Commentary | Education

Lessons—Created: Bigger U.S. Role; Evolving: What the Role Is

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JANUARY 16, 2002]

Created: Bigger U.S. Role; Evolving: What the Role Is

By Richard Rothstein

Liberal Democrats have long wanted more federal involvement in education, hoping this would bring extra funds to urban schools. Conservative Republicans argued against a federal role, warning that it would lead to national curriculums that reflect liberal values.

When President Bush signed the education bill last week, liberals got their wish for federal involvement, though with less money than they wanted. Conservatives did not fret about increased federal control because they saw a chance to impose their own values on the nation’s schools.

The new law is filled with seemingly harmless phrases that have great symbolic meaning to proponents. For example, the Republican majority on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce boasts that it substituted the term “achievement” for “performance,” a word found in previous law.

To the uninitiated, it may seem strange to insist on distinguishing these terms. But to some conservatives, performance assessment refers to evaluating students in several ways and on various skills, whereas “achievement” refers only to standardized tests in core academic subjects.

Many educators think that students should be evaluated with standardized tests but feel that samples of writing and projects should also be used. This is anathema to some conservatives, who now hope to have banned such portfolios with a legislative sleight of hand.

The law has a new program for strengthening American history instruction by, for example, providing grants for training teachers. But dollars can be used only for “traditional” American history. Most historians now urge  teachers to cover the experiences of minorities, women and ordinary workers, not only political leaders. There is debate about how much the emphasis should shift, but virtually no respected educator wants a return to the traditional teaching of only facts about leaders. Yet this approach is a matter of law for schools that accept this federal money.

Then there is the legislative demand that almost all policies rely on “scientifically based research.” The phrase originally referred to studies by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, finding that children with reading difficulties needed to learn phonics. The institute’s studies do not say that all children benefit from such lessons, or that phonics should be the most important part of instruction. Many careful studies of reading proficiency find that exposure to literature (sometimes called whole language instruction) also has value. But educational conservatives have nonetheless decided that “scientifically based research” supports teaching only the mechanics of reading.

Infatuated with the promise of scientific research in education, the drafters went further, sprinkling the bill with scores of other gratuitous references to science. Teachers must be recruited using scientifically based research. Library media programs must be scientifically based. Even school security officers in a drug prevention program must be hired using scientific methods.

Such excess cheapens the concept of solid educational research, ensuring only that proponents of any policy will now claim a scientific basis for their proposals.

Congressional enthusiasm for science, however, does not seem to apply to evolution and sex education. In the case of evolution, the law says that teachers must “help students understand the full range of views on controversial topics,” science notwithstanding.

And sex education programs must emphasize abstinence, despite the lack of scientific data showing this to be an effective way to reduce AIDS, venereal disease or teenage pregnancy. The law actually does its best to discourage scientific data on this topic, prohibiting Department of Education surveys from asking students, even anonymously, about their sex behavior or attitudes. Effective programs cannot be developed without such information.

Liberals and moderates, who have often used coded words themselves to serve their legislative objectives, were so eager to get money for urban schools that they have now acceded to provisions and slogans they found offensive. They are probably right that the ideological intent will be softened in Education Department regulations and that this administration will only modestly enforce the agenda reflected in the law’s language. But it is a dangerous gamble, just to win a few extra dollars for urban schools. Future administrations could take the language more seriously. Or a judge could rule favorably on a lawsuit claiming, say, that federal dollars were used to teach “untraditional” history.

Conservatives, too, may rue the day they so significantly expanded the federal government’s place in the classroom. A door, carefully guarded for so long, has now been opened wide. Who might walk through it in the future?

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