from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Another attempt at Federal control of education 

crossposted at dailykos and myleftwing

Yet again an administration that in theory supports states rights is attempting to impose its will like it tried with Oregon's assisted suicide act. We have previously seen Federal mandates in education in testing and supposed quality of teachers through the rightly infamous NCLB act. Now we find another attempt to impose, only unlike NCLB, this is not a stand-alone piece of legislation, but is instead being done almost in stealth, by sticking a provision into another piece of legislation.

You can read about this in a piece by Sam Dillon in today’s NY Times entitled College Aid Plan Widens U. S. Role in High Schools. Let me quote the first paragraph to encourage your continued reading:

When Republican senators quietly tucked a major new student aid program into the 774-page budget bill last month, they not only approved a five-year, $3.75 billion initiative. They also set up what could be an important shift in American education: for the first time the federal government will rate the academic rigor of the nation's 18,000 high schools.

Using grants of $750 to $1,300 to low income college freshmen and sophomores who have completed
"a rigorous secondary school program of study" and larger amounts to juniors and seniors majoring in math, science and other critical fields.
, but leaves to the Secretary of Education define “rigorous” given that position new and almost unlimited power to interfere with state and local prerogatives in establishing curricula. While the administration says it will consult with governors and local groups, and a department spokeswoman pointing out that participation in the program would be voluntary, note the reaction from the Higher Education community:
But Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, the nation's largest association of colleges and universities, said the new program "involves the federal government in curricular matters in a way that opens a new chapter in educational history."

"I'm very sympathetic to the goal of getting more students to take more math and science courses, but this particular plan has the potential to turn the Department of Education into a national school board," Mr. Hartle said.

Dillon’s article notes
Like the No Child Left Behind law, the new grants are largely an effort to take a Texas idea nationwide. The legislation is modeled on the Texas Scholars program, begun during Mr. Bush's governorship, which enlisted certain Texas high schools and encouraged their students to take a "rigorous course of study," defined to include four years of English; three and a half years of social studies; two years of foreign language; and a year each of algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, biology, chemistry and physics.

As is often the case with this administration, despite the campaign rhetoric about uniting and not dividing, little attempt has been made to consult with political opponents:
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, responding to rising anxiety over America's economic competitiveness, sponsored legislation establishing new grants to college juniors and seniors majoring in math, science or engineering. In December, Republican lawmakers working with the administration grafted the House and Senate bills together, adding language requiring the secretary to recognize at least one rigorous high school program in each state. Democratic lawmakers said they were barely consulted.

"We were shut almost completely out of the process," said Representative George Miller of California, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

What is interesting to note is that there have been efforts by this administration to expand the testing regimen of NCLB to high schools, an effort that has been going nowhere. In one casual conversation on that subject I heard Congressman Miller say that the administration could try but that was one proposal that was dead.

The original proposal was supposed to be done as a straightforward supplement to Pell grants for low income students. That would have been relatively simple to administer, as Pell grants are based solely on need. Students would qualify for yearly grants based on GPA for their sophomore through senior years, with grants of up to $4,000 as upperclassmen majoring in physical, life or computer sciences, mathematics, technology, engineering or critical languages. That GPA requirement will cause problems for institutions like Sarah Lawrence and Hampshire that do not give letter or numeric grades. In theory that is solvable, although for one of my generation it is very reminiscent of the requirements during the Vietnam era of being in the top half of one’s class in order to maintain a 2-S deferment from the draft.

The process of defining a rigorous high school education has been underway for some time. As was noted in the article
After Mr. Bush became president, his administration financed a Center for State Scholars, based in Austin, to spread a curriculum modeled on Texas Scholars nationwide. In the 2006 budget, he proposed supplemental Pell Grants for college freshmen and sophomores who had completed the "rigorous" curriculum outlined in the State Scholars initiative, in which some 300 school districts in 15 states are participating. A House bill closely reflected that administration proposal.

To date, only 15 of the 50 states have participated in this process. The National Governors’ Association has endorsed the idea of a more rigorous curriculum a a requirement for high school graduation, and some states
including New York, extend higher-rated diplomas to students who complete more difficult coursework. Virginia awards an "advanced studies high school diploma" to students who complete four years of English, math, science and history, three years of foreign language, and other requirements.

Such differentiated diplomas are nothing new -- I graduated from high school in NY in 1963, and already there was a distinction between a Regents Diploma and a regular diploma. However such differentiation does seem at least in part counter to the concept of NCLB, even if it at least implicitly recognizes that the educational needs of secondary students are not uniform.

There are political problems with this proposal , which the article identifies. There are perhaps 20 states with no participation in the State Scholars program, and even in some states that do, the proportion of high schools participating is fairly low: 35 of 300 in NJ and only 4 of 180 in CT.

But of even bigger concern is the requirement that applicants have completed a
"program of study established by a state or local educational agency and recognized by the secretary." The bill "would inadvertently exclude over 5.3 million private K-12 school students," the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents some 1,200 private schools, said in a letter to senators last month. The same legislative language may also exclude parochial and home-schooled students.

And of course there are conservative groups that do not want ANY federal involvement in education, as the education policy director of Phyllis Schlafley’s Eagle Forum made clear:
Michael D. Ostrolenk, education policy director of the Eagle Forum, called the proposal "more meddling" by Washington.

"If people in Congress really want to improve the educational system in the United States, they should start by abolishing the federal Department of Education," Mr. Ostrolenk said.

I find myself in a an awkward position on this topic. I do not wish to appear as the abominable No-man on educational issues. For one thing, I absolutely believe that we need to rethink how we do education in this country. That however, does not mean that my answer would be the imposition of more and more requirements, the approach in which the catchword always seem to b e “rigor” or “rigorous.” Look at 80 pound students attempting to walk down a hall with 35 pound backpacks - that is one element of “rigor” that somehow we seem not to ever discuss.

I also worry that the approach contained herein is reproducing the worst of what we have seen recently in educational reform. It seems premised on the idea that more content is the solution. It is not clear to me how increasing requirements will result in greater understanding or applicable skill.

But those are issues that can and should be discussed openly, and would include a variety of stakeholders. Having an issue like this put into non-relevant legislation without consultation with the minority party or with major organizations with expertise and whose lives will be affected is pretty far from the democratic ideals of self-governance that in theory are supposed to be part of our system of government.

Whatever else one can say about NCLB (and believe me, I have probably said it), at least MOST of the provisions were publicly discussed and debated, with an opportunity for input to Congress from a variety of sources. What most bothers me about this proposal is the lack of such debate. I try to follow educational policy issues fairly closely, and this one had not really appeared on my radar screen - I had seen a few mentions in passing on several education policy lists to which I subscribe, but no in depth discussion. Given how little most policy makers understand about education, as is evidenced in the real flaws of NCLB, doing education ‘reform” this way is downright frightening.

To my mind, before we start adding layer upon layer to an already overburdened education system, we need to step back and try to get a clear picture of what we really want from our schools. Unfortunately, education is one of the easiest areas of policy on which to bloviate - everyone thinks s/he is an expert.

I teach social studies. Our lack of historical understanding and true appreciation of the structure of our governmental system makes us more vulnerable to the kind of demagoguery by which the current administration has maintained its control on power. As an undergraduate I majored in Music. I worry that we are moving in a direction that devalues anything that cannot immediately be defined as a profit-making venture, or which cannot be included in some person’s definition of national security. To me a nation without a soul is a great a danger as a nation with insufficient scientists and engineers.

And that raises another point. The intent of this program seems to be to increase the number of people in science and technology, yet this is occurring at a time when many jobs for those with such educational background are being exported - thanks to the availability of broadband capacity it is now possible to perform the tasks done by such people far from the US in much lower wage nations. Will we be educating people for jobs that will not exist? Or is the intent to create a glut of applicants for such jobs in order to drive down the wages received for such work?

I do not believe that educational policy can be made in a vacuum. It certainly should not be made via under the radar legislative action. And to give the power to the SecEd to define rigor ... it would not matter if the SecEd actually had a background appropriate to the task, which Spellings does not .. it is a distortion of the idea of the people having meaningful participation in the making of laws and rules that govern their lives. It is about as undemocratic as anything I can imagine. I would say that it was setting a dangerous precedent, except it is of a piece with this administration’s idea that the Executive knows best, and should the maximum, even unfettered and unlimited, power to implement its policy ideas, anything from the Congress notwithstanding. I would not have given such power to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I surely do not wish to do so to George W Bush and his Texas cronies, among which I include the current SecEd.

Enough. I have made you aware, in case you were - like me - not aware. Do what you will, but do something.
Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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