Keillor: Don’t trash No Child Left Behind just because it is a conservative idea

January 30, 2008 | By | 8 Replies More

Garrison Keillor is disturbed that so many children are not being properly educated to read proficiently.   He argues that not all damage being done to our children’s education is being done by conservatives.  

Face it, the schools are not run by Republican oligarchs in top hats and spats but by perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres. Nice people are failing these kids, but when they are called on it, they get very huffy. When the grand poobah Ph.D.s of education stand up and blow, they speak with great confidence about theories of teaching, and considering the test results, the bums ought to be thrown out.

There is much evidence that teaching phonics really works, especially with kids with learning disabilities, a growing constituency. But because phonics is associated with behaviorism and with conservatives, and because the Current Occupant has spoken on the subject, my fellow liberals are opposed. . . .

No Child Left Behind initiative has plenty of flaws, but the Democrats who are trashing it should take another look at the Reading First program. It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children. Life is not a scrimmage. Grown-ups who stick with dogma even though it condemns children to second-class lives should be put on buses and sent to North Dakota to hoe wheat for a year.

I’ve met some of those “perfectly nice, caring, sharing people” Keillor mentioned who insist on reading methods that simply don’t work for significant numbers of children.  I know that they exist.



Category: Education

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    My son just finished the Reading First program. His reading has vastly improved due to the caring intervention of specialized faculty at his elementary school.

    "Liberals" don't just trash NCLB, many state governments in the South have petitioned to be relieved of its requirements. Remeber, the program WAS supposed to be funded in the first year at $60 billion, that was W's promise to Ted Kennedy and the rest of the education crowd in the US Senate. Guess what? W lied, whodathunkit, eh? The funding was initially at $47 Billion and has gone down since then as the fiscal demands of NCLB go up and are mandates and the cost war in Iraq and the pressures of wild give-aways to the rich have socked the US budget. Guess who wins that battle.

    NCLB was an idea by the Child Defense League which envisoned something far different than what W and his faked-out compatriots came up with at last. I have seen it and see it as a cynical attempt by the far right to ensure magnify the failures of public education in order to force tax dollars to fund private elementary education in the US. Then, we have religious education getting federal dollars and the schools allowed to flaunt US laws, just like W, and get their ways.

    The neat byproduct of NCLB is the demise of the public school which will also bring about the decline or demise of public school teachers unions, usually supportive of Democrats. I see NCLB as the same as the tort reform efforts of the far right, an attempt to eliminate a constituency which has traditionally provided votes and money to Democrats.

    To the degree which we may actually take the care needed of children in public education with the present system, OK. If we need to do more, that's OK. See Bill Moyers [ ] and welcome a conversation about the future of our children in the context of what we do in the upcoming elections.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Actually the No Child Left Behind should be trashed because it doesn't work. It is a patently stupid idea in that it assumes that it produces an environment the creates a competition for excellence in teaching. It totally ignores the fact that the students are a part of the education, as are the families and society at large.

    It bases its metrics entirely on stardrdized tests, that measure a limited skill set and attempts to produce a standardized student. It is kind of like army boot camp for kids.

    The net result is that it has caused widespread cheating by the teachers, school staff, and even entire school districts to get a good showing on the tests in order for people to keep their jobs. It is typical of the social experimentation that the politicians like to use the schools for.

    I don't care who thought of it, but like so many other things thought up by politicians in the last 20 years, it simply doesn't work ( like the war in Iraq, tax rebates, trickle down economics, deregulation, just say no, privatization, war on terror, war on durgs and many many more), but that doesn't stop the politicians from claiming it it will work if it is given enough time, and using the doctored stats to claim they are right.

    The problem is that the politicians have decided to rewrite the dictionary. Conservative originally referred to those that did not favor change, and liberal was the description of those that did. These labels have been twisted by the politicians to the point that Conservative represents the Republican, while liberal has been redefine to be a synonym for Democrat.

  3. Pat Whalen says:

    The thing is if education were given half the weight it deserves it would significant be backed by significant research with the teaching professionals well versed on that research and what works.

    In stead the conservative mind sees education as a privilege best left to the profit making sector. The result is a minimum spent on training and teacher development such that teachers are on their own with what ever notions they pick up wherever.

    Funny that is not how military education works.

  4. Sadly, that article is behind a ya must pay wall. I kinda wanted to see why he claims "phonics is associated with behaviorism and with conservatives." I've always believed in phonics and never thought that or even heard that. I'm extremely liberal tho in an anarchist sorta way, one reason i like this blog so much :). And your post, Erich, I enjoy the most, oddly enough, considering you are an attorney and I, like most people, don't care much for attorneys or the law. Not even a communist drug dealer lawyer I know very well that is always trying to sue the local government here, as well as suing slum lords et al. lol

    Anyway Phonics works, the only criticism that is remotely valid is that perhaps if one learns to read that way one might have problems with spelling. After all, english is an odd language.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Isn't the basis of NCLB to cut funding to those schools that show that they need it the most?

    NCLB has moved millions of dollars from the effort of teaching kids to the process of giving tests. NCLB forces schools to teach answers to specific and predictable questions instead of spending time on teaching kids to know how to work out answers to arbitrary questions in this fast changing world. NCLB teaches school systems how to game test results in order to keep funding coming.

    I don't say that it's all bad. It's just the worst plan put forward in education in a generation. It is another cookie-cutter plan well intended for supplying cookie-cutter industry with interchangeable, passive, predictable resources.

    That sort of work environment faded away half a century ago, and the leaders of education must recognize the new goals. Of course, they still teach cursive writing.

    Cursive was developed so that one leaves fewer gloppy ink drops from your split-nib quill due to lifting it and setting it down again. Actual speed tests show no advantage of script over print using modern writing tools. If speed was the issue, shorthand is superior to either form of writing.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    I don't know what criteria is used to determine if NCLB is "working," but I have a friend who recently became an elementary ed teacher and, in her opinion, from what she studied about it in her college program, NCLB has been a disaster. It forces many teachers to teach at the level of the slowest child, and many teachers still wind up shuttling underperforming kids on to the next grade. Moreover, it punishes teachers for something they can't control: the luck of the draw — i.e., whatever caliber of kids they happen to get that year. It's like when a sports team blames the coach for a losing year, no matter how many winning years the coach has accumulated. Statistically, every teacher will, sooner or later, have a problem class; thus, every teacher is at risk for having a target painted on his or her back. It is probably one reason why the turnover rate among teachers is amazingly high…I don't recall the exact statistics, but my teacher friend told me the average duration of a teacher in public schools is something like four years. Not that the goal of NCLB is all that wrong — certainly it is a serious problem for kids who fail one grade to nevertheless get pushed on to the next one, but the consensus seems to be that it isn't working, whatever one chooses that to mean.

  7. Alison says:

    Sorry, I won't buy it. I've seen too much of the damage NCLB has done to say anything in favor of it. I don't know how it relates to any particular reading program, but I do know that it has caused all kinds of problems for our students, teachers, and administrators. The weeks before the tests, all creative and analytical thinking stops so that teachers can prep the students to give the winning answers. Anything outside of the constrains of the test becomes a low priority for school boards to fund and for teachers to teach.

    The aim of it is to produce students who fit a preconceived notion of "educated", while limiting what "educated" means – and expanding the number of students who are supposed to be "educated" to include those who can't be. Talk to a special education teacher, who considers it a good day when one of his students learns to tie his own shoe, or gets to the bathroom before soiling himself. Ask him how frustrating it is to have his students forced to take this test – and to have his abilities to teach and his school's ability to provide an education measured by the performance of students who are simply unable to pass this test. Check out the finagling of numbers that allows wealthy school districts to outsource their special needs kids to other districts so their own funding isn't influenced by these students' poor scores.

    In my previous school district, one of our schools failed because the percentage of ESL students passing the test wasn't high enough. Problem was, the number of ESL students wasn't enough to bring that percentage up. We needed to have (IIRC) twelve ESL students in the school with passing scores – but there were only six ESL students in the whole school. My current school district had a school with proficient scores in the high 90's, which failed and lost funding because its Annual Yearly Improvement wasn't high enough.

    There are so many good reasons to complain about NCLB that there's simply no need to bash it based on its political source. Anyone who objects to it simply because it was a Republican idea clearly doesn't know anything about it and should shut his mouth. (Same with anyone who fully supports it because of its political ties. Neither one is looking critically at the program itself.)

  8. David says:

    NCLB (Nickel Bee) is a farce — a confederacy of dunces with "W" at the top of the heap!

    The entire effort is based on the pre-supposition that standardized tests can actually measure with accuracy student achievement levels. I maintain that they CAN NOT.

    Who sets the standard – and the standard changes over time — a lot like a moving target. NCLB is another attempt at an under-funded mandate to exploit public education, teachers unions and ultimately to privatize (or maybe Federalize) public education.

    OK, on any given standardized assessment at least 50% will score above the average and at least 50% will score below the average. According to NCLB all students will be proficient — in some year — 2014 (HI HO!). How this will never happen on a standard measure? I will not.

    Now we may change the measure – to a criterion referenced assessment … but this would require a nationalized curriculum. Please read the Atlantic Monthly – A Federalized Education System! Hi Ho!

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