In recent months we have seen that the Bush Administration is remarkably bad at anticipating what might go wrong when occupying a distant country or when forcing ill-considered reform strategies upon the unsuspecting schools of our own land.
Those who predicted that the liberation and democratization of Iraq would be swift and inexpensive indulged in wishful thinking. They were blind to the much more complicated truths of an alien culture.
On September 7, the President announced he would need another $ 89 billion for this Iraqi occupation. Oops! Plenty of money for tax breaks for the rich, but . . . poor planning and a budget deficit that makes Californias trouble (and mismanagement) look amateurish.
And in much the same way, this administration is blind to the damage being done to thousands of heroic school leaders and teachers by their devastating NCLB attack on the public schools and children of this land. As the feds trust failure and punishment as the primary strategy to make change in schools, they are damaging many of the people we need the most to take care of our children and turn non-readers into readers.
In the long run, this ill-considered law is likely to worsen a leadership crisis in American schools, making it almost impossible to find principals willing to face the punishment that has descended upon schools like a perfect educational storm.
Over the decades, many talented teachers and administrators have drifted or steered their way into affluent school settings offering many advantages ranging from small class sizes and ample budgets to children and families who are well fed, well educated and fully employed.
There are probably too few talented heroes teaching and leading in our most trying schools. We need more of them - folks who know how to warm a class of children to learning even when their minds are filled with worries, who know how to create a powerful lesson out of a single photograph from the morning paper, and who value the power of pedagogy and the art of teaching. We need thousands of good souls who understand the artistry required to help a single child unravel the mystery of poor performance. Our future depends upon our ability to replenish the profession with like-minded, passionate educators who have the spirit to confront difficult challenges.
Michael Winerip, a reporter for the New York Times, has shared the stories of two such heroes, one in Florida and one in North Carolina, each struggling to give good care to young children in the face of an NCLB onslaught of punishment, blame and sanctions.
- A Star! A Failure! Unmeshed Yardsticks, September 3, 2003 by Michael Winerip in the New York Times.
- The Changes Unwelcome, a Model Teacher Moves On, May 28, 2003 by Michael Winerip in the New York Times.
While the Feds keep pushing their mechanistic change agenda on our schools, thousands of good educators find themselves caught up in a Game of Survival for which they never auditioned or volunteered. There is no million dollar prize or glory in the offing.
After winning impressive gains in student progress within their schools, some principals are suddenly finding themselves labeled as failures while their affluent neighbors may escape scrutiny and harsh labels during the early stages of NCLB. Called heroes by their state departments of education for making great progress on state goals, they are branded failures by a rigid federal code that is blind to real schools, real leaders, real teachers and the conditions that produce real change.
Stampede as Social Policy?
Once a school fails to meet NCLB's arbitrary AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals for two years in a row for any one of nine sub groups, the floodgates open and families may elect to swarm elsewhere, as if movement were a sure cure to deep and prolonged patterns of failure. It is so easy to blame a school, a principal or a teacher for a child's struggles but far more difficult to spark sustained improvement.
|NCLB addresses nine sub-groups:
1. White students
2. Black students
3. Native Americans students
4. Asian/Pacific Islander students
5. Hispanic students
6. Multiracial students
7. Limited English Proficient students
8. Students with Disabilities
9. Economically Disadvantaged students
The fallacy at the base of this stampede theory of educational improvement is the notion that schools with high scores and high scoring students are actually skilled at turning around the performance of weak students. Many of these students entered school not ready for learning in the terms defined by the earlier President Bush in his Goals 2000 promises. Their poor performance may be rooted to some extent in poverty and social conditions the current administration pretty much ignores.
Moving students from school to school may create turbulence, frustration, overcrowding and a host of challenges for which the so-called "good schools" are unprepared. Sadly, the influx of new students may set in motion an avalanche of disabling complications that will end with the advantaged school being painted with the failure label in just two years.
Even more sadly, some school leaders will create a climate that encourages students to drop out early and an accounting system that conceals these failures from public view.
Leaders Needed as Principal Supply Declines
Leadership of schools is poorly addressed by this administration with its slash and burn tactics. The supply of good leaders is declining as conditions worsen. (See "Is There a Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship?" from NAESP.) This trend has been evident for more than a decade, but the adverse conditions imposed by NCLB will scare off many of the best young, upcoming leaders.
A favorite strategy of this conservative school of reformers is to lower the standards for school leadership so that prior teaching experience is waived and any manager of a Burger King, an unemployed accountant from Anderson or the director of a chicken packing plant may apply to run a school and guide reading improvement efforts.
These masters of top-down change hold to an unswerving and naive belief in the ability of business methods to turn around schools, even though many school leaders watch with dismay as those same business methods failed to save Enron, WorldCom and dozens of other companies whose failures stole millions from the pensions of teachers and other workers.