Coincidence? On a day when the New York Times reported that Education Secretary Arne Duncan might loosen states’ testing requirements mandated by No Child Left Behind, that newspaper also published an ad penned by Randi Weingarten decrying the burden of standardized testing.
Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, suggests that the testing demanded by No Child Left Behind and Duncan’s Race to the Top initiative is “driving everything from what subjects are taught, to how they are taught, to whether schools are closed, to how teachers are evaluated and compensated.” To accommodate the requirements, “curricula have been narrowed, test preparation has eaten into time for other instruction, and developing higher-order competencies has been sacrificed to fostering memorization and test-taking skills,” she says.
What the Bush-era program demands is that 100 percent of U.S. kids learn to read and perform basic math. What “competencies” could possibly be more important than that? The tragedy is that many of our kids are coming out of school unable to read and write. Sadly, Duncan appears ready to throw in the towel. Our top educator says that if these standards remain in place, some 80,000 of our nation’s 100,000 public schools will fail to meet them. Thus, he is considering allowing states to circumvent the requirement if Congress does not rewrite the law.
In other words, asking our public schools to make sure that all American kids can read and do simple math is too hard. One would hope this ambition – or at least some comparable hurdle -- would be non-negotiable. We are regularly reminded of the shortcomings of our education system. Just this week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History exam showed that only 9 percent of fourth graders could identify Abraham Lincoln from a photograph and recall two reasons he was important. Just 32 percent of eighth graders could recount how American Revolutionary troops conquered the British. They didn’t need to know names and dates of important battles –just some “advantages” held by our soldiers.
The answer from a teacher recently interviewed for Huffington Post about why our students are so dismally ignorant of history: They spend too much time prepping for those dreaded tests -- learning how to read and do math. Lee White, executive director of the National History Coalition, is also quoted, saying the history curriculum has been narrowed because of time needed to comply with NCLB. Narrowed to exclude Abraham Lincoln? One wonders how children will learn history if they can’t read.
There are, without a doubt, problems with NCLB, including widespread dissatisfaction with the role played by the federal government, and the rigidity of its mandates. But when the education establishment begins to attack the tests, as opposed to the outcomes, we should be wary. The Obama administration has initiated some excellent programs designed to increase the role of charter schools and the accountability of our teachers. That puts them at odds with the teachers unions, who champion the status quo.
Now that Obama is again running for office, he desperately needs the support of those powerful unions. The National Education Association – the country’s largest teachers union with more than three million members – will vote at its convention next month whether to endorse President Obama’s reelection bid. In 2008, that organization’s rank and file contributed $50 million to Obama’s campaign. Let’s hope support won’t come at the expense of education reform – or of attempts to pull more of our kids out of poverty. It is a disgrace if we leave even one child behind.
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