Sunday, April 25, 2010

Education: Who is to blame for the failures?

In 2003, as a freshman in college, I wrote a series of papers analyzing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. This educational initiative was proposed by the United States administration of President George W. Bush immediately after he took office and was signed into law on January 8, 2002. Following my research about education systems in America, the successes and the failures of the past attempts for improvements, and the intentions of the new law, I completed my year with a paper sharing my own critiques. I remember writing that NCLB, in my opinion, would do exactly the opposite of what it had intended, it actually would leave more children behind in school. NCLB required improved test scores in schools, however this would result in teachers having to teach to the test, and not to the child’s needs; NCLB gives parents the choice of moving their children from a “failing school” to a “better” one, which would overcrowd the “better” schools’ classrooms and possibly turn it into a “failing school;” NCLB required a certain level of quality in all the schools, and if a school did not reach this level then the school would be punished by receiving less funding the following year, instead of increased funding to help make the necessary improvements. These, of course, are just to name a few of my critics.

Last Thursday I attended a presentation by Miriam Cohen-Navot, the Director of the Engelberg Center for Children and Youth, a joint initiative of the Israeli government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Myers Foundation. The Engelberg Center is devoted to promoting the well-being of children in Israel; they do this by conducting research, which is then made available to the public, teach the public how to understand this research, and acts as a resource and a consultant to Israeli initiatives to make a change for the well-being of children and youth. Among the vast amount of research the Engelberg center has conducted, Ms. Cohen-Navot shared with us one initiative in particular that sparked my interest: an analysis of the changing educational agenda, specifically in the area of youth, aged 14-17, not attending schools. Their research looked at the dropout rates and disengagement rates between 1985 and 2000. The disengagement rates showed the percentage of students who don’t appear in the statistics of dropout rates because they are registered in school, and sometimes even physical attended school, however they were not involved in any meaningful learning. In their study, though they found dropout rates were fairly low (1.9% for Jewish Youth and 11.3% for Arab Youth), however 31% of youth displayed one characteristic of disengagement, 19% showed two, and 11% showed three. Further the study found that services for these school-aged youth started outside of the school, displaying a major disconnect between serving the needs of the children in a place that they obviously needed it and could have direct access to it. Since this study was conducted a special Knesset committee was set up in order to address these findings, and the committees work has caused a paradigm shift in Israeli education: a movement to the understanding that the responsibilities to fix these failings lies within the system itself, an idea foreign not only to the Israeli education system previously, but I think to other education systems as well.

Since my freshman year in college I have always had a passion for learning about educational policies and reforms and watching to see if they were successful. I am a firm believer in the “children are our future” and therefore we must properly prepare them for their futures; however one thing I have found is that many educational policy makers put a lot of effort into blaming others for the failures. Though I still do not hold a high regard for NCLB, one thought that crossed my mind yesterday was how NCLB and the Special Knesset Committee actually do just the opposite of this: they have placed the responsibility in the hands of the education system itself. Testing in schools creates problems for teachers in curriculum building and teaching according to the children’s needs, however it also holds the schools accountable for how their students are doing and whether they are engaged in learning what they need for life or not. Allowing parents to move children to better schools is a sign that the parents are allowed to hold their children’s schools to a standard of excellence and if that is not provided they can find it elsewhere. “Punishing” schools for not making improvements, though not completely logical when it comes to helping the school improve, is consistent with sending the message that the “school system must fix itself, or else…” The underlying message these two initiatives send, though not always carried out in a way I agree with, does finally say, “yes it is our (the systems) responsibility to prepare children for their futures” and it finally stops blaming everyone else.