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Posted at 5:07 PM ET, 02/26/2010

Falling into a ditch

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
A recent Washington Post headline said, "Lawmakers to launch bipartisan effort to rewrite No Child Left Behind."

Reading that headline, professional educators on familiar terms with the King James version of the Bible are likely to recall one of the Jesus’ parables as quoted by Luke: "Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?"

With very, very few exceptions, the education reform chatter of members of Congress exhibits a level of educational ignorance that would be laughing-out-loud funny if those engaged in it weren’t making policy, and the consequences of those policies for the young and for the future of America weren’t so devastating.

That most members of Congress know little about educating isn’t surprising.

All, of course, will have had firsthand exposure to schooling, but that doesn’t make them expert policymakers or even wise judges of education policy. Their firsthand experience will have been shaped by a curriculum adopted in 1893. Many years will have passed since they sat in classrooms.

Actual instruction will be only dimly remembered. And what little will be recalled will be filtered by selective perception and partisan ideology.

Superimposed on that hazily remembered experience will be the conventional wisdom, powerfully reinforced by simplistic education policies promoted by the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other influential educational amateurs.

That educating -- attempting to more closely align with reality the images in others minds -- is inherently the most complex of all undertakings. That the aligning process must have as its overarching aim preparing the young to cope with an unpredictable, increasingly dangerous future is an idea even less likely to be understood and appreciated.

For proof that in education policy, the blind are leading the blind, look at what the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are busily doing -- promoting "voluntary" adoption of national standards for school subjects.

To amateur educators -- business leaders, newspaper editorial boards, syndicated columnists, television talking heads, radio commentators and other opinion leaders -- "national standards for all school subjects" sounds not just reasonable but highly desirable.

But to professional educators - at least those who’ve given the matter thought - adopting national standards for school subjects is an appalling idea. Its practical effect will be to lock in place a curriculum adopted in the 19th century, a curriculum that doesn’t even come within a country mile of equipping the young to cope with an ever-accelerating rate of change that’s slamming us into an unknowable future.

"Lawmakers to launch bipartisan effort to rewrite No Child Left Behind."

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 26, 2010; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  No Child Left Behind  
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I like that "blind leading the blind" reaction to the lawmakers rewriting NCLB. As you say, hilarious if it weren't true.

Personally, I don't think it is the standards themselves that are the problem. It would be deciding upon them and making them challenging and attainable. Would foreign languages, art, music and P.E., and other electives be included or considered extras, therefore not tested and not funded?

I mention those electives because they are sometimes the very things that keep kids in school. Some students are very good at French, but maybe not so interested in English Lit. The French class, with its varied teaching methods and opportunities for communicating with peers in a new language can engage a student in a way that other subjects don't. The same could be said for Art or P.E. or many other "extra" classes.

Since these classes are not tested for NCLB purposes, they are often overcrowded,underfunded and considered unimportant. I would hope lawmakers would consider these courses when they look at drop out rates.

Posted by: celestun100 | February 26, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm very, very happy to read your observation about the future that students are being prepared for. I happen to think that the fact that the world is changing so fast and is so unpredictable in so many ways--such as how to make a living--is a very large part of the problem with our schools. By the time a child starts school today and finishes in 12 years, what will they really need to know? As a parent, I focused on two basic things--how to get along with people and knowing the differnce in what you need to survive and what you just want and your resources, including how to learn what you don't know now so you can learn it when you need to. Their public educations did the rest and they came out fine.
I agree with the poster about music, art, PE and language too. Children need to be exposed to all aspects of life, in age appropriate ways, and pursuits that involve actually using the basics of math and reading.

Posted by: 1citizen | February 26, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

While I agree with your overall sentiment about the misinformed chattering class and uninformed legislators, I have a somewhat different view on the need for "voluntary" national standards. Here's why. As it stands now, the standards adopted by state governments to measure student achievement vary widely in quality and grading practices. There is no real national standard as to what is considered a "passing" grade and no agreement on what should be assessed, beyond the broad general categories of "Reading" and "Math." So, I think we do need national standards that establish more uniform expectations. These minimum expectations should be a starting point onto which state and local governments build more rigorous curriculum. As to "the arts" I believe we should also adopt standards requiring schools to provide adequate TIME for music, PE, and art. It may be wishful thinking, but I believe elementary school students should have at least 30 minutes of PE every single day, in addition to recess. How can schools "fit in" science, social studies, and WRITING? By integrating the curriculum. Social studies and science texts can fit seamlessly into a reading curriculum that is, in my opinion, far too focused on fiction. Music and art can also be integrated into classroom study. This isn't a new idea. In fact, this type of teamwork was common before NCLB mania narrowed the focus. I'm not thrilled with the idea of federal mandates, but I'm also realistic enough to know that some sort of national testing regime is here to stay. The sad fact is, the millions and millions spent on the mishmash of testing and grading currently used to assess students isn't really telling us how well our students are doing nationwide.

Posted by: daveairozo | February 27, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

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