Op-ed column: Education impasse

Like every other “success for all students” incantation, the president’s slogan, “No Child Left Behi

The Founding Fathers were wary of giving their new federal government too much power. Education, for example, isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.

History teachers and textbooks have cited it for generations as the classic example of territory that doesn’t belong to the federal government.

This, of course, makes it difficult to explain how there’s a secretary of education. We sidestep this awkwardness by making federal education programs voluntary, as in, “You don’t have to cooperate, but if you don’t, you won’t get any federal money.” Other education programs get filed under civil rights. Unfortunately, the 40-year ledger of our national education experts is written in the red ink of our national report card.

Early in his first term, President Bush invited 100 advisers and representatives from Washington think tanks to his Rose Garden to kick off “Education Week.” It’s an inauspicious start when you lay plans to save our schools without consulting the real world. No wonder we keep recycling the same pipe dreams, bad ideas and resuscitated slogans.

Bogus mantra, unrealistic goal

Like every other “success for all students” incantation, the president’s slogan, “No Child Left Behind,” was a lie. We’re one year away from NCLB’s impossible deadline for making every student proficient in reading and math, and according to the law’s equally ridiculous mandated testing, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s schools are failing.

In case you’re thinking that 100 percent success had always been an absurd goal, by 2010 The Washington Post was reporting that most policymakers and experts also regarded it as “unreachable” and “unrealistic.” Of course, they were the same policymakers and experts who had hailed it as a great idea eight years earlier when a bipartisan congressional majority had endorsed NCLB, a feat which proves that bipartisanship, however desirable, doesn’t guarantee that the government won’t do something stupid.

President Obama’s education blueprint has featured a flurry of NCLB waivers and procedural changes, but schools are still evaluated based on burgeoning reams of expensive, time-consuming, unreliable standardized testing.

Instead of expecting schools to ensure that every student is “proficient” by 2014, his plan expects schools to render every student “college and career ready” by 2020. Fortunately, Obama’s target isn’t “an absolute deadline” because we won’t be meeting that one either.

The president’s signature “Race to the Top” initiative rewards states whose reform proposals incorporate “standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace,” “data systems that measure student growth and success,” and strategies to employ “effective teachers and principals.”

Does anybody seriously believe that schools haven’t been trying to prepare students for college and jobs, or that school boards have been trying to hire ineffective teachers and administrators? Where’s the magic wand that can transform the testing industry from an avaricious embarrassment to a reliable source of information? How can the same reforms and reformers who have plagued schools for 40 years save them now?

While Obama makes some provision for “public school options,” his opponent, Mitt Romney, favors “school choice” for every parent and child. While both candidates endorse including student test scores in teacher evaluations, Romney would amend NCLB so teachers are designated “highly qualified” and licensed based on their results in the classroom. In addition, Republican policymakers pledge to “push accountability” for parents.

They also favor “rigorous academic standards,” “full-day school hours,” “year-round schools” and character and abstinence education.

How’s that again?

It’s laughable to suggest that schools that aren’t permitted to discipline students will somehow muster the power to require anything of those students’ parents. It’s tough to find anyone who isn’t in favor of rigorous standards — until students fall short of them. It’s difficult to understand how the party that bills itself as the guardian of family values now prescribes keeping kids in school away from their homes, morning to night, September through August. It’s hypocritical for politicians who crusade to keep government out of people’s lives to also demand that the government’s schools teach character and take a position on contraception.

President Obama pledges to “make education America’s national mission.” In a less than stark contrast, Gov. Romney touts education as the key to “opportunity for the next generation.” While Romney does complain about money wasted on ill-advised reforms, it’s unfair for Democrats to charge that Republicans only “see education as an expense” and not an “investment.” While Obama does recommend spending more money on schools, it’s just as inaccurate for Republicans to depict his education platform as “Don’t mend it, Just spend it.”

Wrong across the board

Both parties are wrong on a host of crucial issues, from their reliance on outrageously costly, unreliable assessments to their paradoxical promise of rigorously high standards that all students will attain. Both grant too much credibility and power to experts who don’t know anything and education conglomerates with a product to sell.

Neither party or candidate has the answer to saving our schools. Even more to the point, our schools can’t save the rest of us.

Our essential school problem resides in us, in the children we send to school and in the responsibility, diligence and good conduct that characterize those children when they’re there.

When we solve that problem, then and only then will schools be able to do their job, too.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.

Categories: Opinion

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