Thursday, April 14, 2005

Acorn hunting with Steve Kelley and Pat Harvey

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:25 AM |  

State Sen. Steve Kelley is living breathing proof of Ralph Waldo Emerson’ oft-quoted contention that, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Kelley is certainly not divine nor much of a philosopher. He is a physically large man with an even metaphorically bigger head, and he certainly disdains consistency -- at least in matters of principle.

Supporting the folk wisdom that “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally,” Kelley is on the right side of debate on the No Child Left Behind Act. Alas, it is probably too much to expect him to carry his NCLB objections over to the school choice debate.

His comments quoted by Deborah Locke today in the Pioneer Press are revealing, but not surprising. He’s a a government school guy that will even stoop to school choice principles if he can twist them to support the voting bloc that is the education establishment.

“It’s time to say this [NCLB] doesn’t make sense,” says Sen. Kelly. Actually its past that time, but this is a heckuva start.

Kelley’s legislation, according to Locke --
would revoke the contract the state made with the federal Education Department on NCLB. The state would then judge academic progress on a number of measures including testing, rather than today's testing focus. Sanctions for schools showing "inadequate progress" of special education children would be dropped, as well as for those whose student subgroups test below proficiency for at least two consecutive years.

One of the more dramatic measures in this bill is to basically thumb the state's nose toward federal funding provided through NCLB participation, and come up with an amount equal to that funding from the state. The federal government's position is, we'll pay if you play. Minnesota's position would be, thanks but no thanks.
St. Paul School Superintendent Pat Harvey supports Kelley’s legislation adding that when educators disagree with some parts of the NCLB Act, it doesn’t mean they want to avoid the work it requires (or perhaps the accountability).

I know, my eyes too rolled around when I read that. But returning to the blind squirrel metaphor, Harvey has an acorn. Kudos to NCLB for raising awareness of the achievement gap between white students and children of color, but the remedies proposed by NCLB are going to do nothing to close it in reality and will only drive schools to alter it statistically.

In hearings on the Hann/Buesgens proposed voucher legislation, Harvey repeatedly and Kelley on at least one occasion, used statistics to perceptually close the achievement gap without imparting one benefit to children of color.

Harvey has repeatedly noted that St. Paul draws poor children of color from areas like Chicago that exacerbate the achievement gap on paper. She makes the argument that a contributing factor in the achievement gap is that white kids in Minnesota do so well. Children of color are behind, but proficient.

Kelley (rightly) corrected a woman testifying in his committee in support of the Hann legislation when she misapplied the statewide achievement gap numbers to St. Paul and Minneapolis. He noted that the gaps within St. Paul and Minneapolis are not that wide -- ignoring that real children of color in the cities will someday be competing with real white kids from the suburbs. No matter, the gap instantly looked smaller.

The underlying principle we ought to be considering, which is why Kelley’s proposals are on target, is that the NCLB Act is an overextension of nonexistent federal education authority. Kelly and Harvey find NCLB standards too stringent and punitive. But it’s Harvey’s rationale that is interesting.
"All of us agree that if five students aren't getting what they need, we all have to work on their improvement," she said. "But five kids shouldn't make an entire school fail."
Education is not about systems, but it’s about kids -- Harvey’s hypothetical five kids to be specific. If it’s about kids and not protecting the system, why not offer the “five” kids that admittedly are not getting what they need from the school they are in the option of a voucher and the opportunity to select a school that does give them what they need.

If it’s about kids not systems, why would Kelley and Harvey want to impose the mandates of NCLB to private schools accepting vouchers under the Hann/Buesgens legislation if they don’t think those mandates help educate kids? Because it would give private schools an unfair advantage in their ability to do good?

The Kelly/Harvey solution of changing the way NCLB measures and rates a school is justified and accurate, but changing the way the school is measured in no way alters the educational outcome for Harvey’s hypothetical five.

Kelley jumps in with the example of 10 Hispanic children that do poorly in reading causing their school to be rated as “needing improvement.” The next year they show “remarkable progress,” but seven English language learners fall behind. The school is rated “needing improvement” again.
"I am not saying immigrants can't succeed," he said. "I am saying a one-size-fits-all rule for how to determine how kids perform at their full potential is an impossible task. Every community is different."
Gosh, and if every community is different and should not be held to a single standard, is it remotely possible that every child is different and a one-size-fits-all style of education is an impossible task as well? Of course not. Otherwise vouchers to families and the opportunity to find right-size education makes too much sense.

Locke sums up Kelley’s position --
Kelley's proposal lights a fire under a persistent problem that will only grow with time. The intent of the federal law is good, and few argue with the importance of meeting the needs of all children. But the focus should be the child, not just the test, subgroup or school.
If Kelley and Harvey really believed education was about children and not systems and if they really believed a one-size-fits-all education is equally bad for kids at the state level as it is for school systems at the federal level (note in Locke’s entire piece there is not a single reference to the affect of NCLB on individual students), then they’d realize all the same arguments they are making on behalf of the system are the same arguments families are making for school choice on behalf of their children.

But then, as Emerson implies, consistency is probably overrated.