Restructuring of the 1990s Hurt or Help?
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
You're probably right. Consider these factors in the
widespread school "reform" and "restructuring" of the last several years:
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
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.