Thursday, November 30, 2006

Required Education Reading - higher or lower standards?

"What It Takes to Make a Student" is an outstanding piece of work by Paul Tough in last Sunday's NY Times. It is worth the read. Fascinating from top to bottom.

Tough starts with a look at audacious goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to remove the achievement gap between minority/poor students and middle-class, white students. He lays the groundwork with an overview of the research about children's upbringing and how it relates to their educational achievement. No big surprise, children of poorer parents start school behind their richer peers because the richer parents treat their kids fundamentally different than poorer parents. "In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace"

Tough then moves to what must be done to help minority and poorer students achieve. He highlights the efforts by several publicly-funded charter schools. Overall, they do a lot better than their public school counterparts. The secret lies in the schools' counterintuitive combination of touchy-feely idealism and intense discipline.

Finally, Tough moves to discuss how states are dealing with the demands of NCLB. While charter schools are successful because of higher standards, states are moving the other direction. Unfortunately, "the most malignant element of the original law was that it required all states to achieve proficiency but then allowed each state to define proficiency for itself. It took state governments a couple of years to realize just what that meant, but now they have caught on — and many of them are engaged in an ignoble competition to see which state can demand the least of its students...Arizona, Maryland, Ohio, North Dakota and Idaho all followed Mississippi’s lead and slashed their standards in order to allow themselves to label uneducated students educated"

Washington State is following suit. Gov. Christine Gregoire and Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson have proposed delaying a requirement that students pass a statewide math test in order to graduate from high school and the state Board of Education on Tuesday approved delaying that requirement. There are answers to solving the achievement gap, but will cost money.

Which political leaders will expend their political capital on fixing it?

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