Wednesday, June 07, 2006

No Child Left Behind -What Could Have Been

What “NCLB” *should have been*

Woulda shoulda coulda. That’s what my dad always used to tell me when I would bemoan my 20/20 hindsight. But it’s time for some thoughtful reflection on what *could have been.*

Before I launch into my diatribe about what No Child Left Behind *should* have been, it is important to understand where I am coming from. When I first heard the phrase “No Child Left Behind” I thought it was a *beautiful* concept. Without knowing anything about the legislation or how it impacted public education or even how much it would cost or who voted for it, I thought it sounded like a wonderful thing. No Child Left Behind. Every Child A Success Story. All Children Will Succeed Because of No Child Left Behind.

Now, however, after seeing NCLB at work, I don’t quite get it. In my myopic view of things, I can’t figure out how this thing is actually helping our kids succeed in school. I feel that if a kid doesn’t fit a mold or a teacher doesn’t play the game right, then some child is going to get left behind. I know kids who are not model students, and yet they are creative, talented and even intelligent people. Does NCLB have room for these kids, and does it really help them by trying to fit them into a “mold” of the ideal student? Some kids don’t test well at all. How about the teachers who are really wonderful and really talented, but who aren’t “highly qualified” by some set of standards determined by some bureaucrat somewhere? I know there are a lot of variables to this thing, and maybe there are answers to my questions, and even reasons why NCLB is a “good idea.” I’m simply saying that from my point of view, the program seems too big, too political, and too bureaucratic to actually be effective. And I *hate* standardized testing. I don’t understand how standardized tests help kids learn, especially if you’re starting out with a teacher who doesn’t know how to teach. Disclaimer – not all teachers fall into this category, but there are plenty out there with a bad attitude who are less than inspiring. I do not see one bit of evidence that teachers are any better now than they were before this whole thing got started. Because really, what we’re talking about is providing a better education for America’s kids. No Child Left Behind was supposed to do that. But all I see is “business as usual.”

So I have a better idea.

It’s time for a paradigm-shift, folks.

Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services is one place we could look to see a complete paradigm shift from “business as usual.” In 2000 DCFS introduced this really cool thing called “The Practice Model” the impetus behind it being a class action lawsuit brought against the State during 1993 that alleged Federal constitutional and statutory violations in the operation of Utah’s child welfare system. During 1994, a settlement agreement was reached that gave Utah 4 years to cure the violations, at which time the agreement would terminate. All DCFS regions, local communities, allied agency partners, parents & families in the system, and advisors from across the State were given an opportunity to submit recommendations through a series of community forums. This collaborative process for developing a new model of practice also resulted in the identification of necessary practice skills. The result of all this input resulted in “The Practice Model.”

Basically, the Practice Model resulted in a major Paradigm-Shift for Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services.
This initiative required a philosophical change from a law-based, compliance model to a social work, strengths-based model.

Changes were made in policy and practice to reflect the new model. Today, other states come to Utah, specifically the Southwest Region (that includes my home of Iron County) to learn about Utah's Practice Model - because it is working. Utah's Child Welfare system has completely changed and leads the nation in returning children to their natural parents, and has the lowest incidence of repeats into the system. Translation: Kids aren't removed from homes for insignificant reasons, Kids who are removed are returning home sooner, and kids who really can't go home are placed in permanent homes faster. The system *changed* and Utah has rewritten the way Child Welfare must do business.

So, where am I going with all of this and what in the world does it have to do with NCLB?

In my view, NCLB should have been a “Practice Model” - the ideal that all schools should strive for. And instead of forcing all US schools to adopt its policies *or else*, it would have been far more effective to call it an “initiative” that school districts could buy into.
It could have been a training program, developed to help local school districts produce teachers and administrators who are the *Best* of the best, or the “wave of the future” – instead of mandating testing, it could have provided educators with an opportunity to learn about how to really teach kids, be trained by the best of the best in things that work and things that don’t, with the end result being that kids retain more information and do better and become better citizens.

As a nation, we could have developed a brain trust to learn about what is working in countries like Finland, considered to produce
the smartest children in the world, and draw on their strengths and learn from what they already know. Their emphasis is *completely* different. NCLB *could have been* an opportunity for us to really change focus and try something new.

The beautiful thing about what *could have been* is it would have emphasized a total paradigm shift in how educators help kids to learn.
What *could have been* is an opportunity for parents to be involved by providing input to the NCLB drafters – because I think parents are the only experts when it comes to their children. NCLB *could have been* America’s next “Brave new Frontier” – where we could have been pioneers, paving the way, and setting the new standard in how kids are taught and how they learn.

Instead we have a federal program that requires school districts and state legislatures to jump through hoops in order to keep their funding.

And I can tell you first hand that this is not working.

The worst part is that we're stuck with this NCLB thing, more pressure is being put on school districts, students, parents (as if we don't worry our kids enough) - and nothing has really *changed* about how we educate kids.

I say it is time for Utah Educators to develop a new practice model. We need a paradigm shift. I truly believe that people who really want to become educators have their hearts in the right place. I don't want to step on any toes here, but in my view they have all been trained in an old, antiquated system that only works some of the time, and doesn't work for every person. I like to think "outside of the box" and find creative ways to solve problems.

I like with this "Emily for Utah Senate 28" reader had to say:

"If we want educational choice, let's make ALL schools "choice" schools. We can't do this while piling the regulations on one one side of the coin while easing up on others. Let's get the federal and state governments out of the ed business so much and concentrate on local control."

I would take this to another level - that the federal and state governments should not mandate so much of what is to be done in the schools, but instead provide assistance and training to help the districts succeed at what they do best. That's what NCLB *should* have been.

In the final analysis, I say that in order to make all schools "choice schools" I think we need a paradigm shift. Let's face it - we live in a different world and everything is changing. Shouldn't we rethink the way we are teaching our kids?


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