I’m looking at that Change.org site on “education” …

Published online 31 December 2008.

… go to http://www.change.org/… , go to the “browse ideas by cause” box, and scroll down to “education” … anyway, I can’t quite figure out why the top three ideas are getting the votes they’re getting.

At any rate, I would like to recommend a vote for the proposal currently in 5th place — “Replace No Child Left Behind With a Strong Education Policy.”

(crossposted at Docudharma)

UPDATE: we need 278 more votes…

UPDATE #2: Ballot closed, we lost.  Go team Esperanto!

#1 is the “Autism Reform Act of 2009,” and I can understand the motivation of its supporters, though I’m not quite sure what in it isn’t already covered by proper enforcement of PL 94-142.

#2 is a call for volunteers — “Mobilize mentors, tutors, and “citizen teachers” to help kids succeed.”  This is fine, although I’m sure that in the current economic climate the volunteers would prefer to be paid something, maybe enough to pay the rent and stay off the streets.

#3, “Introduce Esperanto as a foreign language subject in schools,”  will, at best, be a small-scale project.  The public-school teaching of foreign languages is largely a waste of time in its current state, because said foreign-language education is lacking in depth.  Students simply don’t take foreign languages for enough years to attain academic fluency, and so eventually they forget what they learn because they don’t pick up enough of it to apply it consistently.

In order to implement any program of Esperanto-teaching in the public schools, moreover, you’d have to find a supply of Esperanto teachers.  Where are they going to come from?  On the other hand, there are millions of parents of public-school children who already speak, read, and write fluent Spanish.  Shouldn’t the public-school system be using them as a resource?

#4 is a call to create nationally-required science standards.  Although I agree with the evolutionist focus of this proposal, I’m not sure of the urgency of creating a larger Federal role in education at a time when the attempt to force Creationism into the schools appears to have stalled.

#5 in the current pecking order is “replace NCLB,” which is somewhat vague in its formula but has the advantage of calling for an end to NCLB, to the unhealthy obsession with high-stakes standardized testing, to the punitive attempts to do away with schools which serve lower-income students who cannot conform to the test-obsession model, and to the back-door expulsion of students for the sake of raising each school’s aggregate test scores.  This, I would argue, is the focus we need as the Obama administration becomes a reality in about three weeks.

NCLB, for those who aren’t quite familiar with it, is the No Child Left Behind Act, a fancy-looking proposition passed by Congress under Bush in 2001.  It involves lots of testing, and sanctions for schools without appropriate-looking test scores.  The general critique of NCLB can be read at FairTest; also see the Rethinking Schools critique of NCLB, especially where it says:

They (Congress and Bush) have turned the mania for standardized testing, which was already running high at the local and state levels, into a full-fledged, national plague. When NCLB was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do. More than 45 million tests annually. Next year science tests will be added. Eleven million more tests. These tests are polluting curriculum, promoting bad instruction, driving teachers and students crazy, and making a few large publishing companies rich. They are not improving schools or helping children.

Since standardized tests typically correlate best to the incomes of the parents of the students, rather than any effort (or lack thereof) on the part of any school’s teachers, schools with lower-income students typically respond to NCLB’s threats of sanctions with a number of symptomatic moves:

  1. removing students from the lists, one way or another, for the sake of improving the test score aggregates
  1. cutting social science, music, and other subjects not tested
  1. spending too much of the year on testing exercises

A better school system would focus upon:

  1. what sort of world we wish to pass on to the citizens of the future — bequeathing to the next generation a world and a world society that allows them to grow up in relative happiness needs to be the overall goal of our school system, not the reductive math and reading goals enforced by high-stakes tests
  1. “learning how to learn” — getting students to recognize when they are learning effectively, and teaching this as metacognition
  1. curriculum that appreciates the cultural background of students — both in terms of building on what they already know (i.e. constructivism) and in terms of teaching them to use their existing stocks of knowledge to empower themselves through practical interaction with the world(i.e. Deweyan pragmatism).

As Seymour P. Sarason pointed out some time ago, the main failing of the public schools is that, in the eyes of their students, they don’t “hold a candle” to the “real life” such students expect to see post-graduation.  Getting away from the NCLB-dominated, expert-coached theory of what education is (and, thanks to high-stakes testing, of what education has to be in so many schools) is a first step.

Oh, sure, there has to be a reauthorization of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) at some point soon.  But it shouldn’t be one with the mark of George W. Bush on it, thus an ESEA without NCLB.  Please vote for the Replace NCLB option over at Change.org.

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