Educational Policy Discussion Without Pedagogical Context?

Paul Manna has aptly named his book, “Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities”– the very title reflects the haphazard propulsion of educational endeavors in the US educational system. He details a number of frustrations with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including it’s tendency to lower expectations of students, rather than maintain them, or to distort the approaches of teachers, focusing on material and testing, rather than focusing on our long-valued, well rounded liberal arts education, or teaching students as individuals. The only notable lack in his analysis is that there is no explanation of pedagogy to contextualize pedagogical strains created by NCLB. His analysis claims three major positive influences of NCLB including a push for administrators, state officials, and teachers to narrow the achievement gaps between disadvantaged student groups and the rest of the students, the forcing of “educational bureaucracies to improve their technical abilities,” and in places where NCLB was adopted fully, necessary but difficult policy and administrative changes were pushed through because of NCLB’s requirements and Federal backing. His points are very well contextualized, although they may take a careful reading by readers unfamiliar with educational policy and issues in the US. His greatest strength is the balance of sources used to illustrate his points, and show the difficulties of NCLB. He utilizes statistical data, but complements it with simple explanations, and clear anecdotes, providing not only his careful analysis of what is actually going on, but including the public’s reaction to NCLB. While the book could easily be many times larger than it is, it covers the material well, and provides readers with a far better understanding of the complex issues, as well as the benefits and drawbacks, attending the No Child Left Behind Act.

The author takes some time in getting there, but he reconstructs the frustration over the restriction of available time and resources for primary and secondary teachers alike – and he does so with remarkable concision, encompassing the issues and providing analysis based on statistics. However, he does so only after reminding the readers of the various criticisms of the act. He quotes historian David McCollough, who asserts that history as a core subject has fallen by the way side because of the heavy focus on English and math. Others referenced by the auther claim that civic education is also markedly lacking, and even President Obama was quoted, saying that the liberal arts education his generation enjoyed is rapidly becoming non-existent for our youth today.1

These reflect the common statements heard in newspapers, classrooms, and staff room discussions all over the US today, but Manna continues, explaining that these conclusions, although anecdotal, are actually well supported by most of the quantitative data available. Most school districts showed decreases in art classes as well as science and social studies, commonly dropping an entire hour or more per week in those subjects. He also details the exceptions to the general support of that quantitative data. He details the achievements of the Osmond A. Church Elementary and Middle School, showing the reader that it is possible to focus on a new, NCLB driven curriculum that is both geared toward improving English and math skills, while maintaining gains in all areas, and serving a typically disadvantaged student population.

Manna’s observations aside, the ramifications for teachers are enormous – lesson planning by itself was already a difficult task. Pedagogy as a context is never addressed within his work, but such is important to fully grasp the nature of the struggle not only in the bureaucratic circles, but in the classroom. Teachers struggle to include all students, and remember to ‘teach students and not lessons’ is complicated by these new restrictions and pressures. From a pedagogical perspective, one can note that the solution lies in complex approaches to lesson planning and presentation, as well as grading programs and individual attention to students. This raises the bar, not only for students, but for teachers. Teachers who have traditionally had the freedom to design their own lesson plans must be clever to maintain what freedom in that realm they can. If one knows anything about pedagogy at all, it is hard to avoid these conclusions, despite Manna never addressing pedagogy directly.

Manna also points out that despite many conflicts and “tensions” generated by the legislation, NCLB has also driven some positive changes, assisting the reader in understanding complex political and educational interconnections. The positive benefits from NCLB include a focus on what has been called in educational circles ‘the achievement gap’. It has been tackled again and again, but students from lower socioeconomic positions have consistently scored poorly on tests, done poorly in school, and often fail to continue their education after high school. Central to NCLB’s attempt to narrow this gap in performance is the requirement for states to divide their reports on testing results into student categories, including minority groups, students with disability, students from low-income homes, and ESL students.2 This allows various government agencies, as well as local administration and educators, to monitor this achievement gap closely. Various looming consequences for failing to improve all (or the vast majority) of these groups from year to year (the term used here is Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP) ensures quite a focus on the achievement gap, although that focus may or may not be effectively utilized toward improving student performance. His writing indicates that the legislation and the accountability measures in particular are flawed, but that the overall effect is a tension is generated within the educational system that is slowly changing our attitudes about how to go about education, testing, pedagogy, and administration.

Manna explains some of the nature of educational bureaucracies. These state and local administrative components to our educational system are varied across the nation, and examining the impact of NCLB requires that one look at each state individually. The act’s requirement for AYP meant that each state had to have a new accountability system, either in addition to, or as a replacement or adaptation of, their original system. Each state chose their own plan, and most, in seeking a way to measure this progress, actually contracted out that process. This complicated matters, because the testing agencies, while paid to do this, are certainly not perfect, indeed, they may not even be considered experts. This caused many school districts and states concern when inaccuracies in testing materials or grading processes resulted in problems with NCLB, namely inaccurate sanctions or poor ratings. Despite all of this, or rather because of these problems originating within state bureaucracies and their adjuvant contracts, the states have taken closer looks at how they measure performance, and who is doing the measuring. Most states concluded that their own systems were disconnected, disparate pieces, with little effective capacity for “tracking and integrating sometimes even basic information about their students and teachers.” Manna says that 39 states reported better data tracking systems because of NCLB’s influence. Some of these changes came with difficulty, as administrative and policy changes often do. This point, with connections throughout the book, is perhaps the best illustrated point, and the most necessary of discussions, if NCLB is continue in any effective direction.

Policy changes and administrative changes were also goals, for schools whose educational ‘culture’ was ‘broken’. On pages 85 and 86, Manna relates the common ‘restructuring’ moves made by many schools: replacing a principle, and occasionally other administrative staff, along with various teachers and other employees. He notes that the attempts made at restructuring were varied, some schools attempted very little, but others were able to use Federal backing to push through big changes. The explanation follows about a school shutdown and restart in Michigan. Manna draws a heavy contrast between schools’ typical actions (or lack thereof), and what NCLB actually seemed to call for – which few school districts utilized. Bureaucracies and state employees are notoriously difficult to change, or fire, yet NCLB attempts to change that. Manna is effective in explaining how NCLB makes that possible, primarily through the use of these anecdotes.

Smooth transitions and clear connections, here and throughout the work, exemplify Manna’s ability for tying examples and stories to the theoretical framework and interactions at the policy level itself. To create his framework, assumptions about human nature are made, but are never clearly articulated in a broad, philosophical sense; rather, they are exemplified through the various anecdotes utilized. The stories are wide and varied, and range over a variety of human behavior, pointing to a view that says humans are flexible and varied. Such is integral to his analysis, as discussion of human nature never enters the conversation. Instead, his analysis tells us that the way we structure accountability systems, conflict and confrontation, education and the classroom, not to mention testing for proficiency, all can have marked impacts not only on the students in the education system, but on the adults administrating it and teaching within in it.

1 Paul Manna, Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities (Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2011), 116.

2 Ibid, 23.

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