By Phil Schlechty
Five years ago I wrote a paper about NCLB entitled “No Child Left Behind: Noble Sentiment and Poor Design.” You can find it on our website at http://www.schlechtycenter.org/pdfs/nclb.pdf, if you haven’t had a chance to see it. My concerns at that time were many, but they can probably be summed up in the overall idea that federal mandates (funded or not!) aren’t always as helpful as they might be to leaders at the local level who are determined to shape their schools in ways that will be best going forward for kids, parents, teachers, and communities.
I know we’ve all noticed that the reauthorization of NCLB continues to be subject to background wrangling in Congress while the stimulus package takes center stage for the moment. But I believe that the reauthorization process has also become bogged down by the presence of several competing “schools of thought” about schools—what’s currently wrong with them, and how should we fix them? Perhaps more importantly, what purposes should they serve in this day and age, and how should we account for what they accomplish?
Over the years, three major views have emerged, views that tend to wind up at loggerheads in the public arena—and whose proponents have become ever more vocal and insistent over time. Perhaps reflecting the sort of un-civil “discourse” that now commonly takes place over the airwaves, proponents seem more interested in being heard than in hearing one another—to everyone’s detriment. This is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.
Here’s my surface-level take on the three views:
- The first holds that the schools produce too many students who cannot demonstrate the ability to master basic academic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics (the basic skills and standardized testing argument).
- The second holds that the schools produce too few students who have the capacity to create, solve problems, work productively in groups, and think critically (the 21st century skills and global competitiveness argument).
- The third holds that schools produce too few students who know what they need to know about the core academic subjects to be considered reasonably well-educated (the cultural literacy argument).
Each of these arguments contains values worth our consideration. I don’t believe, however, that this is a matter of “either/or.” Our children need and deserve the opportunity to develop themselves in ways that take all three views into account. Why should they not? And I also believe that it’s possible for public schools, rightly conceived and oriented, to be quite successful at helping young people develop such competencies. But it worries me that we do our communities a disservice if we allow argument about these important issues at the local level to descend into acrimony, for such issues really provide an opportunity to engage citizens in some of the most important dialogue that we might have about our communities and our democracy.
Why should we be waiting for word from Washington when we might instead engage our public in the kinds of dialogue that we’ve let fall into disrepair? Is it not the responsibility of public school leaders to engage the public in conversations regarding all three of these views and ways to reconcile them in service to the common good?
I expect to be writing extensively on this topic in the near future, and I would be glad to have your thoughts on these matters to inform my thinking. Is one or another of these arguments dominant in your community? Why is that the case? Are you having a Tower of Babel experience? What degree of success are you having in either moderating the arguments or in facilitating genuine, productive dialogue? Why is that the case?
I look forward to your thoughts in response to this, our first blog…