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Help schools by helping the poor

Diane Ravitch’s one-eighty on American education will surely catch the attention of those involved with the upcoming overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act. Once an ardent supporter of NCLB, Ravitch has completely changed her mind. According to The New York Times, “Charter schools, she concluded, were proving to be no better on average than regular schools, but in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system. Testing had become not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself.” Ravitch has realized, it would seem, that the reams of data NCLB’s standardized testing generated haven’t actually changed American education for the better but simply reemphasized the pre-NCLB notion that, indeed, too many American children are getting left behind by an inadequate educational system.

Ravitch’s ideas, which she spells out in her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” strike scholars and historians of education as somewhat retro. In a review of the book for Forbes, Ravitch’s friend and colleague Chester E. Finn Jr. writes,

She would undo most if not all of the “structural” reforms that have been put in place in recent years -- mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing- and results-based accountability and more. She would, instead, look to the “great American school system” and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children.

Yet the most important parts of the “great American school system” are “American” and “system.” Education is but one segment of a system that is increasingly failing to take care of its most vulnerable. It is no coincidence that Ravitch’s renouncing of NCLB and NCLB-type reforms comes at a time when non-educational public services are abjectly failing many of America’s poor. Children aren’t being left behind so much as they’re getting steamrolled into situations in which it’s impossibly difficult for them to learn. If we are serious about truly leaving no child behind, then we need to realize that adequate education is merely one part of a gargantuan project; just because a student falls into a high percentile on a state assessment doesn’t mean we can count him as up to speed. Rather, to leave no child behind, we must target the other myriad institutional impediments that condemn children to a lifetime of playing catch-up.

To wit, Pedro Noguera, a professor of sociology at NYU, wrote in The Nation in 2007 that, “The scope and purpose of NCLB would have to be broadened considerably to address the real needs of poor children and struggling schools.” First on Noguera’s list of ways to expand the law is: “Responding to the nonacademic needs of poor children.” He explains, “Students who are hungry should be fed, children who need coats in the winter should receive them and those who have been abused or neglected should have counseling and care. Expanding access to health care, preschool and affordable housing, and providing more generous parental leave policies should be included on the education reform agenda.”

A healthy student is a better learner than a sick student; a heated, well-supplied school is a better environment in which to educate than a decrepit, unsafe facility. Ravitch’s reversal represents a tacit acknowledgment that no kind of educational reform will work without a fundamental change in the way America’s poor are treated in every aspect of their lives.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel  | March 9, 2010; 5:46 PM ET
Categories:  vanden Heuvel  | Tags:  Katrina vanden Heuvel  
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Posted by: loveshoppingus | March 9, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Shall we all agree that these poor children - ALREADY get free health care?

Good. Glad THAT'S settled.

And in a Utopia, let's give them television, down comforters, high speed internet, Ipods, fast food, high tech toys, and drug-free parents.

I DO agree that charter schools are nothing but a drain on public funds...and are usually corruption-driven to make rich the few in charge.

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