Thursday, April 24, 2008

Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day

Hey, Why Should We Suffer Alone?

Today is the day. Our kids come to work with us, to learn about our mundane, tedious lives in the "real" world.

All the more reason for our children to stay in school, we suppose.

And speaking of school, it has been a generation now since the process of educational "reform" began.

We saw our public schools failing, so we pointed to socio-economic conditions as a precursor to failure, and then abandoned of fixing the faltering public arena in favor of private, parochial, and so-called charter schools.

Test scores were falling, so we decided that teaching to learn must give way to teaching to the test.

The drop out rate in high schools was through the roof, and so, we created "standards" and skewed the numbers, dedicated to leaving no child behind -- or all of them -- as if we could somehow mandate educational excellence (unfunded, of course) through legislation that ties teachers' hands and promotes mediocrity.

For all we have done over the past 25 years to "reform" our education system in America, have we really done enough, and have we done it right?

Are our children better prepared today to face the challenges that lie ahead of them, or merely better prepped to sit for the SATs?

And what of the future of public education, that which has produced the greatest minds and foremost leaders of the last century?

Today, as our children accompany us to the workplace -- contemplating, perhaps, that their intended career paths should take decidedly different directions -- we take a look back at the last 25 years of "reform" in education, and, hopefully, each of us will reflect upon where we've been, and where we must go, in the classroom and out, to teach our children well, ensuring their futures -- and ours.
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“If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

Jay Sommer, from 1983’s A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform

'Nation at Risk': The best thing or the worst thing for education?
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Twenty-five years ago this week, Americans awoke to a forceful little report that, depending on your point of view, either ruined public education or saved it.

On April 26, 1983, in a White House ceremony, Ronald Reagan took possession of "A Nation at Risk." The product of nearly two years' work by a blue-ribbon commission, it found poor academic performance at nearly every level and warned that the education system was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."

It kick-started decades of tough talk about public schools and reforms that culminated in 2002's No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration law that pushes schools to improve students' basic skills or face ever-tougher sanctions.

Twenty-five years later, the sole teacher on the 1983 panel says the tough talk was just what the doctor ordered.

"In order to move a nation to make changes, you have to find some very incisive language," Jay Sommer says. Now 81 and teaching Hebrew at a suburban synagogue, Sommer was a high school language teacher in New Rochelle, N.Y., when tapped to help produce the report.

A true Cold War document, it famously stated: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."

Sommer says the harsh rhetoric should have come as no surprise.

"Any reasonable teacher should have understood at the time — and I did — that we need to tighten up that belt. We have to do something."

Called "the most important education reform document of the 20th century" by education historian Diane Ravitch, "A Nation at Risk" found plenty to fret about: Only one-third of 17-year-olds, it found, could solve a math problem requiring several steps; only one-fifth could write a decent persuasive essay. Millions of adults were illiterate. SAT scores were dropping.

The findings were met with skepticism by most education groups, who said it painted too harsh a picture of a system that was continually, if slowly, improving. Teachers actually hissed when Milt Goldberg, the panel's executive director, spoke to the National Education Association's annual meeting. The NEA's executive committee assured members that it was "just another passing fad that would fade like the morning haze."

But American Federation of Teachers head Albert Shanker quickly embraced the recommendations, says his biographer, Richard Kahlenberg. Shanker believed that "if teachers wanted to be part of the reform movement, they had no choice than to … become part of the solution."

To say that "A Nation at Risk" hurt public education is to ignore what could have been, Kahlenberg says.

In 1981, Reagan's education platform basically consisted of three ideas: supporting private schools through vouchers and tuition tax credits, reducing federal education spending and abolishing the federal U.S. Education Department.

After the report, Kahlenberg says, "Reagan had to back off on the spending cuts for education. He continued to mouth rhetoric about vouchers and privatization, but it got no traction at all."

Twenty-five years later, only a minuscule number of students attend private schools on the public dime. And federal K-12 education spending has grown from $16 billion in 1980 to nearly $72 billion in 2007.

That's cold comfort for those who say "A Nation At Risk" inaugurated a series of attacks on public schools. "That was the 'rising tide' we got engulfed with — the rising tide of negative reports," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

In 1983, he was superintendent of Princeton, N.J., schools, and he remembers wondering how to get people talking about education. He thought the report might be just the thing: A president barnstorming the nation talking about public schools? What could be better?
Then Houston read it.

He was not amused.

"It was an overstatement of the problem, and it led to sort of hysterical responses," he says. For one, it took liberties with the link between economic development and overall education rates.

Yes, the connection makes intuitive sense, he says — but when the dot-com boom made millionaires of ordinary Americans in the 1990s, "no one came to my office and thanked me."

"A Nation at Risk" also led to "a cottage industry of national reports by people saying how bad things are."

How did educators react? Imagine standing on a beach getting hit by crashing waves, Houston says.

"The first couple are a lot of fun. But after you've been knocked over for the 15th time and you're spitting up sand, you say, 'I want to go home.' "

All these years later, Sommer, the New Rochelle language teacher, says he has no regrets. "None — none whatsoever."

In fact, he says, at the time he thought the "rising tide of mediocrity" line was a bit harsh. "I didn't think that bunching together all the schools and giving them a common failure was appropriate," he says.

Now he says it was appropriate.

"As a consequence of the commission, things were improved in education without any doubt."

Though most teachers today are competent — and many of them are "great," he says — in 1983, there were plenty of people "who shouldn't have been in the teaching profession. This report made that point."

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