FW: A diminished view of civil rights

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Thu Jun 7 11:24:54 UTC 2007

FYI. This has to do more with educational policy in the US than language
policy per se, but since language is a big element in discussion of the
former it may be of interest.  Don

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-MULTIED-L at usc.edu [mailto:owner-MULTIED-L at usc.edu] On Behalf Of
Stephen Krashen
Sent: Wednesday, June 06, 2007 9:51 AM
To: MULTIED-L at usc.edu
Subject: A diminished view of civil rights

A very important article.

"Eliminating achievement gaps is paramount among the
law's goals; equal educational opportunity is not. In
fact, the latter term-which had been prominent in
previous versions of the federal Elementary and
Secondary Education Act-appears nowhere in NCLB."

A Diminished Vision of Civil Rights
No Child Left Behind and the growing divide in how
educational equity is understood.
By James Crawford
Education Week, June 6, 2007

At the core of today's debates over school
accountability lies a contentious question: Does the
federal No Child Left Behind Act represent a historic
advance for civil rights, or a giant step backward for
the children it purports to help?
This argument has divided the civil rights community
itself, along with its traditional allies in Congress.
One side supports stern measures designed to force
educators to pay attention to long-neglected students
and enable all children to reach "proficiency" in key
subjects. The other side argues that the law's tools
of choice-high-stakes testing, unrealistic achievement
targets, and punitive sanctions-have not only proved
ineffective in holding schools accountable, they also
are pushing "left behind" groups even further behind.

Disagreement is especially acute among advocates for
English-language learners, known in the shorthand of
K-12 education as "ELLs." These students pose a
fundamental challenge for the No Child Left Behind
accountability scheme, owing to the near-total absence
of valid and reliable assessments of their academic
achievement. Usually tested in English, a language
they have yet to master, ELLs tend to perform poorly
in both reading and math. Indeed, the law defines them
as students who have difficulty meeting state
standards because of the language barrier.
Nevertheless, under every state NCLB plan,
English-language learners' scores on invalid tests
must be included in "adequate yearly progress"
calculations, and, where they fall short of AYP
targets, schools must undergo "corrective action."
In other words, high-stakes decisions about the
education of these students are being made on the
basis of data generally acknowledged to be inaccurate.
Schools with an ELL "subgroup" are being labeled and
punished for failure-not because of the quality of
instruction they provide, but because existing tests
are unable to measure what ELLs have learned.
While acknowledging this reality, the Mexican American
Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National
Council of La Raza have emerged as uncompromising
defenders of the No Child Left Behind law. They oppose
exempting English-language learners from standardized
tests, regardless of the tests' validity, for more
than the one year that is currently allowed by federal
regulations. In the words of a MALDEF lobbyist,
leaving English-language learners out of No Child Left
Behind's accountability system would mean "removing
the incentive to teach them." The two organizations
favor increased funding to develop appropriate
assessments, hardly a controversial idea. In the
meantime, however, they insist on the continued use of
flawed assessments to judge schools and, by
implication, to make flawed decisions about
educational programs.
Critics of NCLB-style accountability-who now include a
substantial majority of educators working with
English-language learners-cannot see how such a blunt
instrument could produce academic benefits. More
importantly, they point to the law's harmful impact on
minority students generally and on ELLs in particular.
The perverse effects are well-documented: excessive
class time devoted to test preparation, a curriculum
narrowed to the two tested subjects, neglect of
critical thinking in favor of basic skills, pressure
to reduce or eliminate native-language instruction,
demoralization of teachers whose students fall short
of unrealistic cut scores, demoralization of children
who are forced to take tests they can't understand,
and, perhaps worst of all, practices that encourage
low-scoring students to drop out before test day.
No one questions that, because of the No Child Left
Behind law, English-language learners are receiving
more "attention" than ever before. But, as many
educational researchers and practitioners can testify,
results in the classroom have been far more negative
than positive. Supporters of the law have generally
declined to respond to what educators are reporting,
and instead have accused the law's critics of opposing
accountability or believing that minority children
"can't learn."
How could civil rights advocates disagree over such
fundamental issues? The only plausible answer is that
there is a growing divide in how educational equity is
understood. Some clues can be found in the changing
terminology used to discuss school reform.
Once upon a time, civil rights advocates were united
in pursuing the goal of equal educational opportunity.
They fought against racial segregation in public
schools and demanded equitable resources for all
students. Their focus was on "inputs," pushing state
and local officials to provide adequate school
facilities, well-designed instructional programs,
effective teachers, and attention to the effects of
poverty-such as parental illiteracy, poor health, and
malnutrition-that pose obstacles to learning. In those
days, the enemy was clear: a two-tier system that
provided an inferior education to many children on the
basis of skin color, language background, class
status, and place of residence.
But in the No Child Left Behind era, the words equal
educational opportunity have largely faded from the
public discourse. In their place, there is talk of
eliminating the "achievement gaps" between various
groups of students.
The latter term was seldom heard in the 1980s or
1990s, as is shown by a quick archive search of major
newspapers, including The New York Times, The
Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Boston
Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Education Week.
Then, around 1999, "achievement gap" suddenly burst
into the popular lexicon. The credit is largely due to
then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and his political
guru, Karl Rove, who were planning a presidential
campaign in which school reform would figure
Their strategy-which ultimately proved successful-was
to seize an issue traditionally "owned" by Democrats
and give it a "compassionate conservative" spin. By
stressing the achievement gap, candidate Bush
redefined civil rights in the field of school reform:
"Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children
to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to
require anything less-the soft bigotry of low
expectations." Retiring the Republican theme of
dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, he
called instead for an enhanced federal role based on
the Texas model of high-stakes testing.
In 2001, key Democrats in Congress, including Sen.
Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, encouraged
by certain liberal advocacy groups, joined forces with
the Bush administration and with Republican leaders in
Congress. The result was bipartisan passage of the No
Child Left Behind Act late that year.
Eliminating achievement gaps is paramount among the
law's goals; equal educational opportunity is not. In
fact, the latter term-which had been prominent in
previous versions of the federal Elementary and
Secondary Education Act-appears nowhere in NCLB. (No
doubt an anonymous congressional staffer performed a
search-and-delete operation on the bill, just as one
did with the word "bilingual," which was also
What's the significance of this shift in terminology?
Achievement gap is all about measurable
"outputs"-standardized-test scores-and not about
equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating
segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity
to learn. The No Child Left Behind Act is silent on
such matters. Dropping equal educational opportunity,
which highlights the role of inputs, has a subtle but
powerful effect on how we think about accountability.
It shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators
and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools.
By implication, educators are the obstacle to change.
Every mandate of No Child Left Behind-and there are
hundreds-is designed to force the people who run our
schools to shape up, work harder, raise expectations,
and stop "making excuses" for low test scores, or face
the consequences. Despite the law's oft-stated
reverence for "scientifically based research," this
narrow approach is contradicted by numerous studies
documenting the importance of social and economic
factors in children's academic progress. Yet it has
the advantage of enabling politicians to ignore the
difficult issues and avoid costly remedies. If
educators are the obstacle, there's no need to address
what Jonathan Kozol calls the "savage inequalities" of
our educational system and our society.
In other words, despite its stated goals, the No Child
Left Behind law represents a diminished vision of
civil rights. Educational equity is reduced to
equalizing test scores. The effect has been to
impoverish the educational experience of minority
students-that is, to reinforce the two-tier system of
public schools that civil rights advocates once
English-language learners, for example, are being fed
a steady diet of test-prep, worksheets, and other
"skill building" exercises from a menu mostly reduced
to reading and math. Their language-learning needs are
increasingly neglected by the marginalization of
bilingual and even English-as-a-second-language
instruction to make time for English language arts
items likely to be on the test. Meanwhile,
more-advantaged students are studying music, art,
foreign languages, physical education, science,
history, and civics, getting to read literature rather
than endure phonics drills, and participating in field
trips, plays, chess clubs, and debate tournaments-all
"frills" that are routinely denied to children whose
test scores have become life-or-death matters for
educators' careers.
Ironically, in numerous ways, No Child Left Behind is
increasing the achievement gap, if academic
achievement is understood as getting an all-round
education and, with it, an equal chance to succeed in
life. True civil rights advocates cannot and must not
ignore the reality behind the rhetoric.

James Crawford is the president of the Institute for
Language and Education Policy (www.elladvocates.org),
a nonprofit advocacy group in Takoma Park, Md. He can
be reached at bilingualed at starpower.net.
Vol. 26, Issue 39, Pages 31,40

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