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Election issues: Obama won’t leave behind No Child Left Behind, but at least he’ll fix it

Submitted by on Friday, 26 September 2008 No Comment
My greatest academic achievement isn't on my resume, because it's not a grade-point average or a major or even a minor. Unless you're a political junky who attended West Virginia University, you won't even realize its significance.

I never got a shovel from Robert DiClerico.

Dr. DiClerico was -- and, I assume, still is -- hell-on-wheels tough hidden behind a tweedy facade. He didn't lecture -- he led. He'd stroll in front of the class, reeling off facts without glancing at a single note. Then he'd pivot and pounce.

"What do you think, Dr. Legg?" Dr. Legg had to come up with a credible answer, quickly.

His tests were short-answer essay, designed not to gauge whether you'd memorized facts but formulated to reveal whether you could apply them. If you wrote a bunch of barn-yard excrement, he'd draw a shovel beside it.

I love that man.

And I love what his techniques could do to truly reform education if teachers could use them instead of focusing on getting kids to gray in the right bubbles with their No. 2 pencils.

Instead, we have No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on "high expectations" and "measurable goals."

Problem is, "measurable goals" always involve target scores on standardized tests. And educators have known for 20 years that standardized tests are problematic at best. The manipulation is so blatant these days that in some parts of the country, superintendents are hiring testing companies to write curriculum.

Even worse: Two months into school, Big Guy already is being prepped for the diabolical DIBELs -- Dynamic Indicators of Early Basic Literacy. His homework dovetails perfectly with three of the four test areas listed on the company's Web site.

He's 5 years old, for heaven's sake.

It's near impossible for any candidate to buck No Child Left Behind. Too many folks fall for the "high expectations" and "measurable goals" malarkey, and there's no future in being against that.

Since we're stuck with a world more DIBELs than DiClerico, the only thing to do is make the best of it.

Will either of you make No Child Left Behind better for children, Sen. McCain or Obama?

JOHN McCAIN

The problems in his policy are clear in the third paragraph of the position paper on his Web site: "No Child Left Behind has focused our attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard."

That's simply not true. There is no "common standard." There is a "common goal" -- that schools improve scores X amount each year or face sanctions -- but each state defines proficiency standards.

The closest we have to a "common standard" is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered yearly to a tiny sample of students -- so few the results aren't statistically valid for local school districts. Interestingly, those results show no correlation between state proficiency standards and proficiency on the national test, according to the Brookings Institute.

Secondly, McCain's all about empowerment -- empowering teachers and empowering parents -- but No Child Left Behind has effectively gutted that. Hard to feel unfettered when you're drilling on DIBELs every night.

For McCain empowerment really means private-school vouchers -- something he's historically supported and told the NAACP national convention this summer that he favors.

There are promises of money -- bonuses for teachers at low-performing schools who can "demonstrate strong leadership as measured by student improvement," funds for states to recruit teachers -- but he would do this by redirecting current spending.

He also wants to let parents of children in low-performing schools who qualify for tutoring under No Child Left Behind bypass local districts and pick a nationally certified vendor. Is that a call from William Bennett I hear ringing in?

I'm sure the former education secretary also would be interested in McCain's plans to sink $250 million into "online education opportunities." It sounds like a good fit with a business Bennett once was involved in.

BARACK OBAMA

Obama's hefty education position paper -- 14 pages compared to two for McCain -- offers hope of relief from "color in the bubble" testing.

He would offer states money to develop tests that can evaluate "higher-order skills" such as ability to research, solve problems and present and defend ideas. "We've got to have a fuller and ultimately … more accurate way of assessing what's going on in the classroom. The main goal of testing should not be to reward or punish," Obama said in November.

He's said he would refuse to continue No Child Left Behind unless the renewal carries more money and less bubble testing.

He puts a lot of emphasis on teacher development, pledging everything from service scholarships along the lines of the highly effective North Carolina Teaching Fellows program to professional development schools similar to teaching hospitals in medicine.

And, yes, he's for merit pay, though he deftly dances around the actual words in his position paper. Instead, he expresses support for better pay overall and "salary incentives for demonstrated knowledge, skills and expertise." I'm not clear on what this is, though he's told the National Education Association it won't be based on a single test.

Part of his proposal devolves into pap -- promising to encourage "school-family contracts" outlining expectations for homework, attendance and behavior and calling on parents to turn off televisions. I'm wondering why he felt compelled to throw that in.

It all carries a hefty price tag: $18 (gulp!) billion. He says he'll come up with the money by reducing pork-barrel spending, improving federal purchasing, auctioning federal property and closing CEO pay tax loopholes. Good luck on that one: I've heard those promises from candidates running for everything from city council to Congress.

Previous installments of Election Issues: Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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