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THOMPSON: Fear Strikes Out

FearPress coverage for recently released NAEP data ranged from describing the results as "mixed" to recognizing the report as an indictment and virtual conviction of NCLB-type accountability. Seventeen year olds, who have spent most of their educational lives under the law have not increased their reading comprehension or even their math scores. Who cares if State tests scores, or even NAEP scores, increase in the elementary years if the gains do not persist into high school? As predicted, NCLB may have increased decoding skills, but not reading comprehension or numeracy, while narrowing the curriculum, destroying recess and the values of free play time, overemphasizing destructive test prep, and perverting the principles of public education.

When the Boston All Star, Jimmy Piersall, had his nervous breakdown at Yankee Stadium, the moral was not lost on my generation. We began to discuss the ethics of a pitching coach ruining a kid’s arm by throwing curve balls for a Little League championship. Now rules prevent a wrestling coach from requiring excessive weight-pulling to win an 8th grade championship or a football coach from denying water to players during August two-a-days. Even if a coach believes that "putting points on the board" is the highest value in life, imposing such an ethic in high school sports is no longer sanctioned.

So, why do we allow the same sort of instructional malpractice in our classrooms?

NCLB is not primarily about the children. It is about culture wars among adults. Otherwise, the relative decline in NAEP scores and the failure of data-driven accountability to prepare students for life long learning would have already turned the tide. Perhaps it is poetic justice that liberal Baby Boomers are now being demonized by other Democrats. Our parents, "the Greatest Generation," having survived the Great Depression and World War II were understandably driven to provide a more secure world for their children. Toss in the effects of post-Sputnik hysteria and it is easy to see why reformers of my generation want to protect today’s children from the uncontrolled "creative destruction" of the educational marketplace.

A new generation of data-driven "reformers"(who may have never seen "Fear Strikes Out" or "The Last Picture Show" or "That Championship Season") are now threatened by the specter of "Two Million Minutes." New Yorker recently discussed nueroenhancing drug misuse by college students and explored the possibility of managers needing prescription drugs such as Provigil in order to compete in a global marketplace. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might have been less cavalier if they were being chased across a flat world by a billion overachievers from the developing world armed with GPS systems.) Some may not understand the essential role of unions, regulations, and even pensions in maintaining a civil society. Is it possible that some educators do not mourn the loss of liberal arts education and teacher autonomy and childhood creativity because they simply do not see the harm of chopping up knowledge into measurable bits?

Regardless, time is running out on NCLB-type accountability. For awhile the market may respond to a bunch of numbers going up, but unless data starts to reflect something that is real, the resulting bubbles are bound to burst. Besides, there is something in human nature that continually reasserts itself, compelling us to break loose from the constraints of fear and conformity.  - John Thompson

Afterthought.  Recognizing the tendency of Boomers to pontificate, perhaps we should use stimulus money for inter-generational film festival on education values, kicking it off with "One Thousand Clowns."   

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When do we say that we are successful? Do we really think that success is an uptick on a graph? I think at this point that we do.

Children are not computers. You can't open their heads and fill them with information and facts that YOU think are important and expect them to remember them. Even if they do remember them, so what? We need to stop and rethink what we are trying to achieve with schools.

How many adults know what a complimentary angle is, or a supplementary angle? Does it matter? Is knowledge of financial dealings important? What about knowledge of how the heart pumps -- is that something everyone needs to know? If so why? Can't individuals learn these things as the need arises and their interests dictate?

Until we stop looking at an educated person as one who knows a certain set of facts and can perform certain skills in a machine-like way, we're going to have many bored kids (and adults) who lack creativity and passion. We talk big, but we're unwilling to take chances.

I have fewer doubts about "content" than Andrew does -- one can quibble about this or that fact, but in the end you need a basic understanding of how the world works to be a successful adult -- something I think most successful adults take for granted.

But the NCLB mindset seems to have lost sight of the concept that successful adults -- successful in the broad sense of being able to lead happy, self-sufficient, caring lives -- is the goal of education, not the facts and test scores themselves.

For many reformers who've embraced NCLB-type and staked their reputations to it, its now seems the test scores and school ranking that matter, not the kids. And I think this is one of the reasons NCLB provokes such a divide between policy wonks and working educators. Teachers and principals see kids -- policy wonks see "school outcomes."

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