he response of the president of the state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, to the waiver granted Minnesota from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is unfortunately typical of the thinking of much of the education community.
Simply put, those charged with delivering public school education in Minnesota are relieved that they will not be held to the NCLB mandate (which came with increased federal funding) that by 2014 every child is supposed to test on grade level in reading and math. NCLB was passed in 2001.
Tom Dooher, the Education Minnesota president, says, “Instead we will switch to more realistic assessments based on multiple measures.” And he explains, “The waiver sets out a new and ambitious goal to reduce the achievement gap by half within six years, which we support.”
Then Dooher gets to the nut of the resistance to NCLB. “This is good news for Minnesota because we will no longer label our schools as failures based on the misguided criteria of No Child Left Behind.”
His reaction and those of educators all over the state beg the question: If our public schools have not been able teach our children to read and do math at grade level in thirteen years, what do they mean by “reducing the achievement gap,” and how can that be done in less than half the time.
The cynic in me (which many think is the greater part) fast forwards to the approaching deadline six years from now only to have the presidents of the U.S. and the teachers unions agree that they need a new plan, that six years was not enough time to reduce the achievement gap. An article in Friday’s New York Times cited 2008 studies that the achievement gap — the difference between students from the top half and bottom half of the socioeconomic spectrum — has grown by 40% since 1960. The gap between those same groups completing college has grown by 50% just since the late 1980s. The figures show that the gap is no longer characterized as between white students and those of color, but more accurately exists between kids of all colors.
If we can’t call parts our public education system and public education delivery a “failure,” then how do we explain the “failure” of those in the lower economic groups to learn and advance? Can we keep on blaming the parents of these kids, when the only reason we pay what we do for public education in this state and country is to offer all our citizens a level playing field in their education? Isn’t public education supposed to be the great leveler, the thing that will allow a kid with absolutely no family support (more and more no family at all) to become a functioning member of society, and experience success in life? Aren’t our school systems and teachers supposed to make up for the disadvantages these children bring to school?
Do we need a change in teacher training? Time after time, charter schools in large metro areas (New York, Chicago, Boston for instance), and individual teachers all over the country, have proved that indeed, with a concerted effort, the gap can be closed. But it means a change in teaching style, delivery, time spent with students, and teachers dedicated to change. We simply have not done that in Minnesota. In Winona, we leave the problem of the achievement gap to other government-funded programs such as Head Start, and private concerns, such as the Miller Mentoring program, which we are lucky to have.
But I think I know the reason we have not seen change from within the ranks, and I think it sits squarely on the teachers union. As Tom Dooher, the union president, wrote in his letter, “However, we’re concerned that goal [reducing achievement gap in six years] won’t be reached without serious new investments in public education, including for early childhood education, smaller class sizes and wrap-around services in our schools.”
They say public education is “all about the children,” but it sounds like it’s all about the money.
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Liked it but could have ended sooner. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. Loved it! Left Early Took the Dog, by Kate Atkinson. Great read.