Schools that do everything but teach

A quarter century after A Nation at Risk, a growing number of America's education leaders appear to be abandoning hope for schools that significantly boost student achievement and are instead coming to view schools as multi-service community centers that do everything but teach. Which circumnavigates the vexing fact that bona fide achievement gains have proven difficult to bring about--and that a lot of educators don't want to be held to account for their pupils learning more.

The timing of this shift of focus couldn't be worse, however, as more states are beginning to report stronger test scores, at least in math and reading, thanks in no small part to the past two decades' fixation on standards, assessments, and accountability (see here and here). Meanwhile, America's standing on international comparisons continues to sag and employers despair over their inability to find adequately skilled and knowledgeable workers for our faltering economy.

Yet read closely the inaugural address of Randi Weingarten as president of the American Federation of Teachers, in which she promises to obliterate NCLB and the culture of testing (all the while professing allegiance to "standards" that have no meaning or traction if performance in relation to them isn't measured). Instead, she seeks a massive new program of federal aid to "community schools...that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need." (Dental care, legal assistance, you name it, just about everything except high-level teaching and learning of important skills and content. She actually sounds a wee bit like my colleague Mike Petrilli! See his commentary above.)

Weingarten's speech echoed the recent manifesto of the "broader, bolder" crowd, which downplays "basic academic skills and cognitive growth" and "learning that occurs in formal school settings during the years from kindergarten through high school" and instead urges reorienting U.S. education policy toward "high-quality early childhood and pre-school programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents' capacity to support their children's education...[as well as] working relationships between schools and surrounding community institutions...[and] development of the whole person, including physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills."

Signers of that one include such luminaries as Tom Payzant, James Comer, Rudy Crew, Linda Darling-Hammond, Arne Duncan, John Goodlad, Arthur Levine, Richard Rothstein, Marshall Smith, Ted Sizer, and our own Diane Ravitch.

Nor is this impulse confined to educators. Even the U.S. Congress is showing similar proclivities of late. While making no discernible progress on renewing and repairing NCLB, the House Education and Labor Committee has been churning out new federal programs that seem to address everything except kids actually learning the 3 Rs, let alone literature, history, art, civics, and science. Recent committee initiatives bear on pre-school, "early childhood home visits," field trips to nature reserves (dubbed the "No Child Left Inside" act), school building modernization, and much more. It's unknowable today whether these measures will make it through the legislative meat grinder to the president's desk, much less get funded via the appropriations process. What's significant is that this is how the education committee is now spending its time.

Historically, American K-12 education has cycled between a focus on "academic excellence" and broader, more diffuse, "whole child" sorts of concerns. There are signs that such a shift is happening now. And it's a darn shame. Yesterday's push for achievement hasn't yet produced the learning gains we need. But it may be starting to do so. The surest way to curb tomorrow's gains is to change the policy focus and ease the pressure. As for the AFT's future direction, all I can say is that President Weingarten's early signals do no credit to Al Shanker's legacy.

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