Monday, December 14, 2009

Approach on Education Needs an Overhaul

(Previous published in the Columbus Dispatch)

The recent release of the Department of Education's Race to the Top application has me anxious and hopeful. On the one hand, we've been through a trying eight years of the failed No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have dumbed-down and narrowed curricula, cutting the arts, physical education and more in the name of prepping for tests. Some kindergartners have forsaken rest time and recess for test prep; field trips have been replaced by worksheets; and some students likely to fail the tests have been pushed out of schools.

On the other hand, the promise of what targeted, serious federal funds can do is tantalizing to those of us faced with daily decisions of which services we may have to cut and which we are mandated to carry out.

With this in mind, the following is one school principal's proposal to policymakers as they prepare to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, which largely determines how we create and fund the education our children need and deserve.

To begin with, the federal government should get out of the business of mandating teaching practices and curricula. For example, the "Reading First" program that mandated particular reading approaches, and the focus on machine-scored standardized tests, as opposed to the performance assessments that were used in many states prior to NCLB. Dictating to communities how to run classrooms is something that the feds are unsuited to do.

Alternatively, the federal government should concentrate its efforts in places that have the greatest needs. ESEA was first passed as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The goal was to provide schools that served the neediest of our children with extra resources to help level the playing field. The focus was on reading and math, fundamental skills that opened up a life of learning. We would do well to get back to that agenda, with a particular focus on the early years of schooling.

Proven tools should be adopted and brought to scale by federal policy. Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer's work demonstrates that when schools provide a program focused on early childhood development, children flourish and succeed in school. The Reading Recovery program documented success in Ohio and other states in helping children who had fallen behind in reading make amazing gains and catch up with their peers. And many Ohio public schools, ranging from alternative to charter to traditional, have launched innovative programs that help every child learn.

What we need is federal policy that takes those lessons learned and offers schools support to put them into practice. It could be done tomorrow.

One of the things the federal government does well is large-scale research and development. Think of the space program, highway safety, the Internet. The revised ESEA must find assessments of student learning that are more than bubble sheets and memorization tricks. Let's catch up with the rest of the world that uses performance assessments, portfolios and other demonstrations of student ability that actually reveal what our children are learning.

The federal government should invest in the preparation and support of a first-class teaching force. Every parent knows the most important question their child asks before the new school year is, "Who will my teacher be?" Yet there is no federal policy agenda to ensure an adequate supply of good teachers, let alone ensuring that every child gets a good teacher no matter where that child goes to school.

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues have a plan to improve teacher education, provide support for teachers willing to work in our hardest-to-staff schools and build career ladders for teachers who are willing to improve their practice and take on more responsibility. The cost for this five-year program is less than the price of one month of the war in Iraq.

Finally, we must tackle educational equity in America. Our schools are some of the most inequitably funded in the industrialized world. Some kids go to schools with plenty of teachers, swimming pools and tennis courts, up-to-date texts and computers, while others share books in overcrowded classrooms. ESEA should link federal funding to each state's record on equity in educational resources. The Fattah-Dodd Student Bill of Rights would make this the law of the land and has been introduced annually in Congress. It is time to pass it as part of ESEA.

Fund what works, develop good assessments, support good teachers, work for equity in educational opportunity. It is the least we should expect from a federal government that has failed on its promise to leave no child behind.

George Wood is in his 18th year as principal of Federal Hocking High and Middle School in Stewart, Ohio, and is also the executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy.

No comments:

Post a Comment