Nation Topics - Education Policy
News and Features
The late John Rawls was, by all accounts, a remarkably modest and
generous person, much beloved by his friends and students, and
profoundly uninterested in the kinds of fame and celebrity perks
A year ago Congress overwhelmingly approved George W.
The New York City public school system doesn't have the money, time or
organizational skills to make sure every child has a dictionary--or a
When the New York City Board of Education called on public schools to
bring back the Pledge of Allegiance in the wake of 9/11, my daughter, a
freshman at Stuyvesant High, thought her big chance to protest had
finally come. Have you thought about what you'll say if you have to
justify not reciting it? I asked. "Sure," she replied. "I'll say,
there's such a thing as the First Amendment, you know--separation of
church and state? I mean, under God? Duh!" Judge Alfred Goodwin
of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet my Sophie, future
president of the ACLU if the punk-rock-guitarist plan doesn't work out.
Virtually every politician in the country has issued a press release
deploring Judge Goodwin's ruling that the words "under God" constituted
a coercive endorsement of religion. "Ridiculous!" said the President.
Tom Daschle led the Senate in a stampede to condemn the ruling 99 to 0,
after they recited the pledge together. The Times editorial
expressed the standard liberal line, mingling world-weariness and fear:
"under God" is a trivial matter, so why arouse the wrath of the mad
Christians? You can turn that argument around though--if it's so
trivial, why not do the right, constitutional thing? Let the
nonbelieving babies have their First Amendment bottle! The very fact
that the vast majority of Americans believe in God counts against
inserting expressions of religious faith into civic exercises for
kids--civil liberties are all about protecting unpopular minorities from
being steamrollered by the majority. The history of "under God" is not
very edifying or even very long: It was added to the original
pledge--written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist--by Congress in
1954 as a means "to deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of
communism." If that was the purpose, it worked. The new Evil Ones,
however, have no quarrel with being "under God"; it's the "liberty and
justice for all" they disapprove of. If we really want to drive them
nuts, we should change "under God" to "with equality between men and
women." Or better yet, retire the pledge as an exercise in groupthink
unbefitting a free people.
Something tells me we haven't seen the last classroom invocation of the
divine umbrella--Judge Goodwin has already stayed his own ruling--but
even if the decision is upheld, it's unfortunately the least significant
in a number of recent rulings about education. The Supreme Court
decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program is a real,
nonsymbolic triumph for organized religion, which stands to reap
millions of dollars in public funds, taken directly from the budgets of
the weakest school systems. Theoretically, your tax dollars can now
support the indoctrination of every crackpot religious idea from
creationism to stoning, with extra credit for attending rallies against
legal abortion and for the retention of "Judea" and "Samaria" as God's
gift to the Jewish people. What happened to e pluribus unum?
(Interestingly, as David Greenberg notes in Slate, e pluribus
unum was replaced as the national motto in 1956 by... In God We
Trust!) And what about that pesky First Amendment? Writing for the 5-4
majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that separation of church and
state is preserved because it is the parent, not the state, who actually
turns the voucher over to the religious school. By the same logic, why
not a health system in which patients get vouchers good for surgery or a
ticket to Lourdes?
The same day brought the Court's decision upholding random drug testing
of students who want to take part in after-school activities. Now
there's a great idea--take the kids who could really use something
productive to do with their afternoons, kids who, whatever mischief
they're up to, actually want to run track or sing in the chorus or work
on the yearbook, and don't let them do it! God forbid some 16-year-old
pothead should get a part in the drama club production of Arsenic and
Old Lace. The harm of the ruling isn't just that kids who do drugs
will now have yet more time on their hands and yet more reason to bond
with their fellow slackers, it's that everyone gets a lesson in
collective humiliation and authoritarianism--stoned or straight, the
principal can make you pee in a cup. Consider too that one-third of
schools now offer abstinence-only sex education, in which kids are told
that contraception doesn't work and having sex before marriage is likely
to be fatal--if the kids don't go to parochial school, apparently,
parochial school comes to them.
The prize for the worst school-related decision, though, has to go to
the panel of New York State appeals court judges that reversed Justice
Leland DeGrasse's brave and noble ruling invalidating the state's school
funding formula, which gives less money per child to New York City
schools despite the fact that city schools have disproportionate numbers
of poor and non-English-speaking children. According to Justice Alfred
Lerner, author of the court's majority opinion, the state is required to
provide its young only the equivalent of a middle-school
education--enough for them to sit on a jury, vote and hold down a menial
job. Anything more is optional and can be distributed at will. (Why not
let kids drop out after eighth grade, you may ask? Well, then they'd
miss abstinence classes and drug tests and reciting the Pledge of
Allegiance!) The world needs workers at the lowest levels, the judge
observes, so let the black and Hispanic kids of New York City be the
hewers of wood and drawers of water and flippers of burgers. Somebody's
got to do it--and it's a safe bet it won't be the judges' children.
Maybe the critical legal theorists are right and the law is merely a
form of words into which can be poured whatever meaning the ruling class
wants it to have. It's hard to understand in any other way the court's
willful misunderstandings of the actual conditions of city public
schools, so that they could respond to plaintiff's evidence of schools
with decades-old outmoded science textbooks by harrumphing that there's
nothing wrong with libraries full of "classics."
Children in New York City's public schools are being shortchanged--again.
As state budgets around the country are slashed to accommodate the expense of the war on terror, the pursuit of educational opportunity for all seems ever more elusive. While standardized tests are supposed to be used to diagnose problems and facilitate individual or institutional improvement, too often they have been used to close or penalize precisely the schools that most need help; or, results have been used to track students into separate programs that benefit the few but not the many. The implementation of gifted classes with better student-teacher ratios and more substantial resources often triggers an unhealthy and quite bitter competition for those unnaturally narrowed windows of opportunity. How much better it would be to have more public debate about why the pickings are so slim to begin with. In any event, it is no wonder there is such intense national anxiety just now, a fantastical hunger for children who speak in complete sentences by the age of six months.
A friend compares the tracking of students to the separation of altos from sopranos in a choir. But academic ability and/or intelligence is both spikier and more malleably constructed than such an analogy allows. Tracking students by separating the high notes from the low only works if the endgame is to teach all children the "Hallelujah Chorus." A system that teaches only the sopranos because no parent wants their child to be less than a diva is a system driven by the shortsightedness of narcissism. I think we make a well-rounded society the same way we make the best music: through the harmonic combination of differently pitched, but uniformly well-trained voices.
A parsimony of spirit haunts education policy, exacerbated by fear of the extremes. Under the stress of threatened budget cuts, people worry much more about providing lifeboats for the very top and containment for the "ineducable" rock bottom than they do about properly training the great masses of children, the vibrant, perfectly able middle who are capable of much more than most school systems offer. In addition, discussions of educational equality are skewed by conflation of behavioral problems with IQ, and learning disabilities with retardation. Repeatedly one hears complaints that you can't put a gifted child in a class full of unruly, noisy misfits and expect anyone to benefit. Most often it's a plea from a parent who desperately wants his or her child removed from a large oversubscribed classroom with a single, stressed teacher in an underfunded district and sent to the sanctuary of a nurturing bubble where peace reigns because there are twelve kids in a class with two specialists and everyone's riding the high of great expectations. But all children respond better in ordered, supportive environments; and all other investments being equal, gifted children are just as prone to behavior problems--and to learning disabilities--as any other part of the population. Nor should we confuse exceptional circumstances with behavior problems. The difficulty of engaging a child who's just spent the night in a homeless shelter, for example, is not productively treated as chiefly an issue of IQ.
The narrowing of access has often resulted in peculiar kinds of hairsplitting. When I was growing up, for example, Boston's Latin School was divided into two separate schools: one for boys and one for girls. Although the curriculum was identical and the admissions exam the same, there were some disparities: The girls' school was smaller and so could admit fewer students; and the science and sports facilities were inferior to those of the boys.
There was a successful lawsuit to integrate the two schools about twenty years ago, but then an odd thing happened. Instead of using the old girls' school for the middle school and the larger boys' school for the new upper school, as was originally suggested, the city decided to sever the two. The old boys' school retained the name Boston Latin, and the old girls' school--smaller, less-equipped--was reborn as Boston Latin Academy. The entrance exam is now administered so that those who score highest go to Boston Latin; the next cut down go to what is now, unnecessarily, known as the "less elite" Latin Academy.
One of the more direct consequences of this is that the new Boston Latin inherited an alumni endowment of $15 million dollars, much of it used to provide college scholarships. Latin Academy, on the other hand, inherited the revenue of the old Girls' Latin alumni association--something under $200,000. It seems odd: Students at both schools are tremendously talented, the cutoff between them based on fairly insignificant scoring differences. But rather than pool the resources of the combined facilities--thus maximizing educational opportunity, in particular funding for college--the resolution of the pre-existing gender inequality almost purposefully reinscribed that inequality as one driven by wealth and class.
There are good models of what is possible. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is considered "advanced" by most American standards, is administered to a far wider range of students in Europe than here, with the result that their norm is considerably higher than ours in a number of areas. The University of Chicago's School Mathematics Project, originally developed for gifted students at the Chicago Lab School, is now recommended for all children--all children, as the foreword to its textbooks says, can "learn more and do more than was thought to be possible ten or twenty years ago." And educator Marva Collins's widely praised curriculum for inner-city elementary schools includes reading Shakespeare.
Imparting higher levels of content requires nothing exceptional but rather normal, more-or-less stable children, taught in small classes by well-trained, well-mentored teachers who have a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and literature themselves. It will pay us, I think, to stop configuring education as a battle of the geniuses against the uncivilized. We are a wealthy nation chock-full of those normal, more-or-less stable children. The military should not be the only institution that teaches them to be all that they can be.
While most of the media focused, with good reason, on the huge increase in military spending and dramatic cuts in domestic programs in President Bush's $2.1 trillion budget proposal for 2003, a fe
The new education law is a victory for Bush--and for his corporate allies.
Democrats and Republicans alike are claiming the education bill as a victory. The national testing plan--mandating annual tests in grades three through eight, plus one in high school--is a significant departure from the past. As right-wing pundit Chester Finn once observed, liberals have traditionally hated the word "testing" and conservatives have hated the word "national." But old principles gave way to current political imperatives. Democrats seized on words like "accountability" and Republicans armed themselves with "compassion."
The bill is not, however, a victory for children in public schools, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that poor and minority children are hurt the most by an excessive reliance on high-stakes testing--in which performance on standardized tests determines promotion to the next grade, graduation or even the survival of the school. High-stakes tests are associated with high dropout rates, an escalating problem among African-American boys. Exams alone don't motivate struggling students and can even have the opposite effect, according to a Boston College study.
What students need are tests that truly measure how well schools are teaching basic skills, accompanied by constructive responses to weak points--tutoring, after-school programs that go beyond remediation, summer school (when necessary) that does more than rehash the year's curriculum and, above all, expertly trained, decently paid teachers for all our schools, especially those serving a high concentration of poor students. The education bill emerging from Congress guarantees none of those things. Instead, failing schools receive as little as one year of technical assistance, and students get tutoring and transportation subsidies to attend another school; within five years the failing school could face total "reconstitution," meaning the staff would be fired.
A critical difference between the House and Senate bills is the method of measuring school success. The House would require schools to break out test scores by race, exposing schools where well-off white students are thriving while minority kids are stuck in the low-performing track (the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that Bush is fond of lamenting); the Senate lets schools average their test scores, masking any racial achievement gap. Bush is under intense pressure from the Republican-dominated National Governors Association--conservative governors fear having to pour resources into schools revealed to be neglecting their minority students--to support the Senate's version on this point.
Ted Kennedy and the other Senate liberals hailing the education bill as a triumph focus on the dollar signs. They can claim that the Senate bill authorizes $33 billion--including more money for teacher training, improving school buildings and programs for disabled and immigrant children--versus Bush's $19 billion and the House's $24 billion. But even the Senate figure falls woefully short, and getting the funds appropriated down the road will entail a messy fight, given the promised tax cuts. That inconvenient fact could spoil the bipartisan fun.