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.