Monday, March 3, 2008

Inadequate National Progress: A Good Idea Gone Bad

All partisan politics aside, the idea of No Child Left Behind was sound. That we should, as a country, take responsibility for the fact that we are slipping behind the rest of the first world (and a fair bit of the developing world’s up-and-comers) in just about every important way possible is a huge step forward. Our competent literacy rate is falling. Scientifically, we are in the last legs of the race towards progress. The blame for this has fallen solely where it should: our lacking educational system.

How is it in a place where every child can use a computer virtually from birth, allowing access to the boundless knowledge and international connectivity of the internet, that we are creating generations of people for whom reading is a trial and math beyond basic arithmetic is viewed with core-deep anxiety? Surely something must be wrong. We’ve ceased seeing scholastic achievement as a goal unto itself. Rather, we choose now to view it as simply a stepping stone to a greater purpose, the pursuit of the crumbling American dream of wealth and happiness.

The purpose of NCLB, then, was ostensibly to refocus the American viewpoint onto the education system that was churning out year after year of graduating seniors who could barely read past a sixth grade level. It created a long-term plan for the bettering of the American education system by gradually increasing the standards to be met each year. The accountability to which teachers and administrators once held themselves was now coming from an outside source. There were real stakes, everything from the loss of already insufficient funding to the outright loss of employment, threats veiled thinly behind the word “restructuring.”

The idea, that if teachers and administrators were held responsible for the failings of their students academic careers, was a good one. But, as with many of the government’s ideas, insight faltered as it made the transition from inspiration to implementation. Rather than creating a truly innovative, fresh way of approaching the problem, the administration chose instead to recycle old ideas in an attempt to squeeze from fruit which had already proven to be rotten fresh juice.

Though the Constitution lays the responsibility for the funding of public education on the shoulders of the individual states, the federal government has long since has a financial stake, if arguably a shamefully small one, in the system. Of course, as with all things political, the agenda of each regime is definitely reflected in the strings attached to this money, but that’s a different essay altogether. The problem here with NCLB is that it seeks increased accountability from the schools without giving them the two things which would all but guarantee the program’s success.

First, the only incentive educators have to meet the criteria is that if they do, they won’t lose money or employment. And before you say that it’s the nature of the job, that the well-being of the students should be enough, when was the last time you put in extra effort every day at your job with no prospect for a reward. There is no hope in the program that, should a school succeed, they will receive a larger portion of the government’s pie. No, that sort of incentive is reserved for military and petroleum contractors, not educators. Instead, they are told they must make do with the same budget they’ve always had, or less, as has been the recent trend, and make more from it. As any teacher will happily point out, you can want two and two to make five all day, but it never will.

Second, the measurement of success itself is gauged by one of the most notoriously inaccurate assessment methods in education: standardized testing. Having been assailed since it began to see widespread use for everything from racism to sexism to simple inability to accurately measure the abilities of those it seeks to measure, standardized testing is, as a whole, an archaic means of determining the relative achievement levels and progress of students. Think back to your own ACT or SAT experience and how little of what was really important to your college experience it took into account.

So why do we continue to rely so heavily on these tests? The reason, as always, is almost purely financial. Standardized testing is cheap, fast, and a fairly accurate way to create some really nice-looking, if ineffectual, statistics to placate voters and taxpayers. The problem, though, is that it fails to measure the most important factor in a child’s future success, the ability to think. Standardized testing measures the child’s grasp of facts and his or her ability to regurgitate them upon command in an atmosphere so fraught with anxiety that it’s been known to induce vomiting and panic attacks in fourth graders. It fails to take into account any of the higher order thinking skills which any educator will agree are the true foundations of progress and the hallmarks of a real education.

In the light of all this, where does the solution lie? How do we remain competitive in a world we no longer dominate? It’s actually easier than it seems. Rather than dictating the standards which a school must meet and expecting it to do so with no incentive, we provide incentive. The sum total of what we gave Halliburton alone last year in defense contracts could easily put the American education system not only in the running with other nations, but help us very quickly re-take our status as first of the first world nations. The priorities of the country must, if we are to survive as a nation, shift from making the next dollar to making the next generation.

Finally, we must learn to let go of our personal political stances in favor of the bigger picture. The future of this country is something which impacts each and every one of us, and it will only be a bright one if we all take some responsibility for the direction in which it’s headed. It’s all fine and good to write your representatives in government, but if you really want to make a stand for our children, our future, get out there and make a difference. Vote, make yourselves heard where it counts to those at the top. Show them that teachers are not the only ones who should be held accountable for the horrendous state of the American education system.

After that, take a good hard look at what you do to help your children learn to value education (every time you scoff at the idea of reading a book, you teach your child that reading is not of any real value) or how much you’ve done to help the schools in your district. The future, as always, will be determined by the actions of those living in the present.