Education Criteria Might be Best Set by Locals?

From the Black Hills Pioneer Press (subscription-based):

Local school administrators agree it’s time to take a closer look at No Child Left Behind, stating that an educational model originated at the federal level might not be right for educational systems in rural areas like western South Dakota.

Good. Of course, I would have stopped the sentence right after “systems” to ensure that the statement applied to all schools, regardless of the geography and demography.

Interestingly, the President is prepared to spend some political capital on the continuation of NCLB (with some modifications), as noted by the New York Times:

Significantly, the White House reportedly wants to change federal financing formulas so that a portion of the money is awarded based on academic progress, rather than by formulas that apportion money to districts according to their numbers of students, especially poor students. The well-worn formulas for distributing tens of billions of dollars in federal aid have, for decades, been a mainstay of the annual budgeting process in the nation’s 14,000 school districts.

Under the Obama administration’s proposals, a new accountability system would divide schools into more categories, offering recognition to those that are succeedingand providing large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools.

A new goal, which would replace the 2014 universal proficiency deadline, would be for all students to leave high school “college or career ready.” The new standards would also define what students need to learn in earlier grades to advance successfully toward high school graduation.

On the face of it, this is a good thing (and rather private-sector in execution): paying for performance. However, the idea that the federal government is best suited to decide what is necessary for someone to be “college or career ready” does seem to bypass local control by school systems.

The more troubling sentence from the above is the one which says that “The new standards would also define what students need to learn in earlier grades. . . .” That is, the bureaucrats of the Department of Education are not happy with defining instruction for high-school students–they must needs ensure that everything is planned out for children from kindergarten forward.

We are anything but a nation of cookie-cutter citizens. Supposedly, this diversity was and is one of our remarkable strengths. How can we lay claim to increasingly diversity while at the same time ensuring decreased diversity with regard to education–an area where the strengths and weakness of each person should be brought into full relief and exploited (in the best possible sense of the word) for future benefit?

Here’s part of an article from Edutopia which (while written a little over a year ago) does provide us with an overview of where matters stand in the debate for education standards:

The necessary discussion cannot be held unless the real alternatives are on the table. Today, essentially three currents of education reform compete with each other. One sees inspiration and motivation as the keys to better education. Reform in this direction starts by asking, “What will draw the best minds of our generation into teaching? What will spark great teachers to go beyond the minimum? What will motivate kids to learn and keep coming back to school?”

In this direction lie proposals for building schools around learners, gearing instruction to individual goals and learning styles, pointing education toward developing an ever-broader range of human capacities, and phasing in assessment tools that get at ever-subtler nuances of achievement. Overall, this approach promotes creative diversity as a social good.

A second current, the dominant one, sees discipline and structure as the keys to school improvement. Reform in this direction starts by asking, “What does the country need, what must all kids know to serve those needs, and how can we enforce the necessary learning?” In this direction, the curriculum comes first, schools are built around the curriculum, and students are required to fit themselves into a given structure, controlled from above. As a social good, it promotes national unity and strength. This is the road we’re on now with NCLB.

A third possible direction goes back to diversity and individualism — through privatization, including such mechanisms as tuition tax credits, vouchers (enabling students to opt out of the public school system), and home schooling. Proponents include well-funded private groups such as the Cato Institute that frankly promote a free-enterprise model for schooling: Anyone who wants education should pay for it and should have the right to buy whatever educational product he or she desires.

As someone whose own schooling was a blend of this and that and the other educational approach, I’m open to quite a bit of experimentation. Something to keep in mind is that children are, broadly speaking, not capable of not learning–the question is rather how best to ensure that they learn what we (the parents) deem important/essential/necessary.

I wish clearheaded thinking to the school officials in the Black Hills and elsewhere who are considering moving past NCLB and its arguably goodhearted but wrongheaded approach to education.