School standards

When parents do their intended job, educators have a chance to do theirs

Things educators could say but don’t,” a post on a Washington Post blog, has been making the rounds on e-mail and Facebook.

The author is Robert Bligh, who is former general counsel of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Bligh is not a fan of legislated school reform, specifically No Child Left Behind. He goes as far back as Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “ESEA’s fundamental approach was to order teachers and schools to solve a host of non-education social problems that all other social institutions – especially families and churches – had failed to solve.”

At the beginning of his career 37 years ago, he said, “I began to suspect that K-12 teachers and their schools were being held responsible for things that were completely beyond their reach. Most of what I have observed since about K-12 education has supported that suspicion.”

To reformers (although it is an important message for all to hear), he says, “Academic achievement gaps, robust and intractable, are well established long before the first day of kindergarten. Those gaps are not caused by teachers and cannot be fixed by teachers. What you like to call ‘reforming’ schools does nothing to help children who spend their first five years living in inadequate, often chaotic, households.”

To parents, he says, “If you effectively raise your children before you send them to school, we can teach most of them. If you do not, we cannot.”

Bligh does not advocate giving up on children. At the end of the blog, he says, “I am convinced that the only people I want to be in charge of a K-12 classroom are those who believe that all children can be educated.”

But holding educators responsible for creating the same results in children who start at widely divergent levels is not logical. Such a goal often diverts resources from their most productive use, and it also gives the public a skewed image of the success of children, teachers and schools.

Teachers can, and do, help children overcome great disadvantages, but it makes no sense to claim that other factors in a child’s life matter little.

They matter a great deal, even in adult workplaces. If teachers were more important than parents, kindergarteners could thrive at boarding school. If healthful food, a safe place to sleep and stable adult role models who encouraged success did not matter, far fewer young people would be trapped in the same socioeconomic strata that their parents inhabit.

Bligh points out that educational strategy and public policy are two different commodities. Educators must do their best to teach the children in their classes — those who are desperately disadvantaged as well as those whose parents are affluent, educated and able to participate effectively in their children’s education. Standards are essential.

When the results are in, though, the public and policy-makers must be willing to assess honestly all the reasons for success or failure.

They also must be willing to contribute positively, rather than reflexively punishing teachers or districts whose student populations present challenges that cannot be resolved solely through the public-education system.

Setting standards that are appropriate for real children, not statistical averages, is the only way to truly assess student progress, and perhaps a fair threshold for many is whether they will be able to take advantage of more opportunities than their parents can. If schools can accomplish that, they are succeeding – not as much as anyone would wish, but that success needs a metric.

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