Monthly Archives: July 2007

strategies for broadening the curriculum

I’m with those (including Senator Harkin–see yesterday–and George Miller, who is a key US Representative) who decry the narrowing of the American school curriculum in recent years. The reason seems to be relentless pressure to raise math and reading test scores. Social studies, science, arts, music, physical education, extracurricular activities, and service-learning appear to have suffered.

It’s not self-evident that this is a problem–maybe we should focus our attention on attaining universal numeracy and literacy. But I believe that the narrowing is harmful because education should have broader and higher goals than basic academic skills. Besides, Senator Harkin is correct that activities like music and service motivate kids and keep them in school.

But what to do about the narrowing problem? I can think of six policy options, none perfect:

1. Fund particular programs or types of programs, such as arts or service. Drawbacks: The amounts of money will be small and may not make much difference for most kids. Small programs use up a lot of their funds on administration. We can’t trust the worst school systems to spend the money well or devote it to the kids who need it most.

2. Increase general funding for education, on the theory that dollars are fungible; if we cover fixed costs like facilities or special education, schools will spend more money on arts, service, etc. Drawback: They may not actually spend the money for those purposes, or use it well. Also, money is not the only limited resource; equally important is time.

3. Hold schools accountable for providing specific educational opportunities, such as school newspapers, music, or service-learning classes. Drawbacks: This means extra layers of accountability for schools that are already buried in rules. Unless these mandates come with cash, the burden is particularly unfair.

4. Hold schools accountable for student outcomes in areas like civics, arts, and health. Drawbacks: This means an extra layer of tests. Besides, tests don’t always measure the impact of programs; they may reflect students’ home backgrounds. And it’s hard to develop high-stakes tests of attitudes and values.

5. Relax federal tests and rules that interfere with broad education. Drawbacks: Civil rights organizations will–with some justification–complain that relaxing the rules will allow schools again to tolerate poor outcomes for minority kids, poor kids, and disabled kids.

6. Avoid federal law altogether and focus on the states or school districts. Drawbacks: It’s very hard to organize systematic change in 50 states, let alone tens of thousands of districts.

Senator Harkin on education

I’m on Capitol Hill at a meeting of United Voices for Education, a group organized by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to support the aspects of education that are overlooked in current policy: the arts, civic and character education, extracurriculars, service-learning, physical education, and the like. Senator Harkin addressed us. His views matter because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and serves on the Senate authorization committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The Senator said that he voted for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but now wants to work with UVE to improve it. He said, “we’re all concerned about the imbalances … that have come about.” He cited the recent study by the Center for Education Policy that found cuts in social studies, arts, and other subjects that are not tested under NCLB. “I find this extremely disturbing,” he said. “For many children, what motivates them and keeps them in school is things like music, theater, clubs, and field trips.”

This is a view of youth as assets. But Senator Harkin said that he voted for NCLB because it addressed the “savage inequalities” identified by Jonathan Kozol. He cited Kozol as saying that the learning abilities of disadvantaged kids have been “destroyed” by the time they reach secondary school. This is partly because of inadequate funds and partly because schools discriminate against minorities and disabled students. However, if teenagers are already crippled by a lack of early support, then why will they flourish if we give them positive opportunities? If school systems are discriminatory and inequitable, why should we trust them with funds for positive opportunities like arts and service?

Senator Harkin said that he wanted to amend NCLB to provide “appropriate assessments” that measure social, behavioral, and mental health services in the community and the school as well as (or instead of?) student performance. He also wanted federal funds for elementary school counselors.

In general, the Senator said that NCLB requires more money. It has been underfunded by a total of $56 billion so far (using the original authorization levels as the benchmark). He is obviously most comfortable with federal funding for school facilities (to fix “our crummy infrastructure”) and nutrition programs. These forms of federal support do not require testing, control over curriculum, or accountability; they merely reduce local schools’ costs. Senator Harkin claimed that our system is the best in the world for creativity, thanks to local control; our weakness is the inequality of funding. Thus the main federal role should be to support facilities.

He argued that we can rely less on standardized tests because we can trust teachers to assess the kids in their class, just as we ought to allow judges to set sentences. Assessments, he said, should be holistic and should take into account behavior and values as well as knowledge. “What good is it if someone is intelligent, but they don’t respect other people’s views? I don’t mean to get philosophical, but I think one of the things that’s happened in this country is, we’ve lost respect for other people’s views.”

I detect a tension in the Senator’s remarks between a redistributive progressivism of the Jonathan Kozol variety and respect for teenagers and teachers. I also detect a tension between trusting schools and teachers and viewing them as discriminatory. Saying that schools need more funds for facilities bypasses those tensions, and it is a valid point. I’m not sure, however, that it is an adequate approach to education policy.

teens address school reform

On Wednesday night, we finished our summer program for 13 kids, ages 12-14. They built a website on issues in the Prince George’s County (MD) school system, which they attend. Their site is part of the Prince George’s Information Commons, which we have been building–slowly and sporadically–since about 2002.

We did almost all of the computer work, but the kids developed the site plan and wrote virtually all of the text. They chose all but a few of the audio clips that are scattered through the site; and they were completely responsible for the interviews that generated those clips in the first place. We will now work with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin to develop software that will help students to build their own sites for community research–removing people like us as technical intermediaries.

We now need to figure out what we learned from the summer’s experience. I haven’t had a chance to reflect enough, but I think we learned that: Group interviews of activists and officials provide great educational opportunities. … It’s hard to present a website to a live audience, as our kids tried to do on Wednesday night when their parents and others adults gathered to see their work. … Kids have a hard time imagining that their work will have any public impact–although I think it could have an impact if the project is well planned and disseminated. … Kids are experts on certain aspects of their own world, such as discipline issues in their schools. Adults will (rightly) defer to their expertise. … Children’s behavior is very dependent on context. Give 13 young teens an opportunity to interview a public official in her office, and they will act like 40-year-olds. They will discuss issues such as truancy and vandalism with great maturity. Yet we know that some of the same kids have had their own discipline problems.

For me, as a proponent of positive youth development, the program was both inspiring and sobering. It was sobering because the youth and their interviewees so often identified student misbehavior as a major issue in their schools–a key barrier to learning. Those of us who talk about youth as assets don’t often emphasize teenagers as dangerous and self-destructive. Yet the program was inspiring because it showed how well teens respond when they are taken seriously.

welcome, fundamentalists

We live in Cleveland Park, DC, an affluent, liberal, urban neighborhood of mostly single-family homes (median family income= $124,000; average family size=2.57; 84% white). I don’t think the US Census collects data on religion, but I would not be surprised if the biggest single group in our area consists of secular Jews. There is an impressive conservative synagogue on the main drag, while the (high-church) Episcopalian National Cathedral marks the western border. Both of those congregations draw from well outside the neighborhood.

photo by KCIvey, creative commons license.

One of the main secular landmarks is the Uptown Theater, an art-deco building that shows premieres and popular movies. Recently, the McLean Bible Church, an evangelical congregation in Northern Virginia, announced plans to hold Sunday services in the Uptown, carrying a video feed from its large suburban church. This is part of “City Impact,” “a movement within McLean Bible Church designed to empower leaders and new ministries to carry out the vision of the church–to impact secular Washington with the message of Jesus Christ. The mission of City Impact is to inspire individuals and teams to share their passion for Christ with specific, targeted groups outside of the church.” Another part of City Impact is a “Jews for Jesus campaign” that was evident in our neighborhood earlier this month.

Cleveland Park has a very active email list with 5,498 members as of yesterday. The arrival of the McLean Bible Church has sparked a lively exchange, which I follow through the f2f intermediary of my wife Laura. Although there have been calls for tolerance, a lot of the comments have been angry.

Just to get an obvious point out of the way, the McLean Bible Church has the legal right to say anything they want about secular Washington on public streets or in any building they choose to rent. The only question is whether people should be angry about their arrival. This is my thought: It’s very uncomfortable when someone declares an intention to change your values and core commitments. Many people receive such declarations as attacks on their own identities.

The McLean Bible Church is “targeting” (their verb) secular Washington, along with “Russian Jews, Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Jews who are totally unaffiliated.” But before we get too upset, we should reflect that a desire to convert us represents a form of care and concern, from the perspective of the evangelicals themselves. Besides, by putting their bodies in our neighborhood, the missionaries risk encounters that could change them more than us. Such encounters are disturbingly rare in modern America, where we sort ourselves into neighborhoods by partisanship, religion, education, race, income, and aesthetic taste. I see the weekly arrival of evangelicals as a dose of welcome diversity, and I look forward to “us” rubbing off on “them.”

civic engagement in Britain

Centralized executive power is dangerous–but it provides great opportunities when the chief executive happens to have good ideas. The new British Prime Minister has committed to civic engagement. Since he has the votes to control Parliament, he should be able to implement his concrete policy proposals, which include (according to The Guardian):

  • grants for a new national youth community service program
  • endowments for new local foundations
  • grants for training and education in community work
  • a plan to let nonprofits take over unused public buildings
  • a social investment lending pool capitalized with funds held by private banks
  • Britain already has in place a well-regarded, ambitious civic education curriculum for all of its students.

    Gordon Brown’s rhetoric sounds maybe a little too communitarian to match my personal ideals. I would emphasize public work, deliberation, decentralization, and problem-solving rather than giving and belonging. But it’s an impressive set of concrete policy proposals, the likes of which would be hard to accomplish here (save for the youth service corps, which we got under Bill Clinton).