Seven Years Later: Is Our Children Learning Now?

Thought I'd take a break from a personal and take a look at some words from the man who made this blog possible. Yesterday during President Bush's final State of the Union (is that Handel's Messiah I hear?) he briefly discussed education, one of the few "achievements" of his presidency. He talked about the success of No Child Left Behind and the necessity to strengthen the bill:
Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results. Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. And African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs. Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for States and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools. Members of Congress: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law.

It's very easy and fashionable for teachers, especially those of us in failing schools, to bash NCLB. I mean we're in an extremely stressful and difficult job as it is and the added pressure from NCLB coupled with the myopic test-based approach to accountability isn't exactly helping. When Pres. Bush says test scores are on the rise it's hard not to be skeptical, considering numerous states simply lowered their standards so that they could demonstrate progress. I myself am a product of NCLB. My transitional certification is a response from the state of New York to the mandate that all classroom teachers be certified.

At the same time there have been positive effects from NCLB and those have largely been in the way the education debate has changed. Accountability - for teachers, schools and states - is essential to ensuring a proper education for the children of America. Furthermore, the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals have been centered around specific demographics such as low-income, special needs and English Language Learners who were previously overlooked. Differentiation isn't just a buzz word, it's now a crucial part of meeting expectations put forth by NCLB.

That said there are still tremendous problems with the bill, but you must give credit where credit is due in that legislators, administrators and teachers are talking about accountability and the specific needs of students in new ways. Now the goal is to move that accountability beyond standardized testing and towards meaningful assessment of learning.

In his SOTU President Bush also proposed a $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids that would "help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools." It sounds like a wonderful program in theory, but let's think about it's actual impact. Assuming the average parochial school costs about $2000 a year for elementary school and the grants offered full tuition than this plan could benefit 150,000 poor students. This is no small feat, but still relatively minor considering NYC alone serves 1.1 million students.

Meanwhile, accessing this money takes parents who are involved in their child's education and proficient enough at working within the system. Surely the students of these parents could be very poor and could benefit from a private school education. But what that means is struggling public schools would be drained of their brighter students and engaged parents, leaving only the students without money or an advocate from home and only "liberating" a fortunate few from the community.

I know if I'm debating the points of a speech by Bush I'm practically debating a straw man, but still I was interested by what he had to say on education. Bush and NCLB deserve some credit for bringing up issues of America's achievement gap and the need to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Still, I wanted to take a look at what Bush's policies really mean for students like mine and the millions of others throughout this country who in spite of NCLB, are in fact being left behind.


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