Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NCLB in trouble

A juggling act on No Child Left Behind
Democrats, Republicans and teachers see flaws in Calif.'s Rep. Miller's proposal to renew the 2001 education law. He's not giving up.
By Nicole Gaouette
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 30, 2007

WASHINGTON — Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) has never been one to back away from a brawl -- he once warned an adversary that if he wanted to fight, it was going to take a while, so he'd better bring lunch. But as Miller pushes to renew the landmark education law known as No Child Left Behind, he faces so many fights that the fate of the bill is increasingly in doubt.

As chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Miller is sparring with Republicans who see his proposed changes as an unacceptable watering down of the law's core standards.

Teachers object to his proposal to link pay to performance.

Even his fellow Democrats -- particularly freshmen who campaigned against it and members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- are giving him a hard time, largely for not doing enough to soften the law's most rigid requirements.

Some critics of the law say the emphasis on math and English testing has squeezed teaching time for history, science and other subjects. Others say that the law is too strict and punishes schools that are doing a fairly good job.

"People have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, that it is not flexible and that it is not funded," Miller said in a recent speech. "And they are not wrong. The question is what we are going to do next."

The 2001 law, President Bush's hallmark domestic achievement, is supposed to be renewed every five years, although it remains in effect even if lawmakers fail to do that.

Democrats pledged to rewrite it this year, but time is short and political tensions are high. Congress plans to adjourn for the year in a few weeks. And some Democrats are loath to give Bush a victory on No Child Left Behind when he refused to compromise on the Iraq war.

The administration has also made clear it wants just minimal changes.

No Child Left Behind was designed to end what the president called the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by forcing schools to track data on low-income and minority students and holding the schools accountable if those pupils did not do well. Schools also have to show that all students are making adequate yearly progress in math and English, or face tough sanctions.

Miller drafted 1,036 pages of proposed changes with the committee's lead Republican, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita. But as Miller has tweaked that proposal to appeal to Democrats and teachers, he has lost Republicans.

The balance he seeks is between those who think the law's standards are too rigid and those who want them as tightly defined as possible.

A 33-year veteran of the House, Miller is known for his pragmatism, his ability to make a deal and his close ties to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), all of which may help him find an answer in the few weeks he has left.

"We're certainly not in full agreement," Miller said, mentioning talks with committee Republicans. "Not between my caucus and their caucus, not between Mr. McKeon and myself. Whether we can reach an agreement remains to be seen. We're pushing as hard as we can."

McKeon said he was hopeful that he and Miller could reach a compromise, but he expressed concern "that some provisions in the draft would weaken accountability, allowing schools to mask a lack of achievement in the fundamentals of reading and math and obscure the information provided to schools and communities."

For Miller, who has made children a focus of his career and has long advocated greater teacher accountability, working on the first No Child Left Behind bill was a natural cause. A staunch liberal, he was an odd partner for Bush, but they worked closely enough for the president to dub the burly former football player "Big George."

In the five years since Miller and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) helped write and pass No Child Left Behind, they complain, the administration has never fully funded the law in a way that would help schools meet their additional burdens. Republicans counter that few laws are fully funded.

The law has frustrated some parents and teachers who dislike its effect in local schools.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has told Miller that his draft continues to overemphasize standardized tests.

The cost, Wynn says, includes "extraordinary pressure placed on students and the loss of important instruction in music, art and other elements of a well-rounded education."

Some critics say that too many schools are sanctioned under the law. Schools that fail to meet goals for three years must offer students free tutoring or the chance to switch schools. After five years of failure, the law mandates, a school must be restructured with a new staff or new leadership or be converted to a charter school.

Miller's draft bill would broaden measurements of students and schools -- for instance, letting states measure how much students improve over a year and not just whether they meet the bar set by No Child Left Behind.

Miller also wants to expand the standards by which schools are judged beyond math and English scores -- a shift McKeon strongly opposes. Under Miller's proposal, up to 15% of an elementary school's evaluation could be based on assessments of history, science, and civics and government classes. For high schools, rates for graduation, dropouts, attendance and college enrollment could be considered too.

Some of the strictest sanctions would be relaxed under Miller's bill. For example, it would loosen a rule that puts an otherwise successful school on probation if a small group within it -- such as learning-disabled children -- fails to meet the standards.

The draft would also change the way English-language learners are evaluated, allowing them to be tested in their native language for up to five years instead of the current three years, and permitting a two-year extension for some. Republicans say this would mean a child who spoke no English could enter the public school system in fifth grade and graduate from high school without ever being evaluated in English.

Teachers unions have objected to Miller's proposal to allow high-needs school districts to give $10,000 bonuses to outstanding teachers and up to $12,500 for teachers of math, science, special education and other subjects that are short of instructors. Criteria for the awards would be developed with input from the unions.

Critics of the unions say teachers are trying to avoid accountability. The unions say Miller's plan -- which McKeon backs -- is not workable.

"You can be a better teacher than I am, but based on conditions that you have to work in, it makes it much more difficult for you to do the same job," said National Education Assn. President Reginald Weaver. "Plus, paying teachers based on student performance hasn't really made a difference in how students achieve."

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are in talks about the bill, and Kennedy hopes to begin formal discussions in the education committee in the next few weeks.

Miller, meanwhile, continues to search for a compromise that can win enough support to pass the House.

"We would be wrong to waver when it comes to the existing goals and standards of the No Child Left Behind law," he said. "We would also be wrong if we failed to respond to the serious concerns with the law raised by people who sincerely care about America's educational future."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The March and the War: Tom Englehart

The Bureaucracy, the March, and the War

American Disengagement
By Tom Engelhardt
As I was heading out into a dark, drippingly wet, appropriately dispiriting New York City day, on my way to the "Fall Out Against the War" march -- one of 11 regional antiwar demonstrations held this Saturday -- I was thinking: then and now, Vietnam and Iraq. Since the Bush administration had Vietnam on the brain while planning to take down Saddam Hussein's regime for the home team, it's hardly surprising that, from the moment its invasion was launched in March 2003, the Vietnam analogy has been on the American brain -- and, even domestically, there's something to be said for it.

As John Mueller, an expert on public opinion and American wars, pointed out back in November 2005, Americans turned against the Iraq War in a pattern recognizable from the Vietnam era (as well as the Korean one) -- initial, broad post-invasion support that eroded irreversibly as American casualties rose. "The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq," Mueller wrote, "is how precipitously American public support has dropped off. Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War." He added, quite correctly, as it turned out: "And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline."

Where the Vietnam analogy distinctly breaks down, however, is in the streets. In the Vietnam era, the demonstrations started small and built slowly over the years toward the massive -- in Washington, in cities around the country, and then on campuses nationwide. In those years, as anger, anxiety, and outrage mounted, militancy rose, and yet the range of antiwar demonstrators grew to include groups as diverse as "businessmen against the war" and large numbers of ever more vociferous Vietnam vets, often just back from the war itself. Almost exactly the opposite pattern -- the vets aside -- has occurred with Iraq. The prewar demonstrations were monstrous, instantaneously gigantic, at home and abroad. Millions of people grasped just where we were going in late 2002 and early 2003, and grasped as well that the Bush dream of an American-occupied Iraq would lead to disaster and death galore. The New York Times, usually notoriously unimpressed with demonstrations, referred to the massed demonstrators then as the second "superpower" on a previously one superpower planet. And it did look, as the Times headline went, as if there were "a new power in the streets."

But here was the strange thing, as the "lone superpower" faltered, as the Bush administration and the Pentagon came to look ever less super, ever less victorious, ever less powerful, so did that other superpower. Discouragement of a special sort seemed to set in -- initially perhaps that the invasion had not been stopped and that, in Washington, no one in a tone-deaf administration even seemed to be listening. Still, through the first years of the war, on occasion, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators could be gathered in one spot to march massively, even cheerfully; these were crowds filled with "first timers" (who were proud to tell you so); and, increasingly, with the families of soldiers stationed in Iraq (or Afghanistan), or of soldiers who had died there, and even, sometimes, with some of the soldiers themselves, as well as contingents of vets from the Vietnam era, now older, greyer, but still vociferously antiwar.

However, over the years, unlike in the Vietnam era, the demonstrations shrank, and somehow the anxiety, the anger -- though it remained suspended somewhere in the American ether -- stopped manifesting itself so publicly, even as the war went on and on. Or put another way, perhaps the anger went deeper and turned inward, like a scouring agent. Perhaps it went all the way into what was left of an American belief system, into despair about the unresponsiveness of the government -- with paralyzing effect. As another potentially more disastrous war with Iran edges into sight, the response has been limited largely to what might be called the professional demonstrators. The surge of hope, of visual creativity, of spontaneous interaction, of the urge to turn out, that arose in those prewar demonstrations now seemed so long gone, replaced by a far more powerful sense that nothing anyone could do mattered in the least.

When it comes to the Vietnam analogy domestically, the question that still hangs in the air is whether, as in the latter years of the Vietnam era, the soldiers, in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as well as here at home, will take matters into their own hands; whether, as with Vietnam, in the end Iraq (and Iran) will be left to the vets of this war and their families and friends -- or to no one at all.

The Consensus Gap

Here's the strange thing: As we all know, the Washington Consensus -- Democrats as well as Republicans, in Congress as in the Oval Office -– has been settling ever deeper into the Iraqi imperial project. As a town, official Washington, it seems, has come to terms with a post-surge occupation strategy that will give new meaning to what, in the days after the 2003 invasion, quickly came to be known as the Q-word (for the Vietnam-era "quagmire"). The President has made it all too clear that he will fight his war in Iraq to the last second of his administration -- and, if he has anything to say about it (as indeed he might), well beyond. In their "classified campaign strategy for the country," our ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and the President's surge commander, Gen. David Petraeus, are reportedly already planning their war-fighting and occupation policy through the summer of 2009, and so into the next presidency. The three leading Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, have refused to guarantee that American troops will even be totally out of Iraq by 2013, the end of a first term in office -- as essentially has every Republican candidate except Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas. In fact, in Washington, the ongoing war is now such a given that it's hardly being discussed at the moment (as the one in Afghanistan has never been). The focus has instead shifted to the next possible administration monstrosity -- a possible air assault on Iran that would essentially guarantee a global recession or depression.

Meanwhile, the American people -- having formed their own Iraq Study Group as early as 2005 -- have moved in another direction entirely. On this, the opinion polls have been, and remain (as Mueller suggested they would), unanimous. When Americans are asked how the President is handling the war in Iraq, disapproval figures run 67% to 26% in the most recent CBS News poll; 68% to 30% in the ABC News/Washington Post poll; and, according to CNN's pollsters, opposition to the war itself runs at a 65% to 34% clip. As for "staying" some course in Iraq to 2013 or beyond, that CBS News poll, typically, has 45% of Americans wanting all troops out in "less than a year" and 72% in "one to two years" -- in other words, not by the end of, but the beginning of, the next presidential term in office. (The ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates, among other things, that, by 55% to 40%, Americans feel the Democrats in Congress have not gone "far enough in opposing the war in Iraq"; and that they want Congress to rein in the administration's soaring, off-the-books war financing requests.)

In other words, the Washington elite are settling ever deeper, ever less responsively, into the Big Muddy, while the American Consensus has come down quite decisively elsewhere. For all intents and purposes, it seems that most Americans are acting as if some policy page had already been turned, as if Iraq was so been-there, done-that. Perhaps many are also assuming that the present administration is beyond unreachable and that any successor will be certain to fix the problem; or, alternately, that nothing the public can do in relation to the Washington Consensus, including voting, matters one whit; or some helpless, hopeless combination of the two and who knows what else.

As I sat in that rumbling subway car on my way to the march in lower Manhattan, I kept wondering who, between the Iraq-forever-and-a-day crowd and the been-there/done-that folks might think it worth the bother to turn out at an antiwar rally on such a lousy day. And it was then that a brief encounter from the summer came to mind.

I'm now 63 years old and increasingly feel as if my 1950s childhood came out of another universe. Sometime in August, I ran into a "kid" -- maybe in his early thirties -- employed by a consulting firm to do what once would have been the work of a federal government employee. He gamely tried to explain the sinews of his privatized world to me. As he spoke, I began to wonder whether he was interested in working in the federal government, not just as a consultant to it. To ask the question, I began explaining how I had grown up dreaming about being part of the government -- the State Department, actually. It seemed to me then like an honorable, if not downright glorious, destiny to represent your country to others. It was a feeling that left me deep into the 1960s when I had, in fact, already been accepted into the United States Information Agency (from which I would have, a good deal less gloriously, propagandized for my country). It was only then that anger over the Vietnam War swept me elsewhere.

I told the young consultant that, when young, I had dreamed of doing my "civic duty" and his eyes promptly widened in visible disbelief. He rolled that phrase around for a moment, then said (all dialogue recreated from my faulty memory): "Civic duty? No one in my world thinks about it that way any more." He paused and added, hesitantly, "But I might actually like to be in the bureaucracy for a while."

That was my moment to widen my eyes. What I once thought of as "the government" had, in the space of mere decades, become "the bureaucracy," even to someone who would consider joining it -- and, the worst of it was, I knew he was right. This was one genuine accomplishment of a quarter-century-plus of the Republican "revolution" (and the Clinton interregnum). All those presidential candidates, running as small-government outsiders ready to bring Washington big spenders to heel, had, on coming to power, only fed that government mercilessly, throwing untold numbers of tax dollars at the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, ensuring that they would become ever more bloated, powerful, and labyrinthine, ever more focused on their own well-being, and ever less civic; ensuring that the government as a whole would be ever more "bureaucratic," ever less "ept," and -- always -- ever more oppressive, with ever more police-state-like powers.

All that had been strangled in the process -- made smaller, if you will -- was the federal government's ability to deliver actual services to the population that paid for it. All that was made smaller in the world beyond Washington was whatever residual faith existed that this was "your" government, that it actually represented you in any way. As the state's bureaucratic, military, and policing powers bloated, so, too, did the electoral process -- and lost as well was the belief that your vote could determine anything much at all.

Looking back, this was, in a sense, what 9/11 really meant in America. The one thing that a government, which had long reinforced its own powers, should have been able to deliver was intelligence and protection. So it wasn't, I suspect, just those towers that crumbled on that day. What also crumbled was a residual faith in "we, the people." This was actually what the Bush administration played on when it urged Americans not to mobilize for its Global War on Terror, but simply to go about their business, to -- as the President famously put it 16 days after 9/11 -- "get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." In a sense, Bush and his top officials were just doing what came naturally -- further sidelining the American people so they could fight their private wars in peace (so to speak).

The "bureaucracy" had strangled the very idea of the "civic." Who would even think about entering such a world today as a "civic duty," rather than as a career move; or imagine Washington as "our" government; or that anyone inside the famed Beltway, or near the K-Street hive of lobbyists, or in Congress or the Oval Office would give a damn about you? This is why, at a deeper level, the Washington Consensus today has next to nothing to do with the American one.

American Disengagement

When people look back on the Vietnam era, few comment on how connected the size and vigor of demonstrations were to a conception of government in Washington as responsible to the American people. Even the youthful radicals of the time, in their outrage, still generally believed that Washington was not living up to some ideal they had absorbed in their younger years. Whatever they were denouncing, the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their Port Huron Statement, for instance, spoke without irony or discomfort of "[f]reedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people -- these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men."

Though they may not have known it, they were still believers, after a fashion. By and large, the demonstrators of that moment not only believed that Washington should listen, but when, for instance, they chanted angrily, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?", that President Lyndon Baines Johnson would be listening. (And, in fact, he was. He called it "that horrible song.") Which young people today would believe that in their gut? Who would believe such a thing of "the bureaucracy"?

Don't forget, demonstrating is another kind of civic duty -- but perhaps a waning one. I was struck this weekend that, even among people I know, many of whom had demonstrated in the Vietnam era and had turned out again in the early years of this war, next to none were on the streets this Saturday. Most were simply going about their business with other, better things to do.

The fact is: Attending a march like Saturday's is still, for me, something like an ingrained civic habit, like.... gulp.... voting, which I can't imagine not doing -- even when it has little meaning to me -- or keeping informed by reading a newspaper daily in print (something that, it seems, just about no one under 25 does any more). These are the habits of a lifetime and they don't disappear quickly. But when they're gone, or if they don't make it to the next generation intact, it's hard, if not impossible, to get them back.

If you need another point of comparison, consider TV comic Stephen Colbert's joke (or is it?) race for the presidency in his home state of South Carolina (or the fact that, in a Rasmussen Report telephone poll, he garnered 13% support in the Republican field just days after announcing his run). Again, I'm old enough to remember the last time something like this happened. Sometime in the late 1950s -- the details escape me -- a few fans of the cartoon strip Pogo decided to launch a "Pogo for President" campaign in election season. (Mind you, that strip, about a talking opossum and his pals in Okefenokee Swamp, was a classic with a critical, political edge. Who could forget the moment when Howland Owl and the turtle, Churchy LaFemme, decided to enter the nuclear age by creating uranium from a combination of a Yew tree and a geranium.) In the strip, Pogo did indeed run for president and its creator, Walt Kelly, used that hook to promote perfectly real voter-registration campaigns. But -- as I remember it -- he was horrified by the real-life campaign for his character and insisted that it be stopped. You didn't, after all, make a mockery of American democracy that way. It just wasn't funny.

No longer. Now, the "character" is launched onto the field of electoral play by the creator himself, who also happens to be promoting a book in need of publicity; and Colbert's ploy is hailed as a kind of transcendent reality, not simply a mockery of it, even on that most mainstream of Sunday yak shows, Tim Russert's Meet the Press. Of course, the joke -- and it's a grim one indeed -- is on what's left of American democracy, which, as Colbert obviously means to prove, is the real mockery of our moment.

Perhaps we all have to hope that, when he's done with the election, he'll turn his attention to demonstrations in a world increasingly uncongenial to "civic duty" of any sort. It seems that we've entered a time in which even demonstrating can be outsourced, privatized, left to the pros, or simply dismissed (like so much else) as hopeless, a waste of time. So I was heading toward this demonstration, wondering not why more people wouldn't be there, but why anyone would be.

Penned in on the Streets

And here's how it felt:

"From the moment I looked across the aisle in the subway and saw the woman with the upside-down, hand-painted sign -- an anguished face, blood, and 'no war' on it -- and she noted my sign, also resting against my knees but modestly turned away from view, and gave me the thumbs up sign, I knew things would be okay. As my wife, a friend, and I exited the subway at the 50th Street station on the west side of New York, I noted three college-age women bent over a subway bench magic-marking in messages on their blank sign boards, a signal that we were heading for some special do-it-yourself event."
Oops! Sorry, that was my description of the first moments of a massive antiwar march -- half a million or more people took part -- in New York City on February 15, 2003, just over a month before the invasion of Iraq was launched.

On my subway car Saturday, there were no obvious demonstrators carrying signs; no eager faces or hands ready to give a thumbs-up sign; no one who even looked like he or she was heading for a demonstration. (Of course, I had no handmade sign and didn't look that way either.)

A signature aspect of this era's antiwar demonstrations, from the first prewar giants on, has been the spontaneous, personal signage, often a literal sea of waving individual expressions of indignation, sardonic humor, hope, despair, absurdity, you name it.

On Saturday, most of the signs were printed and clearly organizationally inspired; not all, however, as the shots by Tam Turse, the young photojournalist who accompanied me, eloquently indicate.

As for the police, well, here's how it felt with them:

"They still had us more or less confined to the sidewalk and a bit of the street on one side of the avenue, and cars were still crawling by. But already demonstrators were moving the orange police cones quickly set up for this unexpected crowd on an unexpectedly occupied avenue ever farther out into the traffic. Soon, to relieve pressure, the police opened a side street and with a great cheer our section of the rolling non-march burst through up to Second [Avenue] where we found ourselves in an even greater mass of humanity, heading north on our own avenue without a single car, truck, or bus."
Uh-oh, my mistake again! That, too, was the February 15, 2003 demo. This time, I came out of the subway at 23rd Street and was promptly accosted by a confused young German woman, postcards clutched in one hand. She pointed at two blue mailboxes on the corner and asked, in charmingly accented English, how you put the cards in. "Oh," I said, "let me show you." And I promptly pulled on each mailbox handle, only to find them locked. The police had undoubtedly done this as an anti-terror measure. The woman was relieved, she told me, that she wasn't "mad." No, I assured her, it was the world that was mad, not her.

The rest of the march was, in essence, a police event, the demonstrators penned in by moveable metal barricades, "guarded" often by more police personnel than on-lookers. From the moment we began to march in the rain, the police presence was overwhelming, starting with a well-marked NYPD "Sky Watch" tower, a mobile tower that can be raised anywhere in which police observers can spy on you from behind a Darth Vader-style darkened window. In fact, we marchers were penned in by the police as we headed south for Foley Square, cut off, for instance, from the large cross street at 14th by a row of dismounted police using their motorcycles as a barricade. Police vehicles and police on foot moved slowly in front of the demonstration as well as behind it. Police even marched in the demonstration (though not as demonstrators). Essentially, it was, as all rallies and demonstrations now seem to be in our growing Homeland Security state-let, a police march.

Led by a sizeable contingent of soldiers, vets, and military families, there were perhaps 10,000 marchers -- a rare occasion when my own rough estimate fit the normal police undercount -- on a dreary, rainy day, which is no small thing. Each of them left his or her life for a few hours to take a walk (or, in the case of one elderly lady, to be wheeled, encased in plastic, or for two "grannies for peace" to be peddled in a volunteer pedicab) in mild discomfort, to chant, to call out, even in a few creative cases, to display feelings on individual placards or constructions or in group tableaux. Each of them, for his or her own reason, was civic, even global. Add up all the people who did this in 11 cities nationwide, and the numbers aren't unimpressive. But with unending war, as well as perpetual death and destruction on the Bush administration menu, with the horizon darkened by the possibility of a strike against Iran, and a population which has turned its back on most of the above, it was, nonetheless, clearly underwhelming.

Meanwhile, in Iraq on Saturday, according to news reports, it was just an ordinary day, the usual harvest of decomposing corpses, deadly roadside blasts, assassinations, kidnappings, U.S. raids, and, bizarrely, the breakfast poisoning of 100 Iraqi soldiers. One American death was announced on Saturday. We don't yet know who the soldier was, only that he died "when he sustained small arms fire while conducting operations in Salah ad Din [Province]." He could, of course, have come from New York City, but the odds are that he came from a small town somewhere in the American hinterlands, from perhaps Latta, South Carolina or Lone Pine, California.

He might, or might not, have ever visited Disney World. He might have joined the overstretched U.S. armed forces for the increasingly massive bonuses the military is now offering to bind the poor and futureless close in a war that has been rejected by the American people; or perhaps he simply signed on with some of that residual sense of civic duty that's fast fleeing the land; or, possibly, both of the above. Perhaps, if he hadn't died, he would, like 12 former captains who recently wrote "The Real Iraq We Knew" for the Washington Post op-ed page and called our "best option… to leave Iraq immediately," have returned to speak out against the war. Who knows. Already, for 3,839 Americans in Iraq and 451 Americans in Afghanistan, we will never have a way of knowing.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Tam Turse is a photojournalist working in New York City. Her photos of the demonstration discussed in this piece can be viewed by clicking here.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Obama's education plan

Throughout America's history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our public schools have produced a competitive, productive workforce that has transformed the world economy. Today, our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background.

Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country's greatest natural resource - the American people. However, right now, six million middle and high school students read at levels significantly below their grade level. A full third of high school graduates do not immediately go on to a community college or university. America now has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential.

Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either-or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.

Expand Early Childhood Education: Research shows that many low-income children do not enter kindergarten ready to learn. In fact, half of low-income children start school up to two years behind their peers in preschool skills, and these early achievement gaps continue throughout elementary school. Barack Obama supports increasing funding for the Head Start program to provide preschool children with critically important learning skills, and supports the necessary role of parental involvement in the success of Head Start.

Innovation to Improve Teacher Quality: Barack Obama introduced a plan to support school districts that implement innovative methods to improve student learning, working with local teacher representatives to support and reward successful teachers, instructional teams, and school leaders. Under his initiative, 20 districts across the country will get grants to develop innovative plans in consultation with their teacher unions. Successful teachers, and those who take on new responsibilities, such as mentoring new teachers, will be eligible for pay increases beyond their base salary. Dynamic school leadership and quality teaching can improve both the work environment for teachers and the learning opportunities for students. These innovation districts will implement systemic reforms, and show convincing results that can be replicated in other school districts.

Pay Teachers More: Barack Obama wants to make a promise to educators -- if you're a teacher or a principal doing the hard work of educating our children, we will reward that work with the salary increase that you deserve. If you're willing to take on more responsibilities like mentoring, we'll pay you more. And if you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well. Obama believes the key is finding new ways to increase pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them and not based on some arbitrary test score. Obama will start treating teachers like the professionals they are.

Reform and Fund No Child Left Behind: The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is the right one - ensuring that all children can meet high standards - but the law has significant flaws that need to be addressed. Unfulfilled funding promises, inadequate implementation by the Department of Education, and shortcomings in the design of law itself have limited its effectiveness and undercut its support among many people who care deeply about our schools and our students. Barack Obama would reform and fund No Child Left Behind.

Support Teachers: Barack Obama wants to support teachers at all stages of their careers. This means modifying the certification and teacher preparation process so that, for example, a chemistry major can avoid unnecessary and expensive coursework to become a teacher, and instead learn to teach through proven programs such as teaching residencies that pairs up new recruits with master teachers. Such a program was introduced by Obama and passed by the Senate. It means giving successful teachers more control over what goes on in their classrooms, and more opportunities to advance through career ladders, where teachers may choose to take on additional instructional leadership roles. It also means paying teachers what they're worth, and offering incentives for teachers to enter and remain in the profession.

Improve Testing and Accountability: Barack Obama believes that, before we can hold our teachers and schools accountable, we need to hold our government, parents, and our communities accountable for giving teachers the support that they need. Obama believes that we should work with teachers, states, and school districts to develop more reliable and more useful measures of student learning.

Give More High School Students Access to Rigorous College-level Courses: Students who participate in Advanced Placement (AP) programs, which give students the opportunity to take college-level courses in high school, are much more likely to enroll and be successful in college. While enrollment in AP courses has nearly tripled over the past decade, many students attend schools that do not offer AP classes. Barack Obama, with Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), introduced a bipartisan plan to allow students who do not have access to college-level courses at their high schools, to apply for need-based grants and seek credit at local colleges or community colleges.

Expand Summer Learning Opportunities: Differences in learning opportunities during the summer contribute to the achievement gaps that separate struggling poor and minority students from their middle-class peers. Barack Obama's "STEP UP" plan addresses this achievement gap by supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children through partnerships between local schools and community organizations. One portion of this proposal was included in a comprehensive bill to improve U.S. competitiveness that passed the Senate in April 2007, with a provision for summer programs focused on increasing student math and problem-solving skills.

"Summer is an incredible opportunity to help children who are under-performing in school achieve grade-level proficiency, develop as young leaders, and enter school ready to excel in the fall. The support of Senators Obama and Mikulski demonstrates their commitment to children and education. The STEP UP Act is a tremendous opportunity to deepen and expand our impact on children's lives and help them achieve high academic standards."

- Earl Martin Phalen, CEO of BELL (Building Educational Leaders for Life)

Monday, October 22, 2007

California Reading Scores continue to lag for ELL

Reading Aid Seen to Lag in ELL Focus
By Mary Ann Zehr
Educators and experts across the country who work with English-language learners are moving toward a consensus that the federal Reading First program needs to be refined to become more effective for children acquiring English.
Administrators in several big-city districts with large numbers of such students are stepping up their training of teachers on how best to teach second-language learners to read under the No Child Left Behind Act’s flagship reading program, which serves grades K-3.
Last school year, the 410,000-student Chicago public school system established a new position at the district level for a bilingual specialist to coach teachers at the city’s 17 Reading First schools with large numbers of ELLs on how to tailor reading instruction to such students.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, where 38 percent of the 708,000 students are ELLs, started an institute for Reading First teachers this school year on reading strategies for ELLs.
And since last school year the 1.1 million-student New York City school system has been providing workshops and coaching to Reading First teachers and administrators on the same topic.
The U.S. Department of Education’s 11-member Reading First Advisory Committee has enough concerns about whether ELLs are getting what they need under the $1 billion-a-year program that it set up a subcommittee to look into the issue last week, according to Kris D. Gutiérrez, a committee member and a professor of social-research methodology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“My opinion is we have a long ways to go to meet the needs of English-language learners under the current policies and practices of Reading First,” Ms. Gutiérrez said. Among the program’s problems, she said, are that students’ reading skills are tested before they learn English, the literacy curriculum is too narrow, and teachers are not prepared to work with ELLs.
Education Department officials, asked last week if Reading First is working for ELLs, said “state-reported annual performance data show that many Reading First sites are showing improvements in reading fluency and comprehension for their English-language-learner students,” according to an e-mail message from Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the department.
New Language
Concern about how to refine reading instruction for English-language learners also has spread to Capitol Hill.
A draft bill to reauthorize the NCLB law, put forth by the House Education and Labor Committee, calls for Reading First programs to be “linguistically appropriate”—a term not included in the current federal education law.
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was one of the lawmakers who helped get the phrase into the draft, according to Elizabeth Esfahani, his press secretary. The phrase is mentioned 11 times in the draft.
A number of reading experts and educators said that even though “linguistically appropriate” is a vague phrase, its addition to the law would likely be beneficial for English-learners.
“The advantage of the new [legislative] language is it’s going to nudge states and districts, as they submit their plans, to stress more how teacher training and coaching will lead to teaching English-language development better,” said Russell Gersten, the executive director of the Instructional Research Group, an educational research institute in Long Beach, Calif.
Mr. Gersten headed a panel for the Education Department to write a“practice guide” for education of English-language learners , released in July, and has been a consultant for Houghton Mifflin Company’s reading textbooks.
Margarita Calderón, a professor and research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agrees with others who say Reading First has not worked well for ELLs. The additional language “would be an improvement,” she said, “because schools will have to be accountable and show they are doing this in a linguistically appropriate way.”
But, aside from agreeing on the need for more teacher training, educators’ views of how Reading First needs to be improved sometimes contradict each other, particularly on whether students’ native languages should be used to teach reading.
Mr. Gersten said teachers should teach English structures, such as “compare and contrast” or “cause and effect,” and help students practice them. It’s also helpful for teachers to preview reading lessons with students to ensure that they know what a story is about, he said. Pictures or Web sites can be useful for previewing, Mr. Gersten noted.
But he said it would be a mistake for the words “linguistically appropriate” to steer schools to use students’ native languages for reading instruction. He hasn’t found studies concluding that bilingual education is more effective than English-only methods to be persuasive.
On the other hand, Miriam Calderón, who is not related to Margarita Calderón and is a policy analyst at the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, said her group lobbied members of Congress to add linguistically appropriate to Reading First particularly for that purpose.
And Johns Hopkins’ Margarita Calderón believes that including the term “linguistically appropriate” in the law could encourage the teaching of reading to ELLs through their native languages at the same time they are learning English.
Varying State Policies
While reading experts favored the proposed changes in Reading First for ELLs, state education officials in several states with large populations of English-learners were indifferent. Officials in Arizona, California, and New Jersey all said they already are implementing Reading First in a linguistically appropriate way.
Their approaches, all approved by the Education Department, differ widely, however.
New Jersey, for instance, requires that Reading First schools provide instruction to ELLs in Spanish, while Arizona requires that all Reading First instruction be in English. California permits schools to use Spanish instruction for Reading First in bilingual classrooms that meet state restrictions for using that educational method.
New Jersey also requires schools to select Reading First materials from an approved list that includes core materials in Spanish or English and has separate materials for teaching English-language development to ELLs.
But California has not adopted separate materials for ELLs, and the state board of education’s refusal to enable such an adoption is controversial. In the state’s next adoption process, however, textbook publishers will have to meet specified criteria to address the needs of ELLs. For example, they will need to provide ideas for teachers to preview reading lessons for ELLs.
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Tomorrow, a coalition of 17 groups that advocate in behalf of ELLs, said the increasing gap in reading achievement in California between native speakers of English and ELLs demonstrates that the nearly 6-year-old Reading First program isn’t working.
As evidence, she said the achievement gap in reading between native speakers of English and ELLs in Los Angeles schools, the state’s school system with the most ELLs, has stayed the same or widened from last year to this year at every grade level tested. Ms. Spiegel-Coleman, who just retired as director of the multilingual-academic-support unit of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, criticized the Open Court Reading materials used for the program, and also said the instruction gave students little chance to practice English. The core language arts series is published by SRA/McGraw-Hill.
Julie Slayton, the executive director of strategic planning and accountability for the Los Angeles school district, said the Open Court materials are high-quality, but noted that the quality of instruction “varies widely.”
David L. Brewer III, the superintendent for LAUSD, said in an e-mail message that, like any other materials, Open Court “gets results when skillful teachers use it properly.” He said the Open Court program “will need to be modified somewhat to better accommodate ELL students, especially teacher professional development,” which he expects to happen in the next textbook-adoption cycle.
The addition of the phrase “linguistically appropriate” to the federal education law, Ms. Spiegel-Coleman believes, would force California officials and school districts to do more for ELLs.
“California has a reading initiative, and Reading First is just more of the same—more assessments, coaches, more intensity, more monitoring.” She added, “You can’t do the same old thing. If you have kids who don’t speak English in Reading First who aren’t doing well, you have to do something else.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Resistance to NCLB; Ken Goodman

It’s time to Resist NCLB: A Post- reauthorization Strategy

Noted educator Ken Goodman says we can and must resist NCLB. The politicos are not going to do the right thing. WE must bring it down.

by Ken Goodman

October 8, 2007

The time has come for educators, parents and the general public to develop a post NCLB reauthorization strategy. We’ve essentially lost the fight to modify NCLB in any significant way or get rid of it. It’s time for an organized campaign of resistence. We must resist NCLB at every level in every practical way we can to save our students from its terrible effects and to save public education.

Within the next few weeks the House Education Committee will send to the floor of the House its revision of NCLB. Some time thereafter the Senate committee will send its revision to the floor of the Senate. They are likely to face only token opposition and little debate. The press will continue to largely ignore and misrepresent the real threat continuing NCLB poses to public education and American democracy.

What will result, as it now appears, is a slightly softer version of NCLB. It will provide a little more flexibility in how the law impacts English language learners and those with special needs.
But it will not change in any fundamental ways. And so far there is no indication that the Department of Education will make other than cosmetic changes in the way it interprets and enforces the law. Just last week, for example, a new review panel rejected the Reading First proposal of Puerto Rico because it didn’t conform sufficiently to DOE mandates.

In particular the Reading First section (Title X) will continue to define reading and reading research in such a way that the DOE will continue to impose absurdly narrow methods, materials and tests on states and local school districts. And the contracts illegally imposed on the states according to the Office of Inspector General reports will remain in force. The consultants who the OIG said have made obscene profits from imposing their own materials and tests on states and districts will not only go unpunished but their profits will continue. The astrologists of reading will continue in charge of the reading space program.

There is little reason to suspect that a change in the White House or an increased Democratic majority in Congress will further modify or abandon NCLB. Democrats George Miller and Edward Kennedy have committed themselves too deeply to NCLB to admit that it is a failure. Both have accepted the false and exaggerated claims of Bush and Spellings that NCLB and Reading First are working.

Though there has been a notable demand that NCLB be discontinued and ESEA revert to its pre-NCLB form, and a few members of Congress have agreed, getting rid of the law never got real consideration. Attempts at informing the decision making in Congress to produce the basic changes needed in NCLB to change it from a negative punitive law destructive of public education into a real reform have largely failed. The unions failed to rally their members and the public: AFT was coopted to support NCLB from the beginning and NEA was too timid in using its potential political strength to make any real difference. Movement conservatives with massive financial and tactical support from the National Business Round Table and rich right wing foundations have successfully kept NCLB out of the presidential campaign as they did in 2004.

For seven more years terrible things will happen to children as young as 5 as a result of NCLB and Reading First. And as every independent study has shown by 2014 virtually every school and school district will be failing. In the meantime huge numbers of students will drop out as the hand writing on the wall is clear that they won’t be able to graduate with a diploma from high school. And in a time when a teacher shortage is growing many teachers are leaving the profession and young people are being discouraged from entering. And the campaign will increase its attack on teacher education and higher education in general. Blaming teacher educators for the failures of NCLB.

Legal basis for resistence

There is a strong legal basis for resisting NCLB. The investigations of the Inspector General have laid out in explicit detail the ways in which those given the power in the Department of Education to implement NCLB and Reading First violated the NCLB law itself and the original law establishing the Department of Education. Both clearly prohibited the imposition of curriculum and methodology on states and local education agencies. That means that every state contract under NCLB is null and void. It means that contracts establishing assistance centers to advise the states and LEAs on implementation are void and those centers must be replaced.

And in addition to that the processes were illegal because staff and consultants were and still are involved in blatant conflicts of interest.

Legally, states and LEA’s have every reason to refuse to enforce their NCLB and Reading First contracts and have the grounds, if necessary, to sue the DOE and the offending consultants. Parents, individually and collectively, also have the right to sue on behalf of their children to get rid of the onerous and destructive effects of NCLB on their children’s lives and education.

There is ample documentation both for the illegality of the implementation of NCLB and for the damage it is doing to children.

Pedagogical Basis for Resistence

>From a point of view of scientific pedagogy NCLB is riddled with absurdities:

1. It is punitive. Instead of providing financial and professional support for schools with low achieving students it punishes them. It has already led to transferring authority over schools and school districts from professionals and local authorities to politicians. Already many public schools have been handed over to profit makers.

2. In the name of putting “highly” qualified teachers in classrooms it has undermined state teacher certification programs and made it impossible for rural schools and middle schools to retain experienced teachers and recruit professionally educated teachers.

3. It has perverted science by using the phrases “scientifically based research” and “scientifically based reading research” to describe unproven commercial materials and methods which are absurd in design and unteachable. And it has marginalized a wide range of alternate approaches.

4.It has set absurd goals. Ultimately it requires that all students and all sub groups be “proficient” in reading math and science by 2014. Because “proficient” is essentially undefined. Both the press and politicians including President Bush and Secretary Spellings have freely equated that with having all children above grade level by 2014. That makes the goal absurd since by definition only half of the pupils in any grade can be above grade level, which is the mean score achieved on a particular test. Even Diane Ravitch, along term supporter of NCLB has called this goal absurd. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress the term proficient is used to name an arbitrary level above basic and below excellent. Only about 20% of those taking NAEP achieve the proficient level currently.

5. NCLB deprofessionalizes teaching. It limits the ability of experienced, professional teachers to make decisions on how best to serve each pupil. In enforcement, a hierarchy is established by NCLB which subjects effective teachers to interference by inexperienced and unqualified staff members empowered to slavishly enforce NCLB.

6. It distorts and narrows the curriculum to reading, math and starting in 2007 science and limiting or eliminating everything else including physical education and recess. It’s absurd that our officials are taking fast foods and sugary drinks out of schools but eliminating physical exercise.

7. NCLB diverts kindergarten and even pre-school from their historical purposes to academic pre-first grades. What is more absurd than five year olds being labeled as failing in the first week of kindergarten because of their performance on absurd tests? And what is more absurd than having children repeat kindergarten as academic failures?

8. In the guise of having high expectations for all young people NCTE has required that children with special needs and English language learners to take the same tests and be subjected to the same curricula as all other children. Further, it punishes the whole school or LEA when either of these subgroups inevitably fails to achieve the unachieveable,

Moral basis for resistence

Framed as a reform which would eliminate differences between ethnic and economic populations of students in school success, NCLB has imposed an immoral, one-size fits all set of mandates which hurt all students but hurts those it claims to help the most.

It measures success by learners and teachers entirely by scores on tests of questionable validity. That devalues any learning that isn’t easily testable by simplistic tests and it narrows the curriculum to what is being tested.

It is robbing children of their childhood imposing tedium and guilt on them and making them personally responsible for the failures of the system. It has made successful learners feel they are failures and taught them that conformity is more important than thoughtful response.

NCLB has turned teachers from committed guides and mentors into automotons powerless to do what they know is best for their students. It has corrupted the moral obligation of teachers to protect their pupils from harm.

It has substituted governmental absolutes for the responsible choices of parents.

Methods of resistance

Educators, their unions and professional associations, educational decision makers, parents, interested citizens and the students themselves all have a range of ways of resisting NCLB.

Only massive resistance can bring it down and get the attention of the politicians.

Teachers and administrators are of course vulnerable. Often taking an overt stand can jeopardize their jobs. On the other hand they are the ones who see most clearly how NCLB is hurting their pupils. Some teachers and administrators will be confident enough to make public acts of resistance. As a profession, educators have tended to self-censor themselves more than is necessary. But as a result of NCLB teachers and administrators will reach a point beyond which their consciences will not let them go. They will refuse to administer certain tests, use certain texts, grade their pupils unfairly. Rather than simply leaving their jobs when they become untenable they will commit acts of resistance and dare their districts to fire them. Groups of teachers in individual schools and districts will of course be more successful if they act together and support each other.

There are ways that teachers and administrators can resist in private ways. Teachers can resist, in the time honored way, by closing their doors and doing what they feel is best for their kids, minimizing the use of absurd tests and materials. And they can keep parents aware of the real progress of their kids and help them to understand why they deviate from mandates. Informed parents are their best defense.

Administrators can protect teachers from some impositions and support their professional decisions for the benefit of their pupils. They can document the effects of aspects of NCLB for parents, school board members and the public. And they can establish a positive atmosphere in their schools that can neutralize some effects of NCLB interventions.

Unions and professional organizations have a responsibility to organize resistance. In Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand teachers unions have had a tradition of including methods and curriculum in their concerns. There are numerous examples of successful campaigns by unions to refuse to administer tests and support their members in their refusal to conform to unprofessional impositions. NEA’s California affiliate went beyond NEA’s position recently and called for abolition of NCLB. They need to take the next step of organizing their members to resist NCLB and supporting them when they do. The unions and professional organizations need to take the lead in organizing local, state, and national demonstrations against NCLB. They are probably the only ones who could bring a million teacher to Washington to show the politicians the professionals care about what happens to their students.

Administrators’ unions and organizations have taken strong positions against NCLB but they haven’t been public enough. They need to call for and support resistance to NCLB.

Parents have a wide range of ways to resist NCLB. They should inform themselves by visiting their children’s classes and observing what NCLB is doing to them. They can talk about NCLB with school administrators and school board members when they see their children being hurt by NCLB. Parents can use the existing PTA to resist NCLB or they can organize parents within schools and school districts to fight use of absurd tests and materials and decisions by school boards that limit the curriculum or eliminate play time. There are a number of specific actions parents can take:

1. They can boycott the tests by keeping their children home when tests are announced or demanding that their permission be obtained for each test. With absurd tests such as DIBELS parents can insist that their children not be tested and that no results be transmitted beyond the school without parental permission. NCLB requires that 95% of each sub group be tested so a few boycotting parents can have a major effect.

2. They can support acts of resistance by teachers and administrators

3. They can contact news media and school board members documenting how NCLB is hurting their children.

4. They can educate themselves and other parents of the political process for electing school board members and support candidates pledged to resisting NCLB.

5. They sue on behalf of their children to protest illegal implementation of NCLB.

Students of course feel the negative impact of NCLB the most. Even young children can, with the support of their parents, resist NCLB. They can write letters and circulate petitions about tests and school policies. For example they can petition the principal to reinstate recess or write to the school board about absurd materials. Children have rights and parents can help them to know how to assert their rights.

Older students in middle school and high school can organize their resistance to NCLB through letters, petitions and demonstrations. It was demonstrations by high school students that eventually brought down the apartheid system in South Africa. Students have the right to a voice in how their schools and classrooms will run.

NCLB came about through the clever manipulation of the democratic system to control Congressional decision making. United, educators, students, parents and the informed public can use the democratic system to resist NCLB and bring it down.

Ken Goodman

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

California schools fail : again. How the Right wing sees it

An interesting essay, even though I do not agree with the solution.

Back to Article
When state proficiency standards are lowered, there will be NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
California's test scores hit a plateau - not good news

Liam Julian
Sunday, October 14, 2007
California's state test scores leveled off in 2007, after having jumped seven percentage points in the previous two years. This may be worse news than many Californians think.

Why? Because from 2003 to 2006, California's state test has become easier for the kids taking it. If achievement remains stagnant while the tests are getting easier, that means California's students actually know less today than they did a year ago. In fact, the previous test-score gains reported by the Golden State from 2003 to 2006 may have not actually occurred.

At the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act is the call for all American schoolchildren to become "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014. Yet the law allows each state to craft its own definition of proficiency, and to craft the tests that will measure it.

Until now, Californians had to believe that their state's idea of proficiency was a rigorous one - they had to trust that their state officials in Sacramento were going to hold all students to consistently high standards. Unfortunately, it seems that trust may have been misplaced.

Researchers for a new report, "The Proficiency Illusion," compared the test scores of California students on the state test, with their scores on a national assessment, Measures of Academic Progress. Then, in order to measure their consistency over time, California's cut scores (the score needed to reach "proficient" on its tests) were compared to their equivalent scores on the MAP test.

Why not just compare cut scores on the CST to cut scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a national test commonly called the nation's report card (although it's not part of any accountability system)? A few reasons: That national test assesses at only three grade levels (4, 8 and 12), and results are not recorded at the individual or school level (which may diminish test-taker motivation). Overall, the MAP shares more in common with California's state test than the other test does.

Despite the fact that California's 2006 cut scores were among the most challenging of the 26 states evaluated, since 2003 the Golden State's cut scores in reading decreased substantially in fourth, seventh and eighth grades.

The test has been getting easier for those who take it. That means that even if California's students made no real academic progress, their test scores would have nonetheless increased - in fourth and eighth grade, stagnant progress would have yielded a gain of 12 percentile points.

From 2003 to 2006, California reported a 10-point gain for fourth-graders and an 11-point gain for eighth-graders. Which means that those student abilities actually declined over that time. (Indeed, from 2003 to 2007, the percentage of the state's eighth-grade students at or above proficient on the national assessment test did decline.)

The same thing occurred on mathematics assessments. Looking at the data, one could fairly say that California's seventh-grade math tests were easier to pass in 2006 than in 2003.

Thankfully, California's state tests remain tougher than most others in the country. Parents of students scoring well above the proficient level can be relatively confident that their children are sound academically.

But for students on the bubble, those who just squeaked over the proficient hurdle, California's tests are much less reliable.

Johnny just reaches the proficient level in fourth grade. He continues to barely hit that mark over the next four years. While it looks like Johnny is making normal progress, he's not - the test is getting easier, and Johnny is falling behind (albeit, invisibly).

If the proficiency label is changing, it's impossible to gauge whether individual students (not to mention the state's education system) are making any academic progress.

These findings should make California citizens furious. Parents led to believe that their public-school students were making progress were fed incorrect data - the definition of progress may have changed. If it didn't, then students are surely being fed test prep strategies that would get them over the "proficient" mark in California's particular assessment, but wouldn't help them on another test. In other words, students still aren't actually learning anything but how to game the system.

Regardless of how it has happened, the dumbing down of proficiency has certainly undercut educational accountability in California. All citizens need to now reassess how well the state is running its schools - how well it's running its schools in reality, that is.

What's the solution? A rigorous national test (one that's part of an accountability system) would be best. It's crazy for a 21st century nation to struggle with the discrepant patchwork of assessments that the United States now has.

But more immediately: State policymakers should determine why, exactly, their test is getting easier, and then stop it. And in the meantime, California parents must make sure that their schools are not teaching to the test.

Learning isn't about teaching kids how to memorize the format of the state test; it's about teaching them a broad and challenging curriculum. When that happens, the test scores take care of themselves.

Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Contact us at

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

NCLB A failed system for failing schools

October 16, 2007
Failing Schools Strain to Meet U.S. Standard

LOS ANGELES — As the director of high schools in the gang-infested neighborhoods of the East Side of Los Angeles, Guadalupe Paramo struggles every day with educational dysfunction.

For the past half-dozen years, not even one in five students at her district’s teeming high schools has been able to do grade-level math or English. At Abraham Lincoln High School this year, only 7 in 100 students could. At Woodrow Wilson High, only 4 in 100 could.

For chronically failing schools like these, the No Child Left Behind law, now up for renewal in Congress, prescribes drastic measures: firing teachers and principals, shutting schools and turning them over to a private firm, a charter operator or the state itself, or a major overhaul in governance.

But more than 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools are branded chronic failures, and the numbers are growing. Barring revisions in the law, state officials predict that all 6,063 public schools serving poor students will be declared in need of restructuring by 2014, when the law requires universal proficiency in math and reading.

“What are we supposed to do?” Ms. Paramo asked. “Shut down every school?”

With the education law now in its fifth year — the one in which its more severe penalties are supposed to come into wide play — California is not the only state overwhelmed by growing numbers of schools that cannot satisfy the law’s escalating demands.

In Florida, 441 schools could be candidates for closing. In Maryland, some 49 schools in Baltimore alone have fallen short of achievement targets for five years or more. In New York State, 77 schools were candidates for restructuring as of last year.

Some districts, like those in New York City, have moved forcefully to shut large failing high schools and break them into small schools. Los Angeles, too, is trying small schools, along with other innovations, and David L. Brewer III, its schools superintendent, has just announced plans to create a “high priority district” under his direct control made up of 40 problem schools.

Yet so far, education experts say they are unaware of a single state that has taken over a failing school in response to the law. Instead, most allow school districts to seek other ways to improve.

“When you have a state like California with so many schools up for restructuring,” said Heinrich Mintrop, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “that taxes the capacity of the whole school change industry.”

As a result, the law is branding numerous schools as failing, but not producing radical change — leaving angry parents demanding redress. California citizens’ groups have sued the state and federal government for failing to deliver on the law’s promises.

“They’re so busy fighting No Child Left Behind,” said Mary Johnson, president of Parent U-Turn, a civic group. “If they would use some of that energy to implement the law, we would go farther.”

Ray Simon, the deputy federal secretary of education, said states that ignored the law’s demands risked losing federal money or facing restrictions on grants. For now, Mr. Simon said, the department is more interested in helping states figure out what works than in punishment. “Even a state has to struggle if it takes over a school,” he said.

A federal survey last year showed that in 87 percent of the cases of persistently failing schools, states and school districts avoided wholesale changes in staff or leadership. That is why, Mr. Simon said, the Bush administration is proposing that Congress force more action by limiting districts’ options in responding to hard-core failure.

In California, Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of schools, calls the law’s demands unreasonable. Under the federal law, 700 schools that California believed were getting substantially better were counted last year as failing. A state takeover of schools, Mr. O’Connell said, would be a “last option.”

“To have a successful program,” he said, “it really has to come from the community.”

Under the No Child law, a school declared low-performing for three years in a row must offer students free tutoring and the option to transfer. After five years, such schools are essentially treated as irredeemable, with the law prescribing starting over with a new structure, new leadership or new teachers. But it also gives schools the option of less sweeping changes, like reducing school size or changing who is in charge of hiring.

Those in charge of troubled schools in Los Angeles admit that the absence of serious penalties coupled with the growing number of schools branded as low-performing is breeding bitterness. But they are not sure what to do.

Carmen Schroeder, the superintendent of District 5 — and Ms. Paramo’s boss — has taken over hiring decisions and keeps a close watch on the lowest performing schools. Ms. Schroeder said she would like to go further and shut some down if there were any place to transfer the students.

That is not so easy when 59 of the 91 schools in her district, the largest of eight in this sprawling city, consistently fall short of standards.

Beyond that, the federal law does not trump contract agreements, and so teachers have generally not lost their jobs or faced transfer when schools stagnate.

In Los Angeles, as the law’s 2014 deadline draws nearer, the promised land of universal high achievement seems more distant than ever.

Schools that serve low-income students are packed, despite new construction. In poor neighborhoods, students are on staggered schedules, starting school in different months and scattering what was once summer vacation into smaller breaks.

Students lose momentum, forget lessons and come out with 17 fewer days of instruction a year. “That’s why our kids are not passing the high school exit exams,” said Ms. Johnson of Parent U-Turn.

Not all states are facing huge numbers of failing schools. Some were late establishing testing systems, and so lack results over five or more years. Others may have small poor populations, better teaching or easier exams.

But the tensions voiced here are echoed by parents elsewhere, as well as by school officials.

At Woodrow Wilson High one recent morning, teachers broke into small groups over coffee studying test scores for areas of weakness. But there were limits to what they would learn.

The teachers analyzed results for the entire school, not for their own students. Roberto Martinez, the principal, said he had not given teachers the scores of their own students because their union objects, saying the scores were being used to evaluate teachers.

“And who suffers?” asked Veronica Garcia, an English teacher at Wilson. “The kids suffer, because the teacher never gets feedback.”

A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said the union supported test score reviews provided they did not affect teachers’ jobs. Mr. Duffy said the federal law glossed over the travails of teaching students living in poverty. “Everyone agrees that urban education needs a shot in the arm, but it is not as bleak as the naysayers would have it,” he said.

That is not a view shared by many parents. Martha Sanchez, whose three children attend public schools here, said that as students grew older, the schools seemed to give up.

Her eldest, Gonzalo, attends eighth grade at John Adams Middle School, where only 22 percent of students passed the state exams in English and math this year. It is not hard for Ms. Sanchez to see why.

When Gonzalo struggled over equations, she said, his teacher called him slow rather than going over the material again. Ms. Sanchez said that she had complained, but that the teacher had denied the comment. It was only through the private tutoring, available under No Child Left Behind that he managed to pass seventh grade math, she said.

The principal, Joseph P. Santana, said he did not recall Ms. Sanchez’s complaining, but could not rule it out. “There are 1,600 of them,” he said, referring to the students, “and only one of me.”

Still, Ms. Sanchez is not a big fan of the law. Just weeks into the school year, she said, teachers are focusing almost solely on material likely to appear on state exams. Forget about igniting a passion in children, she said.

“Maybe the system is not designed for people like us,” she said.

Friday, October 12, 2007

NCLB in more trouble

Talks Stall on No Child Left Behind

October 11, 2007
By Steven T. Dennis,
Roll Call

Efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on revamped No Child Left Behind legislation have broken down, with Republicans charging that House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) has refused to compromise.

Republicans said Wednesday that Miller has shown little to no willingness to accommodate their concerns about an erosion of accountability measures and a host of other issues with the bill and say that unless Miller shows new flexibility, Republicans will vote en masse to kill it.

“We’re still better off with current law,” said Education and Labor ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.).

McKeon said his staff and Miller’s staff have been working together all year to try to work out a deal, but he said there are about 15 issues that have yet to be worked out.

A meeting last week between McKeon, Miller, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) yielded little progress, McKeon said. McKeon said Miller took a hard line and McKeon got the sense that “we could talk until we’re blue in the face and there aren’t going to be any changes.”

McKeon said without major changes to the bill, “I would not be able to support it, [Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)] doesn’t support it, Castle doesn’t support it, the White House doesn’t support it. He has to pass it with Democratic votes.”

McKeon said that passing a bill with Democratic votes alone would seem doubtful given the attacks No Child Left Behind has gotten from some groups on the left — particularly teachers’ unions — and would not become law.

“Maybe when we get to markup, maybe he’ll show some willingness to work with us,” McKeon said of Miller. “He wants to bring it to the floor and I don’t see how it passes.”

Boehner, one of the architects of the original No Child Left Behind Act, said Wednesday that there has been no progress toward an agreement. “The accountability provisions in the draft are basically going to sell out poor children,” Boehner claimed. Boehner also said he objects to 28 new education programs he said Democrats have sought to add to the bill.

Miller said he remains hopeful that a bipartisan compromise can be reached that will improve the program while providing more flexibility for states, but he said he has been unable to get a meeting with Boehner to work out differences.

“I’ve been asking for a meeting with Mr. Boehner and Mr. McKeon for three weeks,” Miller said, adding that he was surprised at their comments. He said the Republicans know that he wants to move a bill to the floor before the end of the year and time is running short.

“We’re making that effort, but whether we’ll be successful remains to be seen,” Miller said of reaching a compromise.

Miller and Boehner bumped into one another a few weeks ago and Miller casually mentioned getting together for a meeting but didn’t follow up, according to Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy. Kennedy also noted that Boehner sent Miller a long letter over a month ago and has yet to receive a response.

“Pointing the finger at the Minority Leader for the lack of progress on a bill that still has yet to be written, introduced, or even given hearing in committee is somewhere between absurd and comical,” Kennedy said. “Whether it was three weeks ago — or five months ago when Democrats started promising the introduction of an NCLB reauthorization bill — Leader Boehner would have accepted a meeting invitation had one actually been extended to him. That has not been the case, and the chairman’s time might be better spent achieving some consensus among his own committee members for starters.”

The sniping over the bill came a day after President Bush called on Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but without weakening accountability or the emphasis on math and reading.

But Miller said President Bush’s decision in past years not to fully fund No Child Left Behind has undermined support for the legislation. “I don’t think the president has a lot of credibility on this one,” Miller said.

“Clearly if you travel in the country and in the education community, they don’t feel this law is fair, flexible and funded,” Miller said.

No Child Left Behind is one of the few pieces of legislation that likely will require a bipartisan vote in the House and faces significant opposition in each party. More than 50 Republicans have backed a bill that would essentially gut the legislation and turn it into a block grant program, with House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) the most prominent opponent of the law.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the original law has flaws that unfairly penalize some schools. Both sides want to incorporate a “growth” model that will test how much a particular student learns over the course of a year rather than giving one test. Schools with large turnover each year can be penalized if someone with relatively little time in that school counts against their results, and inadequate or no credit can be given to significant improvements in scores that don’t quite reach a passing grade.

Miller also has sought to expand the ability of states to use other tests beyond math and reading to show improvement, arguing that No Child Left Behind is too narrowly focused.

“This is a serious effort to fix the flaws in No Child Left Behind,” Miller said.

But McKeon said Republicans don’t want to weaken the accountability rules that focus on math and reading to include tests on other subjects.

“Either you can read or you can’t,” McKeon said. “Either you can do simple math or you can’t. The main purpose of No Child Left Behind was to make sure kids can read and do basic math. It’s starting to work.”

McKeon also objects to giving union bosses in each state a veto over controversial new merit pay provisions for teachers, among other issues.

Meanwhile, the political clock is ticking.

McKeon acknowledged that there is a concern that if the bill doesn’t get out of the gate this year, it’ll be killed next year during the heat of the presidential elections. But McKeon said that shouldn’t be the chief concern, explaining, “I’m more concerned about getting it done right than rushing to meet an artificial deadline.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tested: NCLB

A 'No Child' Law for All Children
There's a Better Way To Handle Special Needs
By Linda Perlstein
Thursday, October 11, 2007; A19

While at an elementary school doing research for a book about the impact of standards and testing on American education, I spent a lot of time watching a girl I called Whitney. Among other disabilities, Whitney had mild mental retardation. Although she was in fourth grade, she could sound out words only on the level of a first-grader, and her ability to comprehend what she read and heard seemed no more advanced.

I once saw a teacher spend 15 minutes, as the rest of the class worked independently, trying to explain to Whitney that when you sell something you get money for it, a concept crucial to understanding the story at hand. Teaching homonyms was exhausting, if not futile, because at least one word of every pair (dew, grate) was something Whitney had never heard before and could not grasp once she did. When a special education teacher told Whitney that synonyms have the same meaning, she asked, inexplicably, "Like a science experiment? Like a dinosaur?"

As Congress considers revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act, I hope lawmakers think about children such as Whitney. While many elements of the landmark education law are up in the air, one provision almost certain to be included is the "growth model": assessing the "adequate yearly progress" of schools not by calculating how many fourth-graders passed a test compared with the previous year but by measuring the progress made by each child. This is a welcome change and if executed properly may yield far more useful information.

But a large problem remains: Under the versions of the law under discussion, Whitney will still be given the fifth-grade test in fifth grade, the sixth-grade test in sixth grade and so on. She will probably fail these tests -- no surprise to her teachers -- and whatever progress she makes, unless it is so miraculous as to wipe away her deficiencies altogether, will go uncredited. Worse, her time and her teachers' time will be badly misused.

Under the law, a small minority of disabled students are allowed to take a test of more basic skills. Whitney's problems aren't severe enough for her to qualify. Like other special education students, she is entitled to "accommodations" during testing. For many students, these services -- extra time, a quiet room away from the distraction of classmates, a teacher who reads the exam aloud -- level the playing field enough for them to succeed. For others, accommodations can't come close to making the difference between passing and failing.

It's not just that Whitney's progress can't be properly measured by a test that's way above her head. It's that by taking to heart the law's mandate of every student in a grade working toward the same target, administrators are making bad instructional decisions that permeate classrooms nationwide. Teachers follow pacing guides that tell them what to teach each day, no matter where their students are. Students take benchmark exams each quarter and unit tests each week that correspond to how much time has passed, not what those particular children need to learn. Watching a new immigrant I called Mateo struggle with a quiz that asked whether colonization meant an armed invasion, peaceful revolution, settling of new land or control of goods -- English terms he had never heard before -- simply because that was the quiz fifth-graders were taking that day in preparation for their state test, I felt like I was witness to nothing more than a waste of precious time.

That students such as Whitney and Mateo are getting more individual attention is easily the best outcome of the law so far; that this attention is directed toward the wrong goals is negligence. Educators talk about the importance of teaching children as individuals, and they are right. In the classroom, though, they're not following through. You can blame No Child Left Behind, the climate it's induced or the questionable choices people make in its name. Whichever way, as long as students are judged only on grade-level tests, no matter their needs, and as long as the education they get the rest of the year hews to that goal, they will lose out.

Politicians say that anything less than holding fourth-graders accountable for fourth-grade work amounts to leaving children behind, and challenging that notion has become taboo. "For the vast majority of students, grade-level learning is not too much to ask," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said last month. The only time I saw Whitney make progress was the hour she spent each day with a specialist who guided her in blending letters to make sounds -- hardly a skill in the fourth-grade curriculum. Is it too much to ask that children such as Whitney be taught what they need to learn in order to make their own adequate yearly progress?

Linda Perlstein, who covered education for The Post from 1998 to 2004, is the author of "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

NCLB: in trouble

Note: in the important story below, Mr. Bush meets with "Civil Rights leaders" as an important support for NCLB. What Mr. Bush has done all along is to select a few "Civil Rights leaders" who support his viewpoints. Notably, the Education Trust claims to be a Civil Rights organization.
Mr.Bush and his team made the same effort in trying to pass immigration reform, inviting a very select group of "civil rights leaders" to work with him. The facts are there are a number of groups funded by corporations and beholding to conservative think tanks who claim to be "civil rights" leaders. This claim should always be questioned. Are they really civil rights leaders?
Duane Campbell

October 10, 2007
Bush Prodding Congress to Reauthorize His Education Law

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 — With his domestic agenda in tatters, President Bush tried Tuesday to prod Congress into reauthorizing his biggest domestic achievement, the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law. But lawmakers have yet to come to terms on the legislation, and prospects for a deal this year appear dim.

Mr. Bush invited civil rights leaders, who are among the bill’s staunchest backers, to a meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the prospects for renewal. Then, in a bit of theater designed to pressure lawmakers — especially Democrats, for whom civil rights advocates are a core constituency — the president took his guests into the Rose Garden, where he issued a public call for Congress to act.

“We don’t necessarily agree on every issue, but we do agree that education is a basic civil right,” Mr. Bush said, adding that the nation “has reached a defining moment in our struggle to secure a good education for every child.”

It was the second time in as many weeks that Mr. Bush has used his presidential platform to draw attention to the education bill, an intensifying effort that suggests he is concerned that his signature domestic achievement could come undone before his term is out.

The bill would remain in effect even if it is not renewed, but the administration is seeking changes to it, and some opponents would like to see it thoroughly revamped. If Congress reauthorizes the bill with its basic components intact, it would be a welcome, and rare, legislative victory for Mr. Bush on Capitol Hill, one that could help cement his legacy in education policy, an issue he has cared about since he was governor of Texas.

The president wants a bill by the end of the year, but administration officials do not sound entirely confident. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said after the Rose Garden ceremony that she was “cautiously optimistic.”

At least one of the civil rights leaders in attendance, Wade Henderson, said he feared that the reauthorization effort could collapse amid challenges from Republicans, in much the same way that the president’s immigration proposal was brought down by his own party. Mr. Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Mr. Bush seemed determined to see the bill through.

“He committed to using his personal capital to see to it that the bill is reauthorized this year,” Mr. Henderson said. “This is his signature achievement, and I think he wants to extend that.”

But as with the immigration bill, there are questions on how far the president’s capital can take him. Mr. Bush is in the thick of a series of veto fights with Congressional Democrats, many of whom accuse the administration of failing to finance the original education measure fully. At the same time, the bill faces challenges from some Republicans, who say it tramples on local control of schools.

“Every day that goes by, the likelihood becomes less that they’ll be able to get a bill passed this year,” said Jack Jennings, a former general counsel for the House education committee and president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit group that advises many states on the federal education law.

First passed in 2001, No Child Left Behind created new, specific standards for student achievement, demanding that all schools test students in Grades 3 to 8 in reading and math every year, with the goal of having all students demonstrate proficiency in those subjects by 2014. Mr. Bush said Tuesday that he would not “compromise on the basic principle” that every child must read and do math at or above grade level.

Ms. Spellings said: “It’s a strong law, a hawkish law and a good law. We can make it better, but we don’t need to risk making it worse.”

House Democrats have been working much of the year to draw up legislation to renew the law, but have yet to produce a bill. A “discussion draft” has come under attack from backers and opponents of the original measure.

In the Senate, the lead Democratic sponsor of the original bill, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, plans to introduce legislation to renew it by the end of the month. On Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy chided the White House for making the reauthorization effort “far more difficult by its failure to fully fund and implement it.”

Civil rights advocates said they used Tuesday’s meeting to press Mr. Bush to support substantial increases in federal spending on No Child Left Behind, saying the money was needed to help schools meet the law’s demands and to develop better, more sophisticated ways to measure student progress.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Testing, testing, testing

Op-Ed Columnist
High-Stakes Flimflam
October 8, 2007
by Bob Herbert
It’s time to rein in the test zealots who have gotten such a stranglehold on the public schools in the U.S.

Politicians and others have promoted high-stakes testing as a panacea that would bring accountability to teaching and substantially boost the classroom performance of students.

“Measuring,” said President Bush, in a discussion of his No Child Left Behind law, “is the gateway to success.”

Not only has high-stakes testing largely failed to magically swing open the gates to successful learning, it is questionable in many cases whether the tests themselves are anything more than a shell game.

Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, told me in a recent interview that it’s important to ask “whether you can trust improvements in test scores when you are holding people accountable for the tests.”

The short answer, he said, is no.

If teachers, administrators, politicians and others have a stake in raising the test scores of students — as opposed to improving student learning, which is not the same thing — there are all kinds of incentives to raise those scores by any means necessary.

“We’ve now had four or five different waves of educational reform,” said Dr. Koretz, “that were based on the idea that if we can just get a good test in place and beat people up to raise scores, kids will learn more. That’s really what No Child Left Behind is.”

The problem is that you can raise scores the hard way by teaching more effectively and getting the students to work harder, or you can take shortcuts and start figuring out ways, as Dr. Koretz put it, to “game” the system.

Guess what’s been happening?

“We’ve had high-stakes testing, really, since the 1970s in some states,” said Dr. Koretz. “We’ve had maybe six good studies that ask: ‘If the scores go up, can we believe them? Or are people taking shortcuts?’ And all of those studies found really substantial inflation of test scores.

“In some cases where there were huge increases in test scores, the kids didn’t actually learn more at all. If you gave them another test, you saw no improvement.”

There is not enough data available to determine how widespread this problem is. “We know it doesn’t always happen,” said Dr. Koretz. “But we know it often does.”

He said his big concern is where this might be happening. “There are a lot of us in the field,” he said, “who think that if we ever really looked under the covers, what we’d find is that the shortcuts are particularly prevalent in lower-achieving schools, just because the pressure is greater, the community supports are less and the kids have more difficulties. But we don’t know.”

One aspect of the No Child Left Behind law that doesn’t get enough attention is that while it requires states to make progress toward student proficiency in reading and math, it leaves it up to the states themselves to define “proficiency” and to create the tests that determine what constitutes progress.

That’s absurd. With no guiding standard, the states’ tests are measurements without meaning.

A study released last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association found that “improvements in passing rates on state tests can largely be explained by declines in the difficulty of those tests.”

The people in charge of most school districts would rather jump from the roof of a tall building than allow an unfettered study of their test practices. But that kind of analysis is exactly what’s needed if we’re to get any real sense of how well students are doing.

Five years ago, President Bush and many others who had little understanding of the best ways to educate children were crowing about the prospects of No Child Left Behind. They were warned then about the dangers of relying too much on test scores.

But those warnings didn’t matter in an era in which reality was left behind.

“No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance,” said Mr. Bush, as if those who were genuinely concerned about the flaws in his approach were in favor of poor performance.

During my interview with Dr. Koretz, he noted that by not rigorously analyzing the phenomenon of high-stakes testing, “we’re creating an illusion of success that is really nice for everybody in the system except the kids.”

That was a few days before the release of the Fordham Institute Study, which used language strikingly similar to Dr. Koretz’s. The study asserted that the tests used by states to measure student progress under No Child Left Behind were creating “a false impression of success.”

The study was titled, “The Proficiency Illusion.”

Even newspaper pundits are beginning to recognize the problem. Next, the really slow learners; politicians.
Duane Campbell
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