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 Two recent studies, one issued by the <a target="_blank" href="">Northwest Evaluation Association</a>, show that the <a target="_blank" href="">“achievement gap” between white and minority children is not narrowing</a>, despite Bush’s <a target="_blank" href="">No Child Left Behind </a>law (often mocked as “Every Child Left Behind“), which was intended to close the achievement gap by 2014.  Now, why is this?

No Child Left Behind is, overall, not a bad piece of legislation.  Keep in mind that the NCLB bill was not simply Bush’s bill.  NCLB was a truly bipartisan effort, co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy, that was partly intended to update and expand the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, something that desperately needed to be done.

The basic provisions of NCLB require the states and school districts to hire highly-qualified teachers, fully-certified in their subject areas; develop more stringent standards for teacher certification in general; and implement standardized testing across the board.  In order to receive continued federal funding, schools must be 100% staffed with certified teachers and must make adequate yearly progress in raising test scores, particularly in relation to the achievement gap.  If they don’t do this, then the states must monitor them more closely and sometimes intervene to remedy the situation. 

So, what’s wrong with this?  Well, first, many education professionals and parents object to standardized tests because they consider them culturally-biased, and they force teachers to “teach to the test” in order to preserve their school’s standing and, in turn, their jobs.  And many don’t believe that “teaching to the test” makes kids any smarter.  They would prefer more subjective, qualitative forms of assessment and broader, sometimes more culture-specific curriculum.  Also, the tests differ slightly from state to state, and some are easier than others and rely more on rote info than critical thinking skills.

Standardized testing is only one indicator of progress and generally should be viewed as such, but it shouldn’t be discarded.  Used in combination with other forms of assessment, such as portfolio review, overall GPA, projects and individual achievements, results on college admissions tests, etc., it can provide a pretty good picture of student knowledge and skill attainment.  One hopes that individual teachers and school districts are not relying solely on standardized test results when they teach and evaluate their students.  One hopes that they are treating them as individuals, with individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.  For the purpose of school assessment at the state and especially federal level, however, it is nearly impossible to gauge progress based on criteria that widely differs from state to state and school to school.  A consistent and more objective measure is needed.  The basic premise behind standardized testing is a sound one—apply a uniform quantitative measure that can easily be used at the state and federal level to analyze trends.  Standardized testing alone is not a 100% accurate measure of student progress, but it is a pretty good one. 

Are the tests culturally-biased, favoring European-Americans and their learning styles?  Is it true that culture plays a significant role in shaping how we process and demonstrate knowledge?  For sure.  But standardizing the basic skills needed to acquire and demonstrate knowledge in a diverse society is one function of education, in my opinion.  And, if started in preschool, it actually levels the playing field.  A properly developed standardized test is not about rote teaching or putting kids in little boxes so they all come out the same.  It’s about teaching everyone the same reasoning, critical thinking, computational, and language skills that we all need to communicate in the modern world and to accomplish our own particular objectives, whether that is to be a CEO, a dairy farmer, or a social worker.  “Teaching to the test” needn’t and shouldn’t be primarily about teaching students the specific content that it is expected will be on the tests (but it often is).  It should be about teaching them the basic skills necessary to deal with any age-appropriate content that is put in front of them.  And that’s damned hard work.

What’s really wrong with standardized testing?  It’s used to penalize the neediest and most disadvantaged schools by linking funding with progress.  While underperforming schools generally receive the lion’s share of state and federal subsidies, they often receive the least local funding and private support, due to an impoverished tax base.  Federal and state funds hardly make up for that.  So the schools with the greatest need often have the least amount of money.  How can they recruit “highly-qualified” teachers and diminish class sizes so that students get individual attention?  Something that will never happen should happen—local tax dollars dedicated to schools should be put in a state pot and redistributed equitably.

The big problem with NCLB is that it is an unfunded, or under funded, mandate.  It raises the bar for school achievement and teacher quality without proportionally raising education funding.  The billions that are being poured into Iraq plus the trillions that are being poured into the defense budget dwarf both the K-12 and higher education budget.  The shortsightedness of these priorities is remarkable.

Another problem with NCLB is that it puts the entire onus for closing the achievement gap on the schools and disregards the numerous socio-economic factors that contribute to it, expecting teachers to compensate for all of them.  Poverty is the best indicator for poor school performance, not color, so if more Black, Hispanic, and Native-American kids, relative to whites, live in poverty, then they are less likely to do well in school.

Teachers cannot be expected to compensate for the deficits that might occur when a single parent, who never received a proper education him or herself, must work 10-12 hours a day, sometimes at minimum wage, to make ends meet.  Such parents, due to various complex socio-economic factors, seldom have books, magazines, or newspapers in their homes; seldom if ever read to their kids; don’t take them to cultural events and activities; can’t travel with them; and often use the TV or the Nintendo as a baby sitter.  Sometimes, they don’t have high expectations for their kids, and that message gets through.  They often don’t have the time, energy, and/or knowledge to help their kids with their homework.  They don’t have the knowledge and experience to guide their children in college and career decisions.  In short, they often cannot provide a context for what their children are learning in school.  Many poor kids go to school on an empty stomach. 

This all seems obvious to me, but it is almost never mentioned when discussing the achievement gap.  It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, in my opinion.  Somehow, the teacher, who sometimes works 10-12 hours a day for 40 or 50 thousand a year, is supposed to make up for the enormous deficits that these kids bring to school with them.  Middle and high school teachers are expected to instill a love of reading in the heart of a child who has grown up in a home without books and has never had anyone read to him.  This is simply too much to ask in many cases.

The best way to tackle these problems is through Head Start and similar preschool programs that get all kids on the same positive track from day one.  But despite the overwhelming success of such programs, they remain perennially under funded.  Raising the minimum wage so that it keeps pace with inflation would also help, as would finding ways to lift the lower classes out of poverty rather than keep them cycling in it through limited or no access to credit, car loans, insurance, mortgages, and reasonably-priced services.  Someone in the US needs to take a hint from Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who helped lift perhaps millions of people out of poverty by offering them capital (<a target="_blank" href="">micro-credit</a>) to start businesses and change their lives.  And if you want to close the achievement gap that, I believe, is one place to start.

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It’s a topsy-turvy world indeed when Mr. Foley, as Chair of the Caucus for Missing and Exploited Children can be allowed to continue in his job after sexually preying on an adolescent in his charge, but an art teacher can be suspended for taking her students to an art museum, one that featured nudity, of all things.

I feel sorry for the teacher, but I also feel sorry for the culturally-starved child, if he or she is to be raised by parents who can’t recognize the difference between works that celebrate the human form and those that degrade it. 

The District is now trying to say that she wasn’t the greatest teacher, but that accusation doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny and, anyway, I’ve never heard of a less than optimal teacher being suspended after 28 years of tenure for that reason alone. If that were the case, we would have even bigger teacher shortages than we do now—huge ones in fact.

I have dug up the names and numbers of School and School District administrators. Please call them and help save this poor woman’s job.


Wilma Fisher Elementary

Nancy Lawson

(469) 633-2600


Frisco Independent School District

Rick Reedy


(469) 633-6000

Two of the offending images:

Rodin’s “Shade”

Flora by Aristide Maillol 1911


Maillol’s “Flora”

This on my local NPR affiliate yesterday: School districts in Massachusetts are considering something called “BusRadio” that would broadcast advertisements and other marketing and promotional content to children while they are riding to school! Of course, the broadcast would include some “educational” programming, but with the goal of marketing more products to kids and training them to be consumers. Not only is America making Iraq safe for business, it is making school busses safe for business. Capitalism cures all ills.

The Coalition for a Commercial-Free Childhood is fighting this exploitation. In their press release on BusRadio, they describe it as follows:

“BusRadio broadcasts will feature eight minutes of advertisements and two minutes of sponsored contests per hour. In addition, BusRadio is offering advertisers the option to sponsor entire blocks of programming or provide a celebrity disc jockey (who can then promote a brand, movie, or music). Because it is not monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, BusRadio can feature music that they are paid to play. Broadcasts will promote BusRadio’s website which will feature even more advertising, allow students to download music, and purchase items from the BusRadio on-line store. BusRadio is also promoting its website as a place where companies can conduct market research with children, and it appears that the site will be used to collect student’s personal information.”

What will the schools get in return? Presumably the same quiet little zombies that you get when you park the kids in front of the TV. According to BusRadio’s website:

“Bus safety is the most important issue that a bus driver faces. Their biggest concern is getting the students to and from school with as few interruptions and disciplinary problems as possible. BusRadio has proven to be a great tool in doing just that.

An independent study, conducted by Edison Media Research, found that overall student behavior improved dramatically with the implementation of BusRadio programming. Edison Research specifically found…

Noise levels were reduced
Students remained in their seats
Students willingness to follow rules increased

Drivers used BusRadio as a behavioral tool…If kids misbehaved, they lost the privilege of listening to the show.”

Perhaps this is an improvement over the use of commercial radio on school busses to keep kids quiet. BusRadio argues that at least their material is more “appropriate.” But why are kids listening to any kind of radio and advertising on school busses? Why can’t kids be allowed to be kids and actually interact with each other, even if such interaction sometimes causes problems? How will kids ever learn to talk and think if the loud drone of some media, interspersed with sound bites, trivia, and ear candy is the continual backdrop to their socialization and conversation? How will kids ever learn to solve problems and deal with others if their behavior is constantly being controlled and manipulated by some mind-numbing and pacifying agent? Is it any wonder that there are so many children diagnosed and misdiagnosed with ADHD when their ability to focus is being undermined by multiple distractions?

What did kids do on school busses before there was BusRadio? They talked, sometimes about schoolwork or their teachers and sometimes about the sort of things that are relevant only to kids. They joked, but they also bullied and teased. They shared jokes, but they also shared wisecracks. They caused disruptions. They looked out the window and actually noticed the world around them and learned discernment and awareness. They got into fights. They laughed, they cried. In other words, they lived. They were not mindless little robots to be pacified and fed garbage.

What did school bus drivers do in those troubled times? I’m sure there were accidents, but maybe not so many as today. Maybe then school bus drivers got a better wage and, consequently, were more skilled? Maybe they were better skilled at not only driving, but in dealing with children’s behavior problems, because they didn’t use such pacifying agents at home with their own kids. Maybe they, themselves, actually entertained and interacted with the kids.

And while I concede that distraction increases the risk of accidents, even among the most skilled drivers, I would argue that there might be alternative solutions to this problem. If radio works to manage behavior, then why can’t the content at least be commercial free and educative with an appealing and entertaining delivery? Why can’t, as in some school districts, there be monitors on every bus, so that drivers don’t have to manage behavior and interact with the kids? These could be paid paraprofessionals/teachers aides or education students getting their “field experience,’ that being only one aspect of it. What better way to learn to manage behavior?

Who would pay for this? Well, if states and local school districts weren’t cash-strapped due to the feds throwing billions into the money-pit that is Iraq, then there might be some trickle-down dollars.


May 2018
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