As the 2008 presidential election nears, I was happy to see some of the candidates debating the "No Child Left Behind" law, and was pleased to see many of them in favor of its total elimination.
The debate made me reflect on the political whims in education since I first started teaching in the 1960s. States that cushion their school systems the most from political whims, usually with a strong state board that is allowed to run the state system, tend to have the best school systems. California has a history of political whims that swing both ways.
These swings lack the input of important experts classroom teachers and university researchers and are started by the drumbeat of politicians wanting to be elected.
In the 1960s, education in California embarked upon "new math" after someone in Sacramento thought it would be a good idea to teach first-graders algebraic equations, prior to students having a good understanding of basic number combinations. After a two-year plunge in math scores, the new math was dropped.
In the 1980s and 1990s, reading textbooks were either by phonics instruction or sight-reading. This was in spite of the fact that research showed that the best approach was a blend of both.
Today, the entire nation is in the grip of a political whim testing and more testing brought on by the NCLB law. All agree that reform is needed, but is testing educational reform? Has it changed how the public schools organize themselves, or the techniques and methodologies used? Testing is a way to gauge success or failure, but merely ordering improvement and testing does nothing.
California has taken an extra step on the testing merry-go-round with its high-school exit examination. Today, 11 percent of the population completes college. This 11 percent is more than adequate to fulfill our needs for college-educated workers, and few can dispute that our colleges turn out the best-educated in the world.
Unfortunately, this 11 percent sets the standard for testing for the other 89 percent with no interest in college. Have we met the needs of the 89 percent who want to be good citizens and trained to make a living after leaving high school? California has dismantled its vocational education programs in most high schools in the effort to prepare everyone for college!
Frequently, we are compared to other industrialized nations who also provide universal education. Unlike American schools, most of these other nations have two major differences that make comparisons difficult, but these differences might offer an improvement if adopted by the American system.
First, these schools have a relatively homogenous language base, making education much easier. Second, when the student reaches about age 12, many of these systems offer competitive testing that allows some students to attend traditional high school in preparation for college while others prepare for a vocational occupation.
Thus, when comparisons are made, students in traditional high schools in other industrial nations are only those students headed for college, compared to the universal mix of students in our American schools. That's hardly an equal comparison.
These comparisons may point out the need for another direction in American schools where more funds are spent on technical and vocational education.
High schools should organize into divisions devoted to fine arts, technical, agricultural, vocational, and college preparatory, each with its own standards, diplomas, and certifications leading to actual employment. Interest testing should occur in junior high schools to determine the interest of each child for proper high school placement, rather than at the end of the student's high school years.
We have spent the past seven years testing, testing, and testing. Where in the world did the NCLB law come from? Critics say this law was deliberately designed to cause school failure, because it sets impossible goals coupled with no funding.
Its design was a reaction to the failure in the 2000 elections of voucher proponents to pass initiatives in Michigan and California. Voucher initiatives failed by wide margins, even with massive funding. Hidden behind the rhetoric is a back-door effort to attack public education by labeling close to half of American schools as failures, and thus softening the voter for renewed efforts at privatization and vouchers for private schools.
A close look does reveal that impossible goals do exist. As required by NCLB, a one-size standard does not fit all. This law requires 100 percent of each student body to make adequate yearly progress. This includes all subgroups. Any school with high turnover rates, or limited-English-proficient or special-education students, will eventually be labeled a failure.
The NCLB mandates that 100 percent of all students be proficient in reading and math by around 2014. If not, those schools will be labeled as failures, subjected to restructuring, forced to send students to other schools, change curriculum, and possibly have a private company or the federal or state government take over.
Currently, they have failed to pay for the mandate, and it is doubtful they can pay for the unimaginable debt for noncompliance. It is imaginable to see bankruptcy, turmoil, and chaos for the schools as an end result of this ill-conceived legislation.
American universities need to be tasked to provide researched-based educational reform. Using research on how the human mind learns, teaching strategies and methodologies need to be developed in the university setting prior to be being tried on our students. Systematically, we need to improve our abilities to educate students.
You can't order improvement, then test to see if your order was carried out! It's time to dump the outdated NCLB law and focus on research-based educational reform, with the best and brightest teachers encouraged to teach in poor schools with federal stipends to increase the local salaries of these teachers.
But most importantly, Americans need to be proud of and view these teachers as our best teachers who are willing to meet society's needs in America's most challenging school systems.
Ken McCalip is a North Santa Barbara County native and a former principal and superintendent who holds bachelor and doctorate degrees in history, cultural geography, and law from various California universities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.