Thursday, August 18, 2005

a public question

New York City Mayoral candidate Gifford Miller came under fire in a recent televised debate when asked whether he would send his young children to public school. He punted on the issue, eliciting boos from the audience, and then became visibly defensive. The NYTimes reports on some follow-up comments from Miller:

Mr. Miller, who attended the St. Bernard's all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, said yesterday that his school choice for his children should not be a campaign issue.

"My kids' education is a private decision, not one I make as part of the campaign or as part of a public pronouncement," he said.

Basically, there are two education systems in this country: a system that works and one that doesn't. Those who have the benefit of the functioning system often achieve economic success, and pass the benefit of a good education to their children, who pass it on to theirs. The efficiency of the system that works and the dysfunctionality of the one that doesn't means that class mobility is now lower here than in Europe. Until the beneficiaries of the system that works put real time and energy into the system that doesn't, it will remain a non-working system. When wealthy politicians start putting their kids into public schools, they then have a real incentive to take steps to unite the two disparate systems into a single system that works for everyone.

I appreciate the dilemma that Miller faces—sacrificing the well-being of his own children in a very real way vs. adding incrementally to the general well-being of poor children in New York City. The current middle to upper-class liberal approach seems to be "let's work on making public schools better, but in the meantime, I'll make sure my kid has the best education money can buy." This is an understandable position to take, but "in the meantime" seems to have dragged on for several decades without much improvement in the public schools. We should have learned a long time ago that "separate but equal" is not a workable solution to any problem.

I think this is very much a legitimate campaign issue, but it shouldn't be limited to politicians. Any liberal parents with money should ask themselves not only "Where will my children attend school?" but "How can I support an unjust system given my political beliefs?"

On a related note, many people should reevaluate the No Child Left Behind act and similar state initiatives to implement rigorous public education reforms. Outside of suburbia, the public education system is broken. Poverty and inadequate education reinforce each other in a persistent cycle of despair. Strengthening education gives people the tools they need to rise out of poverty. NCLB is the best, most realistic shot we are likely to have at fixing the public education system for the next 10-20 years. Arguing simultaneously that NCLB is underfunded and unworkable is contradictory and counterproductive. It allows the administration to take the moral high ground on reform while quietly diverting resources away from education. We have to find a way to bring teachers on board, and the system does need more money. But opposing NCLB simply because it was a Bush initiative ends up sabotaging reform. The problem of bad schools isn't going to go away on its own.


Michael said...

I generally agree with you on most political issues. But on this one I have to take issue. No child left behind does the very thing it says it won't, it leaves children behind. It is a faulty program. Let me give you an example. A gifted child that has a lot of promise and ability in any certain subject in school, but has a learning disability like ADHD might and probably will get left behind with NCLB. The truth is that everyone is unique and learns in their own unique way. I don't like the terem learning disability because in reality in most situations it's not a disability at all, it just means that the individual with the disability learns differently than the public wants to teach. Currently the system NCLB as I understand it tests in each of the subjects and has a minimum requirment that each child must pass in order to make it to the next grade. That might be a good system if everybody learned the same way, but since we all learn differently we should definetely not be tested the same way or graded the same way. There are children who learn the material just as well or better than anyone else in the class but do poorly with grades and tests because they don't express their knowlege the same way. With NCLB children who do poorly with the current way we grade and test in this country, but are very intelligent, will be left behind even though they know the material just as well as anyone else in their peer group. I am not against NCLB because of George Bush, I am against it because it will leave my children and countless others behind. If this system was in place when I was growing up I would have been left behind, and I certainly consider myself to have as much or more knowlege about the important things in life than the rest of my graduating classmates.

I agree that we need to fix the education in this country, but NCLB is not the way to go about it. In Europe, while far from perfect, they at least notice what areas each child is good at and when they get to be at our country's high school age they put their children in apprentice-like programs where they can learn and succeed in the way they naturally can. I see faults with that system as well, but I have to believe that there is something better than NCLB.

Yave said...

On the students with disabilities issue, that has been one of the most criticized aspects of NCLB. I agree that disabled kids shouldn't be held to the same standards as everyone else--but neither should they be held to no standards at all. Ideally, schools would have more flexibility to tailor standards and teaching methods to disabled kids. In May, the Dept. of Education modified the Annual Yearly Progress requirements of NCLB to do exactly that.
I don't know if they went far enough--it doesn't seem like it from a quick read of the press release. But torpedoing all of NCLB simply because it needs tinkering with regard to disabled students does not seem to me a productive approach.

On the broader issue you touch upon, if I understand you correctly, on whether to teach kids to universal defined standards or whether to tailor the education more to the individual, allowing more leeway and flexibility in teaching, I don't have an easy answer. I guess I'd say a committed, creative teacher, given a student willing to learn, could manage to impart knowledge testable to certain objective standards AND do it in a fun and interesting way that makes sense to the kid. Yes, there are problems with putting kids and teachers in the straightjacket of standardized testing. But it's not as if students in schools that are failing NCLB benchmarks badly are getting a nurturing, creative, unorthodox education tailored to their individual needs. No, many of them are stuck with crappy, underpaid teachers in barely functioning classrooms. The kids in the private schools with the more flexible teaching approaches could also pass NCLB AYP standards with flying colors (much of it due to factors outside the school, but much of it due to teachers who care and know what they're doing). As far as imparting objectively testable knowledge and teaching according to individual needs, it's not an either/or proposition.

Also I think kids need to learn about a lot of different things--math and science and English and history, etc. I think slapping 2/3 of kids in vocational programs in the eighth grade or whatever they do in Europe shortchanges a lot of kids. This is already superlong, so I'll stop now.