Sunday, June 12, 2005

Baby steps in education

Well, after a brief hiccup (it’s amazing how life can get in the way of posting—this is the naïve realization of a neophyte blogger you are witnessing here), I’m back and ready to blog. Good news comes today from the NYTimes that fifth graders in New York City’s public schools improved 19.5 percentage points in reading and 15.2 percentage points in math.

While the gains weren’t universal, and come tempered with news that eighth graders have fallen behind, significant progress was made in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods. How did this happen? While New Yorkers haven’t necessarily stopped griping about the upheaval caused by Bloomberg’s reforms of a couple years ago, the Times has a simple answer:

. . . in interviews at P.S. 45 and other schools across the city with large increases in test scores, principals, parents, superintendents, teachers and students offered this most basic explanation: They worked hard.

. . .

Principals and teachers described a relentless focus on literacy and math and a ceaseless scrutinizing of tests, quizzes and writing samples to understand which skills the students had mastered and which lessons had somehow fallen short.

We find cause to be a bit skeptical with this graph:

In part, the sharp increases reflect the way the tests are presented. The results focus on whether students are above or below grade level rather than on their underlying scores. In recent years, thousands of students had scored just below grade level, and this year many of them finally cleared the line.

Even so, something seems to have gone right.

. . . principals and other officials insist that this year's scores reflected real achievement, a result of increased spending on many initiatives. Some practices were new this year, like the Saturday classes in fifth grade. Other initiatives are nearly a decade old, like New York State's push to widen the availability of prekindergarten.

I don’t work in education, nor do I have kids in school. All I bring to bear is my experience as a public school student and what I’ve read about education reform. But it seems to me a shame that No Child Left Behind, which promulgated a mix of rigorous standards and increased, directed funding similar to Bloomberg's reforms, is in danger becoming another casualty of our polarized times. Complaints about “teaching to the test” and having less time to devote to art, music, science and other non-core areas miss a fundamental point. Don’t get me wrong—I think a well-rounded education is important, and my early music classes were an invaluable part of my overall education. But if a child gets to junior high and can’t read or do basic math, no amount of art and music instruction is going to give her a good life. We are dealing with children on (educational) life support here, and we’re discussing what flavor of toothpaste will encourage them to brush more. Amp up the defibrillator! Clear! We need to jolt some life back into the system. Holding students and teachers accountable to measurable standards, in schools that have been written off for decades, is half the solution. NCLB does this better than any plausible alternative. The other half of the solution is giving schools the money to institute the support programs needed to meet those standards. As long as Democrats are seizing on any opportunity to snipe NCLB, Republicans are happy to underfund it--what do they want with a well-funded, nationally standardized education system rammed down their throats from Washington, anyway?

But meanwhile, many public schools are, by any objective standard, in terrible shape:

. . . even with this year's unprecedented increases, only half the city's students were proficient in reading and math. In Grades 3 to 8, 51.8 percent performed at or above grade level in reading this year - demonstrating how far Mr. Bloomberg still has to go in his effort to fix the schools.

Regardless of what the best solution to these seemingly intractable problems is, I find it hard to believe anything will be solved while the decisionmaking class has absolutely nothing personally invested in seeing the worst public schools succeed. The first pundit or politician on the left or the right who sends their kid to P.S. 45 in Queens or another school like it will get my wholehearted support for whatever solution they advocate for the educational system. This is a statement I make with confidence because no one is going to take that step—anyone who can avoid it sends their kids elsewhere. We will know we are not consigning an entire segment of the population to the same shitty jobs, tenement houses, rapacious interest rates, and substance abuse that their parents lived through when sending your kids to public school in the inner city is not a laughable proposition. Proposals for reform ring hollow when they come from people to whom the results of any reforms don't matter because their kids aren't at risk.

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