Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No Child Left Behind Act and WASL will leave kids behind

Guest Commentary by Joe Guppy, The Seattle P.I. Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I leave tomorrow for two and a half weeks to see my folks back east among other things. Summer is not proving the most productive time for writing in this blog, sorry. Maybe I'll be ready to roll when I get back. Anyway, there's this perspective from a therapist in Seattle.

A few weeks ago I sat in the Seahawks football stadium watching my nephew graduate from high school. He was one of the notorious Garfield 44, the record-breaking 44 valedictorians from Garfield this year. I felt a quasi-parental pride as he stepped to the microphone and -- in a voice deeper than I remember -- delivered with conviction a quotation from John Wooden about the value of generosity toward others.

I also felt pride in the diversity among the graduates and the crowd. It was inspiring when society seems to be growing ever more divisive to see a unified celebration of youthful achievement. But as each member of the entire class of 400-plus came forward to accept diplomas, and as the cheering of family and friends rose up from different sections of the stadium, I thought:

How many of these graduates would not be here if the rigid WASL test graduation requirements were in place now, instead of in three years? How many of these whooping and hollering families would instead be struggling with a child who had dropped out of high school, stigmatized as a "failure"? How many younger brothers and sisters will not join their siblings as high school grads?

Over the past four years, I've gotten to know many of the students who are likely to be left behind by the No Child Left Behind Act. I ran a teen anger management group at a Seattle-area community agency, working with students who struggle with the pressures of a society in which to be average is considered failure, and to be below average is to be considered worthless.

I remember one young man who was passionate about working on cars but had difficulty with traditional academics. What troubles me is not that we would want him to graduate high school with minimum competence in basic reading and math, but that he had obviously picked up the dominant social attitude that gives little dignity and respect to an ordinary working-class life.

Beneath the stories of anger, fights, shoplifting and drug abuse, I always see in these kids a deep shame. We do not give them dignified options, and instead they turn to an identity that offers them respect within an alternative society -- the "gangster" or "outlaw" culture.

We need to return to the values embodied by my father, a first-generation American whose parents were from England and Australia. During World War I, my grandfather jumped ship in Canada, illegally crossed the U.S. border and joined the U.S. Army to gain citizenship. He was a house painter with an eighth-grade education. My father earned a Ph.D. and became a top academic officer at Seattle University, but he never gave even a hint that his "career" was of greater value than his father's "job." Perhaps this comes out of the Depression, when any employment was valued and honorable. And he passed this on to his five sons. Some of us hold more working-class jobs and others have advanced degrees, but we know that we all have equal dignity.

Even though most of the teens in my anger management group had been kicked out of various classrooms throughout their school careers, the vast majority completed 10 required sessions and left with new skills and, I believe, a greater sense of self-worth. Each teen who finished the program got a "graduation ceremony" in which I gave them a completion certificate and offered "the traditional ceremonial handshake." On one occasion, the rest of the group spontaneously burst into a rather humorous rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance."

I fear that fewer of these troubled kids will be hearing that song at their own high school graduation ceremonies in the future.

Joe Guppy is a therapist in private practice in Seattle.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Let's Pretend To Improve Education --

Well, my in-laws left today but we leave in 10 days to visit my folks for two and a half weeks. The computer is in the spare room so I will have some time for the next ten days to comment, now that it is free. Here is a gem from the tiny town of Newtown Ct.

By William A. Collins

Testing's not,

The only tool;

To get our kids,

To finish school.

With even right-wing Utah now railing against No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that meanspirited law can't claim many adherents anywhere anymore. Outside Washington, it's a joke. The president coveted such a scheme as his personal education legacy, and as a sop to his private school supporters. Thus, we remain stuck with it against all appeals to reason.

But if Nutmeggers are certain in their negative views of NCLB, they are less certain about almost every other aspect of education. What, for example, should we do about dropouts? Approximately a third of our kids still don't graduate from high school. And what about racial isolation? Our schools are more segregated now than before Brown v. Board of Education.

Well, if the truth were known, we citizens don't actually care that much about graduation rates and segregation. As long as our own kid graduates and gets into college, what's the problem? And maybe segregation even helps. It's mostly minority and poor kids who falter in school and make it harder for ours kids to learn. Most Nutmeggers therefore aren't going to lose a lot of sleep if zoning laws and real estate prices keep those bad influences bottled up in just a few towns.

Well aware of this unspoken dynamic, local politicians often focus their education platforms instead on simply getting more money from the state for their own town. No one ever lost an election doing that. And that money, if received, is generally aimed at reducing taxes, not reducing dropouts.

In fact, most of us are pretty darn happy with our schools just the way they are. Connecticut's blessed home rule legacy from colonial times allows every village to have its own fiercely independent school district, about 135 in all that allows us to keep out the riff-raff. These districts perform very well indeed and have put our state high up in the national rankings. However, if you can't afford to live in one of those snazzy towns, and can't afford private school either, then your kid is just going to have to muddle through in a more marginal system. Sorry.

Educators are naturally well aware of all this and do the best they can to cope. Those in low-income districts seek funding for magnet schools, charter schools, after-school programs, breakfasts, tutors, Saturday academies, and what-have-you. They often shell out their own cash to buy classroom supplies, and they work overtime to help troubled kids. But they're all stopgaps.

Now some in Connecticut are looking at Maryland as a model. It's a state noted for public school reform. But not all those reforms would be popular here. One is the spending of a lot more money. You can imagine how well that idea would sell in our capitol. Another is reducing the number of school districts. Maryland has only 23, thus throwing lots of rich and poor towns in together. Good luck.

The ultimate solution, of course is one that all professionals understand. Unfortunately, it flies in the face of the great American concept of self-reliance. The idea would be to put all pupils on an equal footing long before they ever set foot in a classroom. Its elements involve such heretical notions as a universal living wage, prenatal care, postnatal care, health insurance, decent housing, adequate food, day care, preschool, public transportation, and other common aspects of civilized life.

Worse luck, it probably only weakens the case for this approach to point out that most European countries already do it. America doesn't have much truck with Europe these days. But we should nonetheless grasp in our own minds the reality of this fundamental cure for crummy school performance. That understanding at least helps protect us against politicians selling educational snake oil.

(Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Joshua Benton: Can cash buy good schools?

I'm back, temporarily at least. My new roof is on and now my in-laws are here for a visit. They will leave on the 10th but then I will go to visit my folks, and others for three weeks toward the end of July. For now here is an interesting article from the Dallas Morning News.

An interesting new study by two University of Illinois researchers seems to indicate it often isn't. And it gives further evidence that many folks can't spot a "good" school when they see one.

"More often than not when people try to judge the quality of schools, they look at who is walking in the doors of that school, not what the school is doing with them once they're there," said Chris Lubienski, co-author of the study with his wife and fellow professor, Sarah.

Their study looks at math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is the big federal test whose results researchers love to slice and dice, since it includes scores and demographic data for tens of thousands of students.

When NAEP scores are reported, they always show private-school students outperforming their peers in public school. It's been a consistent finding for decades.

But the Lubienskis were curious. Is that because private schools are really better? Or is it just because they generally enroll wealthier, better-prepared students?

So they built a way to try to remove social class as a factor. They gathered up data on the students taking the test. Were they poor enough to qualify for free school lunch? Did they have a computer at home? Did their parents graduate from college, or did they drop out of high school? They then compared how public and private schools fared when these socioeconomic factors were stripped away.

They found that, at all class levels, public schools had a small but consistent edge over privates. Their suspicions were supported by the numbers: The reason private schools look better on paper is because they serve more middle- and upper-class kids.

Or, to be even plainer: Poor kids in public schools did better than poor kids in private schools. Middle-class kids in public schools did better than middle-class kids in private schools. And rich kids in public schools did better than rich kids in private schools.

"All kids can learn" is a nice idea, and "no child left behind" is a nice slogan. But kids who come from poor, literacy-starved homes start school so far behind better-off suburbanites that the gap isn't closable on any large scale. Dallas ISD could corner the market on the world's best teachers and its test scores still wouldn't beat Highland Park's.

I once heard a researcher say that if you want to eliminate the achievement gap in American schools, the answer was simple: Just end poverty. Good luck with that.

There's more but this is a study that shows once again that in education things are not as black and white as our leaders would have us believe.