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Government & Politics        < Previous        Next >


Did School Restructuring of the 1990s Hurt or Help?


            Q. Seems like we keep spending more on our schools, and maybe getting a little less. I thought we just went through a lot of changes to try to turn that situation around. Doesn't look like it's made a dent in our problems. The achievement gap between the races and income levels seems to be widening, not narrowing, for example. Is this a case of the cure being worse than the disease?


You're probably right. Consider these factors in the widespread school "reform" and "restructuring" of the last several years:


• It's incredibly expensive. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or HR 6, the federal education reform bill, cost $9.6 billion in 1991. But President Bush's 2008 No Child Left Behind budget request was for $61 billion. And that doesn't count what's spent at the state level, and locally.


            • We're spending more and getting less: Nationwide, in the decade of the 1980s, school spending increased by 147 percent while enrollment went up only by 4 percent. Meanwhile, literacy is declining at a faster pace than any time in American history.


            • The federal government is getting more and more entrenched in educational decision-making and control, and that's contrary to the American system of highly-accountable, locally-run public schools. According to an article on Wikipedia about NCLBm federal funding for education has increased 59.8% from 2000 to 2003 alone.


            • Standards-based education steals time away from academics and divert it to nonacademic things that kids don't need anywhere near as much. The National Education Commission found that most American students spend 41 percent of their school day on core academic subjects. How do they spend the rest? On self-esteem building, multicultural education, diversity awareness, conflict resolution, drug education, sex education, manners education, and so on.


            • Curriculum is driven by tests, and tests are being dumbed down but made much more expensive with deceptive, subjective new types of assessment. The standards-driven tests mostly have to be hand-scored in a very time-consuming process, a key reason you may see your school district's testing budget going up by 50%. Goodbye, reliable and objective testing forms such as multiple-choice, T/F, fill-in-the-blank, and others. Hello, highly expensive and highly subjective (therefore easy to manipulate) forms of "assessment" such as performance-based (make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a science final exam), portfolio assessment (give a kid six or seven meaningful assignments per year and the rest of the time you can coast), criterion-based assessment (the dumber the questions, the better the students do), authentic assessment (if Johnny takes one month to do a project and Susie takes one day, they both get the same grade because they both got it done), and rubrics (rating a project on a scale of, say, 1 to 8, and one scorer's 8 might be another scorer's 3, but parents won't know because all they get is the score; they never see their child's work, much less the other children's).


            • Strongest students are hurt the most: studies show high-ability learners already know 35% to 50% of the curriculum on Day One of school. But standards-based education attempts to treat kids identically, so few, if any, adjustments are made in the curriculum for the brightest students. Districts are spending 10 times as much extra on special-education students as on gifted students. It's not unusual to have three-fourths of the student body "make" the Honor Roll — proof of grade inflation and dumbed-down curriculum. Nationwide, it is said that schools used to give out twice as many C's as A's. That ratio has reversed itself now. Teachers no longer hold student attention or respect because most kids will get an "A" anyway. If you bomb a test, no problem: you get to take it over. And the motivation to work hard and put more effort into school is greatly decreased, because no child is going to be left behind - but neither is any child going to be allowed to get ahead. Many school deformers say we ought to get rid of grades entirely because they make kids feel bad. But then we couldn't compare kids to each other — or teachers and schools to each other. Accountability would suffer every bit as much as student motivation.


            • Bright kids have to wait until ninth grade for differentiated curriculum. That's 'way, 'way too late, especially in light of recent brain research, which suggests schools are going at things bass-ackwards if they miss learning enrichment "windows of opportunity" in those early grades. That cortex is already pretty much built by high school, folks. In most schools, though, until you reach ninth grade, you are stuck with the regular class curriculum.


            • It's inefficient: Standards-based education is always packaged with "look-say" reading instruction —whole language. That's because the results are measurable and easier to assess because the vocabulary gain is tremendously controlled. NOT because it's a better reading method! Whole language has been shown to introduce 500 new words per year to a student. You teach them 500, and you test them on those 500. Sounds good. But with phonics instruction, kids learn 5,000 new words per year. That's ten times the learning. Not only that, but there's strong evidence to suggest that Whole Language methods create reading disabilities, the fastest growing segment of special education. Special education, in turn, is responsible for the lion's share of budget increases over the last few years. Therefore, the schools are creating the very "dysfunctions" that are costing us so much!


            • We're battling "The Blob" — incredible increases in non-instructional school staff as educators flail around trying to solve the Hydra's heads of new problems that are cropping up because of the many governmental mandates and overly-complex regulations and paperwork. There now are more non-classroom teachers than classroom teachers on the staff roster at many grade schools. Spending on administration and other non-teaching functions increased by 107 percent from 1960 to 1994, almost double the growth rate of per-pupil instructional expenses. Only 32.3 percent of expenses for New York City's high schools went for classroom instruction, a 1990 study found.


Homework: All of this can get pretty overwhelming. It's important to think about these changes and inform other parents and citizens . . . but the best thing you can do, probably, is make your child's education the best it can be, and try to make a difference for your child and your school.


By Susan Darst Williams • • Government & Politics 07 • © 2008



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