When one size doesn't fit all
The Star Tribune had an interesting piece this weekend about the latest refugee influx into Minnesota -- the Karen people of Burma (er, Myanmar), who are a growing presence in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville.
They're here because for years they've been part of an insurgency against Burma's military dictatorship. They're also a religious minority: about a third of them are Christian, and Burma is a majority Buddhist country.
But interesting as that is -- and it continues a Minnesota tradition of providing haven to various ethnic groups fleeing warfare in their homeland, like the Hmong and Somalis -- I found a detail buried near the bottom of the story to be telling in a different way.
The refugee kids -- about 140 -- know no English and are unfamiliar with American customs and culture. So the school district has been working overtime to educate them, scrambling to find translators and additional teachers.
Elementary schoolers attend regular classes for part of the day, but the nuances of English make it hard to keep up.
More than 10 percent of Roseville's students are classified as having limited English proficiency, meaning ELL teachers like Onstad have more than just Karen students to help, said Chris Sonenblum, district director of student services.
The Karen students need so much attention, however, that Onstad finds herself spending much of the day teaching the new refugees simple consonant-vowel-consonant words.
And no one expects much success when the students take state standardized tests for the first time, especially when everything, including how to fill out the test form, is new.
"We're teaching them how to bubble-in answers and write their name," Onstad said. "They're not going to be up to snuff to take grade-level tests."
That, undoubtedly, will hurt the district's chance of making "adequate yearly progress" with No Child Left Behind in coming years.
That's because NCLB requires that the kids meet testing standards after one year -- a flatly ridiculous requirement.
So unless an exception is made, the school district will be penalized thanks to circumstances beyond its control.
I have no problem with the idea of standardized testing -- it is useful, after all, to actually measure student achievement against a common standard, and it's a good way to identify underperforming schools that either need assistance or reform. My biggest gripes about NCLB were its inflexibility and the fact that Bush underfunded his own initiative.
The rigidity is on display in this example. It's ludicrous to expect immigrant kids to meet federal standards after only one year -- especially because they're going to hvae trouble just reading the test questions, much less answering them.
There are a million different kinds of students, and so when it comes to education policy "one size fits all" doesn't necessarily work. There needs to be flexibility for special situations like this one. If the federal government won't provide it, the state needs to weigh in on the side of the school district -- both as an advocate for change at the federal level and with specific help at the local level, so that the school district doesn't suffer unfairly while it absorbs this educational challenge.
Karen, education, Minnesota, politics, midtopia