Leave Some Children Behind?

The ever-iconoclastic Charles Murray says in a new essay that both conservatives and liberals live in “the age of educational romanticism.”

He defines it as “the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better.” And of course, you’ll find teachers and people who write in the field of education saying that it’s vital for teachers to have such a belief,” and act on it.

Murray heaps scorn on the No Child Left Behind Law: “The United States Congress, acting with large bipartisan majorities, at the urging of the President, enacted as the law of the land that all children are to be above average. I do not exaggerate.”

Now, when politicians, especially those far away from the situation, make grand promises, some skepticism is in order.

But then we must ask: If Murray is right, what does that mean for policy? If you belief in the moral value of enhanced school choice, not much. It’s still valuable in and of itself, regardless of how far specific children can advance themselves. In fact, school choice and the competitive market for education, in which schools keep on their toes for the right to educate children, may be even more important in such a setting.

He has this to say about No Child Left Behind:

In the early years, I didn’t need the experts to tell me [that the law was causing trouble]. I was watching the demoralized teachers in my children’s school, wearied by endless preparation for the exams and frustrated by demands from on high to concentrate on students who were at the cusp of being able to pass the state’s proficiency benchmark at the expense of everyone else.

That rings true with what other observers have said, and shows the limits of standards-based reform efforts.

Murray also uses the NAEP (“the nation’s report card”) as a checkmark against No Child Left Behind:

If students were progressing at the rate implied by the Act, more than 60 percent of them would have been at the proficient level by 2007. In math, the actual percentages for NAEP were 39 percent for fourth-graders and 32 percent for eighth-graders.

And yet how many schools have been restructured in response to poor scores, as the law demands? Very few.

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