Sunday, March 28, 2010

“No Child” stalls reading scores nationwide

The nation’s students are mired at a basic level of reading in fourth and eighth grades, their achievement in recent years largely stagnant, according to a federal report yesterday that suggests a dwindling academic payoff from the landmark No Child Left Behind law.

The report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed that fourth-grade reading scores stalled after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007, then stalled again in 2009. Eighth-grade scores showed a slight uptick since 2007 — 1 point on a scale of 500 — but no gain over the seven-year span when President George W. Bush’s program for school reform was in high gear.

Only in Kentucky did reading scores rise significantly in both grades from 2007 to 2009.

For the third straight time, Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-graders received the nation’s highest reading scores. Fourth-graders scored an average of 234 on the 2009 test, compared with the national average of 220. Eighth-graders averaged 274, tied for first with five other states and above the 262 national average.

Governor Deval Patrick touted the results at an afternoon press conference. “This is a wonderful, wonderful reflection of all the hard work that has been done in classrooms and schools all across the Commonwealth,’’ Patrick said.

Patrick and Secretary of Education Paul Reville said that, despite the results, they remained concerned about a persistent achievement gap between students of color and white students and poor students and their peers from wealthier families.

No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed in 2002, aimed to spur a revolution in reading. The government spent billions of dollars to improve instruction and required schools to monitor student progress every year toward an ambitious goal of eliminating achievement gaps.

Yet an authoritative series of federal tests has found only isolated gains — notably including the District of Columbia’s long-troubled public schools — but no great leaps for the nation.

“We’ve had a real focus on reading, and we’re stuck,’’ said Susan Pimentel, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. The report, she said, “points to an issue, and we’ve got to as practitioners figure what’s going on. I think students aren’t reading enough. And I think they aren’t reading enough of the good stuff. That’s true in grade 4, and that’s true in grade 8, on up.’’

Last fall, the government reported sluggish gains in math in a companion series of federal tests. Taken together, the reading and math results are likely to be seized on by would-be reformers as evidence that a new approach should be taken. But what that should be remains an open question.

“Today’s results once again show that the achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough,’’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “The reading scores demonstrate that students aren’t making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy. We shouldn’t be satisfied with these results. By this and many other measures, our students aren’t on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace.’’

President Obama wants to raise standards and give educators more freedom to innovate, without abolishing the premise of No Child Left Behind that students should be tested every year and schools held accountable for failure. Teachers unions, critical of Obama’s plan, say educators should be given far more funding and other help to lift the performance of struggling students. Talks are underway in Congress on a rewrite of the law.

Nationally, the public average for fourth-grade reading scores remained 220 on the 500-point scale. D.C. test scores have been trending upward for some time, but achievement in the city’s schools remains far below the high marks of the surrounding suburbs. D.C. scores showed a surge to 202 last year from 197 in 2007. Virginia’s score was unchanged at 227. The national average for eighth-grade reading scores is 262.

D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee attributed some of the District’s recent gains to the creation of a two-hour “literacy block’’ in all elementary schools. That amounts to two hours every school day of uninterrupted focus on reading.


Winds of Change in the Windy City’s School System

Chicago witnessed one small victory for urban school reform and parental choice yesterday as the Illinois State Senate voted 33-20 to approve a pilot voucher program for low-income Chicago students currently attending the city’s worst performing schools. The School Choice Act, sponsored by Democrat James Meeks, provides children in Kindergarten through 8th grade state-funded vouchers to attend a private or parochial school in the city. Senator Meeks testified to the voucher program’s importance in providing low-income students a way out of the underperforming Chicago public schools.

“‘By passing this bill, we’ll give 22,000 kids an opportunity to have a choice on whether or not they’ll continue in their failing school or go to another non-public school within the city of Chicago. Just as we came up with and passed charter schools to help children, now is an opportunity to pass this bill so we can help more children escape the dismal realities of Chicago’s public schools,’ Meeks said.”

The Senate bill requires that the voucher amount be equal either to the average spending per public school student or equal to an enrolled student’s private school tuition costs, which ever is lower. Illinois currently spends an average $6,119 per public school student; but since the current average elementary parochial school only costs $3,234, the average per-pupil voucher amount will likely be lower than average per-pupil expenditure in public schools. If the bill is passed by the Illinois House, K-8 students currently attending a school ranked in the lowest 10 percent of the Chicago School District schools could receive vouchers for the 2011-12 school year, with enrolled students’ academic progress monitored for the following three years of the pilot program. If the voucher system is a success, Meeks hopes the program will expand to allow low-income students across the state a chance to escape failing schools and experience the socioeconomic opportunities afforded by a quality education.

Despite the voucher program’s apparent savings to taxpayers and assistance for low-income students, the Chicago Teachers’ Union was ready with routine complaints that the program will drain resources and talent from the city’s public schools. A union spokesperson stated that, “It will endanger schools that are already struggling.” However, allowing students and families to choose among public and private schools has the potential to actually assist public education. Empirical studies have demonstrated that there is academic improvement within public schools as a result of the competitive pressure placed on those systems by school choice programs.

If vouchers become a reality in Chicago, they will provide tens of thousands of families the opportunity to escape the underperforming public schools and pursue an educational path that best suits their needs.


One facet of a totalitarian state

The facets that define a totalitarian state are often hard to discern; there is always the risk of pushing the argument too far, evoking unsuitable analogies with the fascist governments of the last century. Nevertheless, a spade is spade, and this story of the persecution of a German family point to a dangerous state of affairs.

After the police came knocking, dragging their children off to school, Uwe and Hannalore Romeike and their three children applied for, and were thankfully granted, asylum in the US. Their crime? Educating their children in their home, rather than at school. Judge Lawrence O. Burman, a federal immigration judge in Tennessee, determined that they had a reasonable fear of persecution for their beliefs if they returned. He described the German Government’s actions as “repellent to everything we believe as Americans”.

Germany is not alone. In Sweden, a coalition led by a so-called Liberal party is getting tough on homeschooling, with the proposed introduction of a bill that would only allow home education under extraordinary circumstances. It would also allow the imposition of criminal sanctions on those parents that refused to supplicate to the will of the state.

And in the UK, the government is ignoring the Schools Select Committee in its call to make the registration of home-educated children voluntary. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) defends its position as follows: “we cannot understand the logic of making it voluntary”. I can help them answer their confusion: because these children are not owned by the state.

There is much talk of how under Obama the US is becoming a socialist dystopia. Sure, things are bad and getting worse, but as the asylum offered to the German home educators illustrates, they still have a fair way to fall before they hit the strictures on freedom infesting the Old World.


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