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Julia Steiny: 2014 – When All Students Were Supposed To Be Equal

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

 

NCLB requires states, schools, and school districts, to ensure all students are proficient in grade-level reading and math by 2014.

In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break. I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, "Not statistically possible!"

I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.

He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure. While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn't lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they'd all be "proficient," per the mandate of the new federal law. Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all? He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests. He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures. Cheek he had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership. But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions. Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone's best work.

I wasn't taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, "And you can quote me."

So here we are: 2014. My, how time flies. What did we learn?

I learned two things. The first is that having good data is really useful. The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against. (They were.) NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity. If you know what you're doing, "anchoring" statistics can verify the quality of statistics. All facts are friendly. Having good facts helps us help kids.

Ah, but do we actually want to help children? I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we'll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement. Won't happen.

Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014. But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law. As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems. We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can't somehow beat their badness out of them.

Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits. Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever. There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors. No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.

Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they're producing such bad results. Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed. For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults. When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.

Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet "F." Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds -- for the free-lunch kids -- to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies. NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn't get chewed up in the process.

Such mean behavior isn't built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement. Let's see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.

Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids. How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become "globally competitive" is an adult wish? What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help -- long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland. Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an "F" when they deserve one. But they don't need punishment. And neither do the schools.

It's 2014, and the kids aren't in significantly better shape than they were in 2001. They didn't become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep. Punishment didn't work. It was a dismal failure. In 2014, the question before us is: what will work? Only, let's be honest this time.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


Related Slideshow:
RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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Sasse

"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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Sasse

"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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Sasse

"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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Metcalfe

"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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Metcalfe

"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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Metcalfe

"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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Cano-Morales

"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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Cano-Morales

"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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Cano-Morales

"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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Duffy

"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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Duffy

"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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Duffy

"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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Cylke

"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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Cylke

"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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Cylke

"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."

 
 

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Comments:

lupe fiasco

Same old shit I don't know who's worse, but i'm surely getting sick of Sasse, nothing new here Gary.

Gary Arnold

Julia, you pointed out the problems but left out the solutions. If waiting another 10-15 years to see how the Common Core works out is a solution, sounds like education as usual. Our student population is getting less education over the last 40 or more years. Come on, can't anyone see that the monopoly money mentality of the school districts and school committees is not working. Why haven't teachers been put to the task of specifying how they can turn education around to produce better results? Give them the responsibility to set the solutions, results and share in the success. Now teachers hide behind contracts that are negotiated by unions and school committees who are made up mostly by ex teachers (that's a clouded vision problem).
Simplify what RI has to do by spending time studying what MA does and duplicate it.

Julia Steiny

Of course, a study of MA's efforts will quickly discover an enormous infusion of dollars as they began their transformation. And actually, while I think the Common Core is far from perfect, it is a great place to start working on identifying what every child should know, At LEAST. People talk about it dumbing down, but I'm thinking that any system can and should accelerate kids as needed. But only the wealthy systems are getting most kids AT LEAST a basic education. NCLB let everyone define that as they would. Common Core, as we discuss it over time, will define it commonly. So, it's not a solution, like a panacea. But, along with RTI and discipline systems that teach social-emotional skills instead of punishment, we might get a collective effect.




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