Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 4
     The cavalry will save us

One master narrative that is gaining ground--because it is being pushed from on high with billions of dollars--is the story about the federal government saving our children, arriving with flags and trumpets like the cavalry. This story has not caught the imagination of many young people. Its main attraction is for non-teaching bureaucrats and for companies that create and market tests.

I would hate for No Child Left Behind to succeed, if success meant that young people took it seriously. Tests have their uses, but how well any of us does on any given test is a single dimension of our lives. A school that is driven by the need to raise test scores is as unlikely to be attentive to the whole child as a business driven by the need to maximize profits is to be concerned about employees in any way that doesn’t increase productivity. For NCLB to succeed, it will be necessary to adopt a narrow and rigid curriculum and define success as some arbitrary score based on that curriculum.

For some students, this would lead to better schooling that they are getting now. But for most students, especially the children of attentive and concerned parents, this would be a disaster.

Unfortunately, the feds-to-the-rescue tale draws its power from the very real failure of a good many schools over decades to make a meaningful attempt to teach. Without question, a community that lacks the will or the capacity to educate its children is troubling, and we have many such communities. If you think this problem belongs to Washington, D.C., then you are going to end up with something like No Child Left Behind. This federal education project, co-created by George Bush and Ted Kennedy, relies on tests and sticks and carrots, the sort of controls that intellectuals always hope will allow them to run the world by remote control.

But living in a state like Montana allows one to see quite plainly how poorly the central office functionaries grasp the details of what they blithely prescribe. Though the feds have backed off, in part due to the good work of Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, the gist of their plan was to punish failing schools by letting students attend different schools. An idea that makes more sense in Boston than in Chester. The feds are scrambling to make modifications, but a stupid mismatch between reality and what the plan calls for isn’t an innocent glitch that will be fixed as time goes on. It’s the nature of trying to control from afar such work as teaching, which cannot be satisfactorily standardized. NCLB is to education what McDonalds is to cuisine. 


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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