roy Romer (former Governor of Colorado, now head of Los Angeles schools) in yesterday's New Hampshire Union-Leader, bemoaning the President's shortsightedness on focusing on math and science to the neglect of social studies, US history and government. They make a compelling argument that (Cue "America The Beautiful") essentially studies of math and science are commerce-driven -- they're about jobs and competitiveness. But the study of our larger society will protect our democracy -- to help us here as well as help us export our democratic ideals, not just our widgets.

While the debate over the subjects taught continues, there were also reports on just where the act is having the most effect. The Washington Post today ran "States Have More Schools Failing Behind." In that article, Paul Basken writes that preliminary reports show that more than a fourth of the states are not meeting the required progress required under "No Child Left Behind" -- and that some states may be manipulating their results. (But that means that three-fourths of them are.) As the article explains, not only is federal funding, etc. involved on a larger level, but individual families and schools are impacted as well. For example, if states' school don't consistently improve, parents must be allowed to transfer their children out to other schools.

And of particular interest for me was the LAT's observation that the "No Child Left Behind Act" is having a disproportionate effect on urban schools: 90 percent of the schools that have been identified as failing are in urban areas.

Since I'm here -- Morning Edition also had two other features on education yesterday. Of these, I found their prose piece "The Cost of Dropping Out" (a box-companion article to their report "Helping Dropouts Break The Cycle of Poverty,") the most interesting -- quite a fascinating glimpse into how dropping out of high school can impact a person's entire life, from the jobs he holds to poor health care to even a lower life-expectancy. (The site will also has a link to a longer factsheet on drop-outs; it's meaty information as well if you really want to get into this.)


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