Monday, August 15, 2011

Triumph of the Bureaucracy
Since 2001, all public schools are subject to the rules of No Child Left Behind. School children must take standardized tests in English and Math every year and meet certain standards set by education bureaucrats.

The underlying idea is laudable: every child regardless of its background and present condition is entitled to as good an education as it can use.

The implementation of this idea, however, is authoritarian, bureaucratic, and simpleminded. The goals are set by bureaucrats. They don't go to individual schools to discuss with teachers, parents and principals what would be reasonable targets. They come around and tell the schools the numbers they have to reach.

The implementation is punitive. No one sits down to discuss what the problems might be and to collaborate in developing programs to resolve the problems. Schools that do not reach the targets will be punished and may even be closed. According to more recent proposals, failure to reach numerical targets may be reflected in lower pay for teachers.

There is widespread agreement that the tests have had a negative effect on teaching. Teachers, under pressure to meet the targets, “teach to the test.” Children are drilled to perform well on the test. It is not clear that they learn anything of interest or importance.

More importantly, there are many situations where the targets set by the educational bureaucracy are completely unrealistic. What happens then, in case after case, is that teachers and principals cheat on tests. This has been happening since the law was put in place. The recent cheating scandal in Atlanta Georgia is the most spectacular one. Some 178 teachers and principals and teachers, at 44 different schools, are accused of cheating to raise standardized test scores. That's a lot of cheating.

An interesting fact in the Atlanta cheating, which was also observed in a number of other similar cases, is that the schools had an overwhelmingly poor student body. In schools where cheating is found, a very large percentage of students get free breakfast and lunch. They are clearly children who are having a hard life. Learning for them is especially difficult.

Poor children face handicaps not faced by other children. That manifests itself, among other ways, in greater difficulties in school. Learning difficulties are a symptom of the troubles of poverty.

You would think, therefore, that No Child Left Behind would have put great effort and resources into alleviating poverty, especially of children. But no, No Child Left Behind is looking for the cheap and easy solution. It threatens schools where poor children struggle to learn in spite of all their difficulties in the world at large. And now it's going to threaten the teachers pay.

The Atlanta school teaching debacle is one more clear indication that No Child Left Behind is poorly thought out. It represents authoritarian and bureaucratic ways of dealing with social problems. It makes the teachers and schools into the bad guys. But we know the culprit is an economy that does not provide jobs for everybody, let alone well-paying and satisfying jobs.

It is not the children's fault that their parents have no jobs and no money. Nor is it the fault of the schools or the teachers.

Ask your other elected representatives who want to cut taxes and to cut social programs what they will do to ameliorate poverty. How will they help poor children learn?