Education Reform requires Getting the Fed Out

By Mark Storer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Published in the Ventura County Star, January 20, 2008

The Pleasant Valley School District has its hands full. It is the school district where my daughter attends first grade. It is also the district where the school board, plagued by bad decisions that have led to low teacher pay, school closures and defections and firings from the top on down, has steadfastly sought to create a K-12 system at the apparent expense of creating a positive educational atmosphere.

But, realistically, it is symptomatic of a larger problem. The apparent destruction of public education precisely because of the abundance and diversity within American society has caused a sea change in communities across the country. No longer do you hear, “Education in this country is falling apart, but we like our neighborhood school.” Instead, the first part of the statement ends the sentence.

The Pleasant Valley School District does very well on its yearly tests with schools scoring regularly well above 800, a leading indicator of success for the No Child Left Behind Act. But the district’s desire to conform to a K-12 system so that it can be more in line with most of the rest of the state of California has created a scorched-earth policy. The district is sacrificing its local community identity to be more like “every other school,” even when doing so means radically altering the apparent success it is achieving. One wonders what it wants more — success on the state tests or to be a K-12 district. The three private schools in the community have reportedly been fielding three times the number of phone calls from parents now interested in their programs. The initial success of breakaway charter school, Camarillo Academy for Progressive Education, a former PVSD open-school program, has parents smiling in vindication as they thumb their noses at the PVSD board. They no longer feel comfortable with their children in the district where political chaos reigns. CAPE is proof of what happens when a community of committed, caring parents demands better for their children.

Many in the media and in politics would have us believe that NCLB has been a boon. If indeed it is working, then why are so many “report cards” like the National Association for Educational Progress showing that reading scores and math scores are down?

The problem stems from a government, in this case a Republican administration, that makes it more controversial, that has grown the federal Department of Education beyond what President Carter, the department’s founder, ever hoped for. The testing regime put into place by NCLB proves nothing so much as one thing: If teachers teach to the test, kids will do well on it. President Bush even made light of this and discussed it in his 2001 State of the Union Address and the message was clear: All schools must conform to the one-size-fits-all schooling of the NCLB.

But, no amount of multiple-choice testing prepares a student for college and, with the stakes so high, teachers are forced to spend less time on things like writing essays and delving into research in favor of “daily lesson plans” that essentially get students to learn by rote. It’s no wonder that for all of its so-called success, NCLB has not changed a fundamental indicator of academic prowess — the number of public school students who graduate from college has remained largely unchanged since NCLB was implemented.

In fact, other than a demand for high-stakes nationalized testing, not much else has changed in public education. The school calendar remains largely the same, if somewhat adapted by school districts that run a so-called “year round program.” Even so, those districts get long vacations; they just scatter them throughout the year. Accountability is never discussed as it pertains to parents and students, only teachers. Textbooks remain woefully inadequate to the dynamics of subjects like history and literature and teacher unions remain entrenched in politics, fighting to keep congressional support for the status quo.

Meanwhile, the complaints about NCLB are largely true — it is essentially an unfunded mandate in which every school district in America is compelled to meet the federal government’s requirements, regardless of funding, student population, etc. If a community like mine decides it wants a structured school, it works with the school board to create that. But if the structured school does not conform with the federal guidelines precisely, then no matter what the community wants, the board cannot make it happen. Bush said in that same State of the Union speech that he did not want to run public schools from Washington. In essence, though, that is exactly what is happening.

This is why one radical reform that has been mentioned before by better people than me deserves revisiting.

The question of whether or not the federal government should have any real role in education is a valid one. People on both the left and right have indeed discussed and even agreed that in a society as large and diverse as ours, education is more a function of a local community than it is of the federal government. Indeed, charter, voucher and private schools are often touted as the best examples of quality education, and home-schooling is becoming more popular. These are not fads, but actual examples of how parents, teachers, students and communities come together to create quality educational experiences that do not rely totally on data, standardized tests and one-size-fits-all teaching.

The constant theme is that our schools are failing and that, even though there is some “promising data” from NCLB, we are in danger of falling drastically behind academically in America. In light of this, is there anyone out there who believes that the solution to the problem is seriously more federal control?

— Mark Storer of Camarillo is a public school teacher.

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