Sunday, December 14, 2008

NCLB: No Country Left Behind

It's 1983. Ronald Reagan initiates project "Star Wars". Michael Jackson's Thriller tops the charts. And America's education scrapes the bottom of the charts.

An educational review commissioned by Ronald Reagan summarized their findings in the document: "A Nation at Risk." It starts off with a bang:

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…We report to the American people that … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Why all the hubbub? The first piece of evidence is international test scores:

"International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times."

The commission made a few, clear, and urgent recommendations. For example:

School boards should adopt an 11-month contract for teachers. This would ensure time for curriculum and professional development, programs for students with special needs, and a more adequate level of teacher compensation.

It is now 25 years after this broad-sweeping and influential criticism of the American Education System. No Child Left Behind, the most substantial educational policy change in decades is well underway. So how are we doing?

Well, not so great. Shockingly few of these recommendations were ever implemented. And the results in international test scores are still abysmal, as you can see for yourself in this Washington Post article:

International Science Exam Shows Plateau in U.S. Performance

Francis Eberle, the director of the National Science Teachers Association, had this reaction:

"We need to pay attention to the results. We're just static, and other countries are improving. Whether it's global warming, energy production or conservation or homeland security, people need to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen."

What does it mean to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen? That is the crucial question that we need to answer to fix education. So far, our answer has focused too narrowly on the content, and not enough on the context—i.e. what to do with that content and when. The current system is built upon the mistaken notion that information can be disseminated and regurgitated independently of its relevance or actual use. NCLB exacerbates this problem by emphasizing high stakes, across-the-board tests, which, due to outdated theory and pragmatic-economic reasons consist almost entirely of cookie-cutter, decontextualized trivia problems. And even though Obama is following the recommendation to increase teachers' pay, he is doing so on the condition that there will be more "teacher accountability" (read: standardized tests).

Nearly half of Americans don't believe in the theory of evolution. Nearly HALF! This is not a good thing. How does this naïve view persist in this, the era of science, and the era of greater "accountability" and standardized tests? Well, the standardized tests measure whether you know what answer the test-makers are looking for. It doesn't test whether you believe them.

By no means am I endorsing some way of making students evaluated based on their beliefs. That goes against the very principles this nation was founded upon, and really is only a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from Thought Police. Instead, what I am arguing for is to stop worrying so much about the conceptual aspect of Eberle's plea, and more on the epistemological. We need to stop trying to shovel "knowledge" down the kids' throats without ever teaching them how to evaluate it, how to be critical of what people say, to deliberate over conflicting ideas and make a personal decision based on evidence, not rhetoric. These days we still demand that they not question authority, that there is one right answer, that creativity is not an appropriate skill to bring to school. We push harder and harder to standardize our children, when in fact human beings cannot and should not be standardized.

Although it's 25 years later, it still sounds a lot like 1983, to me. Or even 1984.

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