Saturday, May 30, 2009

NCEE Thinks They Have the Answer

According to an op-ed in the Washington Post today, William Brock, Secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration, Ray Marshall, Secretary of Labor in the Carter administration, and Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), have the answers for a "world class" education system. However, excuse me if I hold my applause for their basic recitation of the regular mantras of "better teachers" and "accountability" and the ever-present, and slightly clueless obsession with "preparation for college." Their proposals are not so radical as they think, though some of their assumptions are off the mark. For example:

The key to U.S. global stature after World War II was the world's best-educated workforce. But now the United States ranks No. 12, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and today's younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one.

A dubious claim, as I've noted countless times, when the rankings are based on international tests that are voluntary for American students and are often blown off by the test takers. The real test is truly the economy and the state of society. In this regard, the American system is still the place of innovation it has always been, and its college system is still the envy of the world. Ultimately, with 85% of Americans saying they are satisfied with their education, the system is obviously serving its populations to their satisfaction. And isn't that the point? Couldn't we be more like Europe and Asia in test scores if we eliminated sports programs and the arts and theater and student government and recess and physical education and proms and homecomings and fundraisers, etc., etc., etc.? Do the communities want that? I don't think so. But, of course, I could be wrong because I'm just a parent and a teacher in a very successful school district, and not a former Secretary of Labor or head of a "think tank."

Additionally, the authors note a regression from sixty years ago, yet high school graduation is up and more diverse and the top students are breaking down the walls of higher education with AP/IB programs ever expanding with more and more kids doing college-level and even graduate-level work in high school. There is much success in the current system, and the variables for arguing that the population is "less educated" than their parents is dubious at best.

Hold faculty accountable for student achievement. Take over every school that, after three years, is unable to get at least 90 percent of all major groups of students on track to leave high school ready to enter college without the need to take any remedial courses.

Accountability. Of course. But 90% in college. If that means technical schools, maybe. But the country has maxed out at 30% with a four-year degree, and their is no evidence the economy needs or could even accommodate more than that. Remedial courses may say more about the student, than the system.

Make a range of social services available to children from low-income families and coordinate those services with those students' school programs. We have the most unequal distribution of income of any industrialized nation. If the problems posed by students' poverty are not dealt with, it may be nearly impossible for schools to educate the students to world-class standards. The state cannot eliminate students' poverty, but it can take steps to alleviate its effects on students' capacity to learn.

Offer high-quality early-childhood education to, at a minimum, all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds. Students from low-income families entering kindergarten have less than half the vocabulary of the other students. In kindergarten and the early grades, those with the smallest vocabularies cannot follow what is going on and fall further behind. By the end of fourth grade, they are so far behind they can never catch up.

This, I admit, is intriguing. There is certainly evidence for its validity with the Harlem Children's Zone and its Promise Academies. We'll see if taxpayers are willing to pony up for the equality of funding and extra services for struggling populations.


Mrs. C said...

Social services for the poor at school has *nothing* to do with education. Mom and/or Dad need to make sure the kid shows up to class, and if there is a pattern of suspicious absences, there should be a way to remove him from the rolls for that semester. The end.

I agree with "accountability" with a few caveats. It isn't fair to expect a teacher to do a good job if the student isn't in class. It also isn't fair to expect a teacher to do well if there are no textbooks or BASIC teaching items. I've read horror stories! But those are the same schools that have money to pay for "social workers," self-esteem classes and the like.

Buy the textbooks, schools! If the kids are in class, not a behaviour problem and doing the work (did they turn in at least 90% of their assignments?), sure, hold the teacher to some mutually agreed standard of accountability.

Sigh. It just sounds like the obvious has been overlooked.

And preschool? *I* am my child's parent, not the school. I will be sending my non-verbal autistic child to preschool only because that is where the special services funding is directed, and I can't at this point justify depriving a NON-VERBAL child of speech therapy... but my point still stands. Any competent parent of a typically-developing child can teach said child to read, write, and do basic mathematics. We don't need preschools for poor children! Those resources really could be better spent on the textbooks I was chatting about earlier, don't you think?

PS I live near Kansas City. Trust me, throwing money at a problem doesn't solve the problem. It just means you threw a bunch of money. :]

mazenko said...

I agree to a point, Mrs. C.

Parental and child engagement is key, and like Dennis Fermoyle regularly noted, there is not much to do for kids who aren't there. However, the right interventions and, yes spending, can be effective at getting the kids there. While we can call for Mom/Dad to make sure the kid is there, far too many can't/won't/don't, and the education system can still do much for those kids.

"Social services" for poor kids has been very successful at Geoffery Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and its Promise Academy. Nesbitt's book "Intelligence and How to Get It" has some extensive support for how more money effectively directed - which Canada and KIPP and Green Dot do - is incredibly significant in the success of poor kids.

Pre-school can be an integral component in engaging kids in education when their home environment doesn't do that. Many competent parents love their kids and want them to do well, but are unable to effectively engage them with reading, writing, and math. It may be the parent's own education levels or the demands of the work environment.

Simply throwing money doesn't help - but hitting the mark with the money does.

Mrs. C said...

You're probably absolutely right, Mazenko. But I guess it gets me nervous when we leave strict three R's education (hey, a little recess, art, music, PE or whatever is fine in moderation, too!) and get into social engineering.

Let Bill Gates fund all that in a separate building. :]

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