The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

'It seems that a successful businessman -- reputedly the producer of "the best blueberry ice cream in America" -- thought he had the solution to the problems plaguing the U.S. educational system.  Schools, he impatiently explained at a teacher in-service, need to be run like businesses; businesses know how to provide quality management and produce a quality product.  Little did that smug businessman know that his speech would lead him -- and not the teachers he lectured -- to an epiphany sparked by a question. "What do you do," a teacher in the audience asked, "when a shipment of defective blueberries arrives at your business?"  The man readily admitted that he shipped them back; inferior ingredients were not acceptable in his successful business.  "That's right," the teacher pointed out.  "Unfortunately, however, schools can't reject their defective blueberries."'...  ... Anonymous.

Commentary of the Day - August 7, 2005:  Left Behind: A Wake-Up Call for Education.  Guest commentary by Trish Gannon.

"When it comes to the education of our children… failure is not an option."  Those words were spoken by President George W. Bush in August of 2001 at the unveiling of a plan billed by the U.S. Department of Education as "a new era in education."  That plan is the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Almost 20 years previously, another President, Ronald Reagan, commissioned the report A Nation at Risk, which warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity (in our schools) that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people."

The findings in that 1983 study were shocking.  It concluded, for example, that about 13 percent of all 17-year-olds, and perhaps 40 percent of minority youth, were functionally illiterate.  It showed that, when matched against 21 other countries, U.S. students never ranked first in 19 academic tests, and ranked last seven times among industrial nations.  It warned that average scores of high school students on standardized achievement tests were lower in 1983 than they were in 1957 -- when Sputnik launched not only Russia into space, but education reform throughout the United States.

After 20 years of planning how to address these problems, and four years of implementation, where is public education today?  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the so-called "Nation's Report Card") there has been some improvement.  Delving into the world of statistics, NAEP tells us that average reading scores for 4th and 8th graders have improved slightly from 1992 to 2003; average math scores have done even better, and science has improved for 8th graders, while falling behind in the fourth grade tests.

SAT scores -- those tests used to determine college admittance -- also show slight improvement.  In 1983, the year the nation was defined as "at risk," the mean verbal score on the SAT was 503 and the mean math score was 494, for a combined score of 997. That mean verbal score in 2004 has crept up to 508, while math has made better gains at 518, giving a combined score of 1026.  A perfect score on that test, of course, was 1600.  (For the new SAT, a perfect score is 2400.)  It should be noted that the SAT was designed to predict collegiate success -- not to measure student ability.

So what does all that mean?  Anything you want it to.

Public education in America is a high stakes game where competition is the main rule.  Many objective assessments of student achievement don't measure ability, but measure, instead, comparative data -- how  one group of students score compared to another group of students.  Educational statistics, especially those on the national level, lean toward ranking winners and losers.

And it truly is high stakes.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that for school year 2002-'03, the total budget for K-12 public education was $440 billion dollars, or almost $1,500 for every man, woman and child in the United States as of this writing.

Subjective assessments are numerous, yet still offer little guidance regarding the state of education.  National surveys show that parents, while enthusiastic about the schools their children attend, believe other schools in their community aren't as good and that schools nationwide are even worse.  An Educational Testing Service poll shows only 2 percent of parents give public schools a grade of "A."  A Gallup poll asked parents to rate their satisfaction with the education their oldest child was receiving, and only 38 percent considered themselves "completely satisfied."

The business world is, in general, even less satisfied, claiming they pick up the ball that public education drops.  One estimate, for example, states U.S. businesses spend as much as $3.1 billion annually to remedy writing deficiencies in high school graduates.

The other "market" for high school graduates, the higher education system, has its own set of concerns regarding the success of public education in the K-12 arena.  A working paper for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research stated that only 32 percent of high school graduates are prepared for college, while the National Center for Education Statistics reports that one third of the students who actually enroll in college must take remedial courses their first year.

Now enter No Child Left Behind.  As stated earlier, this reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is billed as a new era in public education, and trumpets its revisions as "historic educational reform."  It provides, according to its own press, stronger accountability for results; more freedom for states and communities; (the encouragement of) proven educational methods; and more parental choice.

Outside the halls of the U.S. Department of Education, the reaction to NCLB is not quite as supportive.  Education officials in three dozen states are proposing substantial changes to their No Child Left Behind requirements -- changes that would relax standards and make it easier for schools to show improvement.  A bill has been introduced in the United States Senate and House of Representatives to modify the act, allowing the use of multiple measures of student achievement (not just tests), and would establish grants to support state and district efforts to develop and maintain data systems.

A report issued in February by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, the National Conference of State Legislators, was strongly critical of the NCLB law and the way it is affecting our schools and our children.  Since the law's enactment in 2002, there has been a $27 billion funding shortfall between what Congress was supposed to provide schools to meet the law's regulations and what actually has been funded.  Cost studies in Ohio and Texas estimate that the price of the regulations to state taxpayers could run as high as $1.5 and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Stronger opposition was signaled this month when Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a measure against No Child Left Behind.  Utah is an overwhelmingly Republican, pro-Bush state.  Fifteen other states currently are considering anti-No Child Left Behind legislation.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest union for teachers, characterizes NCLB as presenting "real obstacles to helping students and strengthening public schools…"  The NEA, in partnership with individual school districts in Michigan, Vermont and Texas, filed suit against the Bush administration over NCLB, with the goal of exempting schools from complying with any part of the act not paid for by the federal government.  In filing his own lawsuit, Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal states the act is, "outrageously wrong. ... It is fundamentally flawed."

The Education Policy Research Unit and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University weighed in by stating "the high-stakes testing policies adopted by many states and the new annual student testing required by the federal government in the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation may be counter productive (to student achievement.)"

In the poker game of education, federal legislation is penny ante -- non-compliance with the regulations is punishable only by the withholding of federal funds, which currently make up less than two percent of either Idaho or Montana's public school budget.  As played at the state level, education isn't poker, however -- it's politics, pure and simple.  The people who pay the bills -- the taxpayers of the state -- are left at the mercy of competing advertising campaigns, with one side saying education reform as provided by No Child Left Behind is the only hope for improving public education, and the other saying that same legislation has the potential to hinder any improvement in education.

The truth is harder, if not impossible, to find.  Without objective data to support the claims, the taxpaying public believes public education is in desperate need of improvement and, in the two decades since our nation was deemed "at risk," the system charged with providing it has done nothing to alleviate those concerns.  While there is still much admiration for teaching as a profession, public perception is growing that educators care most about increasing their salaries, and fattening up their benefits packages, while educating students comes at the end of the priority scale.  On the other side, educators believe the public has little understanding for the challenges they face, and places unrealistic expectations on schools, with no tolerance for anything less than 100 percent success.

© 2005 Trish Gannon.
Trish Gannon is the owner/publisher of The River Journal, a semi-monthly newspaper covering news and events in the Idaho Panhandle. She has been actively involved in local education for 17 years.  This article is one of a series that she has written on NCLB.

The IP comments:  Trish has done an excellent job of identifying one of the key problems in education reform; namely, the focus on comparisons -- comparisons that are not always valid.  In addition, she her analysis of the shortcomings of NCLB is quite incisive.  Most of our readers know that in addition to the NEA, there is a competing national teachers' union -- the American Federation of Teachers.  Under the leadership of the late Al Shanker, the AFT has taken (in the view of the IP) a more enlightened view of the need to upgrade standards for both teachers and students before any serious reform of K-12 education can occur.  The IP urges his readers to compare the AFT's position on NCLB with that of the NEA.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.