students: the voices unheard

When it comes to education reform, we’ve heard opinions on the matter from politicians, from teachers, and from education departments across the nation. In the midst of this wrangling, however, is another voice – a voice oft ignored – and that’s the students’ voice.

Lost in the debate over how to turn so-called “failing” schools around is the students’ response to all these reforms and policies that they’re continually subject to as the powers that be search for the answer.

Consider a recent story about a troubled high school in Rhode Island, where the school superintendent decided to fire all of the school’s teachers. The situation is not as simple as it seems; the firings resulted from (1) failed negotiations between the teacher’s union and education officials – teachers in Central Falls High make more than the average teacher in Rhode Island, and (2) substandard performance.

Now, some may agree with this decision since the school is not doing well; President Obama himself acknowledged this decision as “an example of the need to hold failing schools accountable.”

Regardless of how one may feel about teacher’s unions, there are two huge problems with this. First off – teachers are not the sole determinant of a student’s success. Second – firing all the teachers also penalizes those who actually care about their students and foster learning in the classroom.

Is this truly a great example of “holding failing schools accountable?” Let’s consider the variables.

According to the article, Central Falls, RI has a greater concentration of poverty-stricken children than anywhere else in the state. This is significant because poverty itself places the students at a disadvantage; remember that poverty is more than limited income – it’s limited resources. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much headway on this front; research suggests the problem is not only underestimated, but rooted in our education system!

Moreover, what students and teachers had to say about the matter exposed other issues about student performance; among them (emphasis added by me):

…”Maybe we need to raise the bar, but we definitely don’t have an issue that requires firing everyone”…

…[Hope] Evanoff, who cried at the rally, said test scores have improved recently but still are an inadequate measure of student progress. She pointed out that some of her students work to support their families

…”They should probably buckle down on the rules, maybe be a little more strict”…

…”Where are the parents?” … “I think the parents are half responsible for what’s going on.”

Taking these quotes at face value (and the article has many other points), we see several other issues – namely:

  • Low standards (a problem not limited to Central Falls High),
  • Emphasis on testing as a barometer of student progress,
  • Pressure to study and support a family; remember that many of these students are in poverty,
  • Lax enforcement of rules; this may overlap with the problem of low standards, and
  • Lack of parental support – without an adequate support system, there is little incentive to succeed.

Is it fair to blame all these problems on the teachers? Methinks not, but who cares what the students, teachers, and parents think? After all, this is “an example of the need to hold failing schools accountable!”

That’s why I’ve always been critical of the No Child Left Behind law – the so-called “standards” it sets are farcical. To President Obama’s credit, he is proposing an overhaul of that very Act – and some of the provisions are promising!

Mayhap there’s hope for students like those of Central Falls after all – provided the Obama Administration doesn’t screw this up; I seriously hope they don’t screw this up!

Among Obama’s proposed NCLB reforms:

  • Changing the standard from “grade-level” skills in reading and math to preparing high school grads for college or a career.
  • Rather than punishing schools for failing to reach certain “benchmarks”, reward schools that make progress, especially in high-poverty areas (the worst 5% would still be “punished”).
  • Use other subjects (not just reading and math) to gauge student performance; this relaxes (somewhat) the focus on standardized reading/math scores as a barometer of student progress and marks a shift away from rudimentary learning.
  • Change the name of the law, to remove the negative stigma associated with “No Child Left Behind” (this provision is not significant in my opinion, but it’s interesting enough to merit a mention).

These provisions seem promising, but I certainly hope President Obama and co. take heed to what the students are saying. Methinks this is a step in the right direction, but the powers that be must recognize that the students’ voice cannot remain unheard – especially if they wish to see real improvements.

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