Wednesday, January 02, 2008

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Money isn't a panacea. Why weren't the states teaching the children to start with? And why did the federal gov't finally have to step in and attach some accountability to the funding they provide? Teachers unions liked the status quo and continue to fight against any rules being made to where they are made to PROVE they are actually teaching our children. That's a real shame.

"Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has tripled per-pupil spending in constant dollars, to roughly $10,800 a child, more than almost any other nation. And yet it gets average or below-average results compared with other First World countries."


1/03/2008 10:30 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Of course money isn't a panacea. But it's still one of the most important factors. Just like paying a worker gobs of money doesn't guarantee high-quality work -- but the best workers tend to be among the highest-paid.

It's no coincidence that the best school districts tend to be those in affluent areas that can afford to spend lots of money on their schools. There are intangible factors, of course -- intact families, the education level of parents, etc. -- that explain why simply equalizing money input doesn't equalize outcomes. But money is still a huge factor.

1/03/2008 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My contention is that no matter how much money one throws at some of these inner-city, badly-run public schools, there would be NO changes.

In Dallas public schools...there was a huge media investigation a couple years ago of improprities with school funding. It was found time and time again that teachers, administrators, and school secretaries were charging lots of personal expenditures to their school-only credit cards. There was lots of mismanagement and "overlooking" of such improprities. One school secretary had charged over $383,000 in personal items in two years on district credit cards. No one thought that was odd. And talk about holding them accountable for actually teaching the children and they all balk.

They don't need more money; they need to be accountable for the money they get, how it's spent, and for getting the results parents and the community expects.


1/03/2008 8:03 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

My contention is that no matter how much money one throws at some of these inner-city, badly-run public schools, there would be NO changes.

Well is it *some* schools, or public schools in general?

If the former, your contention is overly broad and simply an excuse to do nothing.

If the latter, your contention has no broader application. There are thousands of school districts and tens of thousands of public schools. As with any human endeavor, a certain percentage of them will be badly run. But that just means they need to be reformed. It's hardly an indictment of public education in general.

Local school districts are subject to being taken over by the state if they screw up badly enough. I've seen it happen.

1/03/2008 8:09 PM  

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