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An Open Letter to Congressional Leaders on Education Reform

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U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, have asked for comments on a draft of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current form as the No Child Left Behind Act. Here are my comments.

I began teaching in 1976, and taught high school as well as middle school. I later became a curriculum coordinator, an assistant superintendent, and a program director for two federal Teaching American History grants. I am deeply concerned with the future of public education.

I read the Obama administration’s Blueprint for ReformRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader carefully, and the good news is that the proposal’s main body is strong, full of powerful suggestions and remedies for failing schools. In the document’s introductory section, however, we find proof that every writer of educational blueprints should be made to read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946). If they did this, they would not use the kind of jargon that plagues the field and stands in the way of clear thinking.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Some examples that should be expunged: “skills … for success”; “continuous improvement”; “higher-order skills”; “outcomes”; “achievement gaps”; “rigorous interventions”; “needs of diverse learners”; “raise the bar”; “reward excellence”; “performance targets”; and finally, the cloying and condescending phrase “a parent is a child’s first teacher.”

Many of the specifics of the blueprint are remarkably good: involving state universities in the discussion about remedial courses; granting funds for professional development of teachers; defining measures of accountability and measurement other than tests. But I have some areas of concern:

Students as Passive Learners. The blueprint doesn’t deal with students’ control of their own education, nor does it hold them accountable. How do we encourage students to be independent and enthusiastic learners if they are merely the object of assessments, treatments, and other instruments?

Evaluating Effective Teachers. The blueprint calls for identifying (and rewarding) “effective and highly effective teachers … on the basis of student growth and other factors.” I can’t imagine how you will do this. The following vignette from my own career points out this difficulty.

I ran into one of my former 8th grade students, now a published writer and poet, who told me, “Mr. Young, you’re the reason I became a writer.” When I started to demur, she said, “No, really.” We talked about how she had battled me that year over how she felt that I was “stifling her creativity,” but that this had led to her understanding that she could control different levels of discourse, that almost all good expository and narrative writing and even most good poetry have form and structure.

Every writer of educational blueprints should be made to read George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language.' If they did this, they would not use the kind of jargon that plagues the field and stands in the way of clear thinking.

I doubt that I would have been identified in the blueprint’s assessment process as a “highly effective” teacher. How could you measure the effectiveness of all of this particular student’s teachers previous to the test?

Professional Development. Grant funds would support “evidence of improvements in student learning.” I think this is important, but it ignores what numerous studies have shown: The most important point in the development of a good teacher and in improvement of student learning is that the teacher feels expert in his or her discipline.

The U.S. Department of Education has a good model for how to do this in its Teaching American History grant program. In Boston, the Teachers as Scholars program does it exactly right, offering content seminars with expert professors in a range of fields, including science, mathematics, literature, history, and music theory. Other groups offer high-quality content courses as well. I believe that the ESEA bill should mandate that at least 75 percent of federal funds for professional development be offered in content-specific seminars.

The Consultant-Expertise Industry. I greatly fear the consequence of the plan’s emphasis on improving instructional practices “through effective, ongoing, job-embedded professional development.” This sounds good but inevitably will lead to exacerbating a great problem with our current system: the industry of educational consultants who travel the country, offering expensive “one and done” workshops, or who will work extensively with school systems that buy their expensive materials.

They offer pedagogical fixes, coming up with a dizzying variety of “assessment based” plans to direct multicultural or anti-bullying initiatives, and gimmicks such as “critical friends,” “multiple intelligences,” and “planning backwards.” Many of these programs seem legitimate because they are hatched at major colleges of education and have the imprimatur of those universities. Are they effective? If so, after 20 or 30 years of this roadshow our public school system would not need a blueprint. But what they have been successful at is making a great deal of money at the public expense. “Job-embedded professional development” simply gives them another bite of the apple. Public education needs to be protected from consultants who, by now, have been revealed as providing little more than a traveling medicine show.

Teacher Retention. Although the document acknowledges good practice in mentoring and retaining excellent teachers, this needs more attention in the reauthorization blueprint. It is absolutely critical that young teachers be paired with master teachers—people who can help new teachers know what they have been doing right and what they need to improve. This gets down to the basics: How to establish classroom procedures. How to equip a classroom before a lesson. How to move your students from one place to another.

The federal law should include funds for mentors. My suggestion for this is to allow school systems to rehire recent retirees to come in one day a week to work with specific teachers. We have allowed those teachers to leave the field with a wealth of experience, lesson plans, and even materials, and with little opportunity to share their expertise.

Using the Data. The plan needs to acknowledge districts that are currently performing at a high level. They can’t possibly keep “improving,” as the blueprint envisions, in the way that a bottom 5 percent school can “improve.” They should maintain their performance and improve where they can, but the unrealistic expectation of constant improvement might sink this reform. It would be a little bit like cutting Ted Williams’ salary after he hit .406 because he did not hit .420 the following year.

Finally, what happens when, as the blueprint proposes, all “data [are] disaggregated by race, gender, ethnicity, disability status, English-learner status, and family income”? In the original No Child Left Behind legislation, this became a straitjacket that saw good districts transformed into failing districts if one of the disaggregated populations did not perform up to “standards.”

Programs That Work. To that end, the blueprint includes very little about programs that do work. We need to study, and perhaps replicate, organizations such as Teach For America. The plan’s authors may need to think about funding a similar organization that would bring more teachers of color into the classrooms. As our student population has changed, our teaching force has not.

Senators Harkin and Enzi, you and other members of Congress are undertaking a noble, important, and difficult task. Thank you providing a forum to comment on these ideas. All of us look forward to hearing from you as the blueprint for reauthorizing the ESEA continues to respond to the on-the-ground reality of public education today.

Vol. 29, Issue 36

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