Thursday, April 27, 2006

We're Not Leaving You Behind, We're Just Making Sure You Get Lost In The Shuffle

Students at Stephen H. Clarke Academy, an elementary school over in Portsmouth, don't score very well on the state's standardized tests. Fortunately, the Superintendent of Portsmouth Public Schools has a plan to address this problem: close the school and send those kids to some other school. That should do the trick. Said the Superintendent, "If you have a school that's not functioning, you close it."

Um, you do? You don't want to, maybe, look into why the school's not functioning and, I don't know, do something about it? It makes more sense to just ship the struggling kids off to other schools and hope the change of scenery will somehow magically improve their test scores?

Actually, this is exactly what schools are encouraged to do under No Child Left Behind. Students at schools that don't make "adequate yearly progress" (as measured by standardized test scores) are given the option of transferring to a school that does. Ultimately, "failing" schools must shut down or face privatization.

Implicit in this approach is the idea that poor teachers or schools -- rather than the myriad of issues most struggling students face -- are responsible for low test scores. In reality, it's probably a combination of the two factors, heavily weighted to the student baggage side.

Any idea how easy it is to learn when the only meal you get each day is your federally subsidized school lunch? Or when your parents never read to you at home? Or when you have to miss class frequently to take care of your younger brothers and sisters? Or when you work over 40 hours a week to support your family?

There's a reason we don't find failing schools in affluent areas: affluence makes it pretty easy to focus on school. But shifting struggling students to more successful schools in more affluent areas doesn't change the fact that they are struggling, and it does nothing to address the issues that interfere with their ability to learn.

Clarke is located next to a public housing project. Almost 75% of its students live below the poverty line and therefore qualify for either free or reduced-price lunches. Sending them to a different school will not change that.

It will, however, make it fairly easy to trick us all into thinking you're looking out for their best interests and that you don't want them to get "left behind." After all, in your benevolence, you've rescued them from a "bad" school, swung them up into the saddle of your white horse, and transported them to a "good" school where all of their troubles will melt away.

No Child Left Behind, like many of BushCo's policy initiatives, is cleverly marketed bullshit. If you really want to ensure that public education does not fail a single American student you adequately fund public schools, for starters. If you're serious about not leaving any children behind, you do something to address the problems that make it difficult for them to succeed in school rather than shifting them to a school where their problems are less visible in the aggregate. But BushCo doesn't really want to ensure that public education not fail a single American student. BushCo wants to ensure that public education itself fails. That is why, if you visit the NCLB website, you'll find a lot of talk about "school choice."

The real goal of NCLB is to replace our current education system with a voucher system in which parents shop for schools just as they might shop for a car or a pair of tennis shoes. This sounds very democratic on the surface of things, but the reality is that school choice runs contrary to the democratic notions underlying public education. Students and their families are not consumers of a service called education. The primary mission of public education is to create citizens who will actively participate in our democratic system, and who will work for the common good. Essentially, public schools create the public. It is a public, community mission which cannot be accomplished by the private sector.

It all, of course, goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who drafted a "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" in 1779 and by 1786 believed that bill was "by far the most important bill in our whole code." Of it he wrote, "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness. . . .The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." In 1787 he urged his fellow politicians to "educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." In 1806, as President, Jefferson declared that "education is here placed among the articles of public care" and added that "a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation."

So. . .public education is good for democracy. No wonder BushCo is intent on destroying it.


Brian said...

And so reigns Capitalist America...forget about giving some of that government subsidized money to our schools, let's just give it all to Wal-Mart.

Melissa said...

I emailed Brian with my personal info so you guys can track me down when you get in the city. You are still coming, aren't you?!