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John Merrow

John Merrow

Posted: March 16, 2011 01:39 PM

As NCLB Comes Under Consideration, We Need to Value Teachers More


American public education remains front and center, which is mostly good news. Let me start this "news summary" in Washington, DC, where President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for fundamental changes in the law known as No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration's version of Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No Child Left Behind

I doubt you could find more than a handful of educators who like NCLB these days, but whether anyone in the nation's capital will be able to agree on what a new version should call for is highly questionable.

To recap the law's flaws would take a long time; Learning Matters produced an award-winning series on it a few years ago, which you can see here. In my view, the best thing about NCLB was its insistence on 'disaggregating' data so that high scores from one group can no longer mask low performance by other groups. I also admire one phrase from the run-up to the law, "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

But the law's many loopholes allow and encourage districts, schools and individual teachers to cheat. It says that everyone has to be proficient by 2014 but lets states decide what constitutes proficiency. This is an invitation to deceive if ever there was one.

It produced what has famously been called "A Race to the Bottom," which is, of course, why the Obama Administration created its "Race to the Top." (For more about cheating, see this brilliant reporting by Greg Toppo and others, supported by the Hechinger Institute.)

So stay tuned for the debate, but given the intense partisanship in Washington, I would bet against anything passing soon. We may need some dramatic event -- such as some school districts simply refusing to subject their students to even more bubble tests.

The Value -- And Influence -- Of Teaching

"We need to make teaching a better job" -- that's one of the central points of my new book, The Influence of Teachers, and so you can imagine how pleased I am by the new report from Andreas Schleicher of OECD that argues that the United States must raise the status of teachers. That report comes on the occasion of a meeting in New York of education ministers and union leaders from 16 countries, and that two-day gathering will be followed by WNET's "Celebration of Teaching and Learning." An earlier report from OECD and PISA is here.

(Related: I hope to attend lots of sessions at WNET's "Celebration of Teaching and Learning" and will be blogging from there in the near future.)

While President Obama is urging greater respect for teachers, the attack on the profession grows more intense. Politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and elsewhere regularly trash teachers, labeling them as greedy, overpaid and lazy. Fox News is, no surprise, filling its air with attacks. In response, Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" has simply been brilliant, skewering the hypocrisy of Fox and the politicians.

Of course, this is not a laughing matter. Who can calculate the damage being done to an honorable profession? Who benefits from this trashing? How many prospective teachers are now deciding on different careers because of what they are reading and hearing every day?

If ever there were a time to speak up for teachers, it's now. As I argue in my book, the definition of "better job" is problematic, because of the power of unions and the stupidity of some school boards, but now's the time to get involved.


Let Kids Rule The School?

Earlier this week the New York Times carried a fascinating op-ed by Susan Engel about eight high school students, ages 15-17, in western Massachusetts who essentially took charge of their own education. "Let Kids Rule the School" is buzzing around the internet, but in case you missed it, find it here. Is this approach "scalable," to use the official jargon? I don't know, but it's a step in the right direction, away from the useless "regurgitation education" that I write about in The Influence of Teachers. Someone on Twitter called it "home schooling guided by teachers," but the essential point is that adults trusted kids to take their own education seriously -- and allowed and encouraged them to pursue their own interests.

Two Education Books Of Note

One corner of my desk is filling up with education books, and I doubt I will ever get to review even half of them. But two in particular have proved valuable to me in my reporting and my thinking. Neither David Kirp nor Ellen Galinsky needs my endorsement because both authors have large fan bases, and deservedly so, but I would like to call your attention to Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives, which is David Kirp's new book, and Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky's valuable analysis of The Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needs. (And we have used one of David's earlier books, The Sandbox Investment, in our research for an upcoming NewsHour piece about early education.)

I appreciate that some of you have posted reviews of The Influence of Teachers on its Amazon page. The book has been reviewed favorably in a number of places, as well as being the subject of a photo spread about a wonderful book party that took place last week in New York City. Lots of bold-face names attended, drawn no doubt by the bold face names who hosted the event: Joel Klein, Dick Beattie and Mary Lou and Joe Quinlan.

Onward...

 

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