Patti Wenzel

Educational carrot and stick

By - Feb 10th, 2010 12:57 pm
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President Obama welcomes a child
President Obama welcomes a child.

Sometimes you have to wonder if those in charge of educating our children are locked in a vacuum. I’ve been wondering that after last week’s actions by President Obama and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

Obama has given me hope that the punitive No Child Left Behind will soon be transformed by common sense. Currently, NCLB mandates that school districts must meet mandated proficient and advanced levels in reading and math skills annually or be considered a failing district. The percentage levels are set by the individual states, and 100 percent of students must be at proficient and advanced levels by 2014.

Both Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have called the current mandated levels and failure designations as “Draconian” and “Utopian goals.”

In their place, Obama wants to measure educational progress by career and college readiness. He would reward districts for making improvements free from strict mandated levels, using student growth, improved graduation rates and college placements as success markers.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers

On the other hand, Evers is being the strict and stern teacher. In a letter he sent to MPS administrators he said, “No one can or should be satisfied with the current progress in MPS to improve,” as he withdrew all federal Title I funds earmarked for MPS. It is a cut that could take more than $175 million away from the district.

The current annual progress formula is what dinged MPS, which has failed to meet those benchmarks for the past four years. That has led to its classification as a District Identified for Improvement and under a state-ordered intervention plan.It’s about time some changes were made to NCLB. I’m all for testing, to determine if students have learned the material. But there are differences in students, in learning styles, and the social and economic circumstances of individual schools.

Milwaukee is a microcosm of this. It is a failing district overall, but not every school is failing to meet the mark. Those schools with economically middle-class populations, active parents and teachers and stable social environments do as well as any school in the suburbs or rural Wisconsin. And overall, Milwaukee has improved its graduation rates in the last decade, just not as fast as the state wants them to.

But it is the schools with student populations mired in poverty, broken homes and social upheaval that are failing or not succeeding fast enough. Hopefully, Obama’s changes from a strict numbers game to one with leeway for circumstances will allow educators and parents to focus on teaching children what they need and not simply focusing on the test.

The sudden loss of funds by MPS due to the unbending NCLB rules will hurt the very students NCLB was supposed to help. Everyone wants these students to improve, and they are, just not at the rate the federal and state governments have demanded. Again, not everyone learns at the same rate, but in this über-mandated educational system there is no leeway, only punishment.

While the talking heads argue that money has nothing to do with educational success, money can help. A 2005 study, “The Impact of the Adequate Yearly Progress Requirement of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act on Schools in the Great Lakes Region,” shows that the mandated achievement levels cannot be met without addressing the underlying poverty of the students being tested. By not providing adequate funds, or by withholding funds, the feds and Evers are playing a vicious Catch-22 with MPS.

Thankfully, Obama has heard of the carrot and wants to give it a try. Unfortunately, all Evers has at this point is a stick. Stuck in the middle? The students of MPS.

Categories: Commentary, Politics

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