Saturday, September 17, 2011

THE HIDDEN AGENDA OF ENDING SOCIAL PROMOTION

In my blog “Ending Social Promotion” (12 Sep), I claimed that Governor Martinez had no plan “to deal with the estimated 12000 students held back each year: no extra classroom space for the additional students, no additional funding, no specially trained personnel to intervene, no specially defined curriculum or instruction to improve reading—nada, nothing, zippo.”

Senator Fischmann emailed a response, “Michael, Read the bill! It's 8 pages long, and in many ways it is not what you think.” From an elected official, I always appreciate a courteous response and a Tea-Party-type “read the Constitution” rebuttal. Actually, the bill is 10 pages long, the disparity matters, for pages 9 and 10 really matter.

The issue about the effectiveness of this approach appears in Fischmann’s mincing words with me about whether the bill does or does not have some of the things which he says it has and which I say it does not have. For him, the bill has student-specific plans, parent-teacher conferences, reading specialists, testing, and summer school. For me, the bill offers those things, though I did not say so; what I did say was that it offered nothing “special,” just more of the same, more of what has already failed. Fischmann thinks that multiplying by zero gets a value more than zero; I do not.

Nevertheless, Fischmann writes that he likes the bill and tells me that he would vote for it except for one flaw: its lack of funding. Good objection: the bill imposes an unfunded mandate on school districts. I know that he realizes what an unfunded mandate would mean for them. Without additional funds, school districts would have to shift funds from their regular programs to additional efforts to remediate deficiencies—in short, do more with less—after estimating their share of 12,000 failing students and budgeting for them. This shift in funds could have the perverse effect of undermining student proficiency in regular programs and require even more remediation for more students—a downward spiral doing little to improve public education. (School districts would pay for summer school for K-8- grade students and for K-9-grade students if the state decides that their parents, who would otherwise pay for it, are indigent. Did anyone consider the effect of parental payments for summer school on the high-school dropout rate?)

Except for this little objection, Fischmann believes that the bill has educational promise. But the track record of such remediation programs elsewhere—is what fails elsewhere more likely to succeed here?—suggests that the program defined by this bill, however funded, will not only fail, but also harm students educationally, emotionally, socially. Their track record shows lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

Re-reading the bill, I discovered a provision not mentioned in the bill description at the start but placed at the very end (I refer to pages 9 and 10, after page 8, which also state major exceptions to or loopholes in the overall policy to end social promotion): it creates second-class students. It says that students not academically proficient the first time through and, after remediation, not academically proficient the second time through get removed from the regular school program and enrolled in a program with other students who have also failed to achieve academic proficiency—a two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. Fischmann assumes, I assume, that they will get a “separate-but-equal” education from teachers inspired to teach classes of students identified as academically deficient (without, he assumes, I assume, emotional, social, or disciplinary problems).

Fischmann and other supporters of the bill—sponsors are John Arthur Smith and Nora Espinoza—must know that removing students who have failed to achieve academic proficiency from regular programs and placing them in alternative programs stigmatizes them. (I do not know about the others, but Fischmann earlier supported stigmatizing entire schools with letter grades.) Worse, on a larger scale, without a word of discussion thus far, and with some effort at concealment, the bill’s provision to segregate students by academic ability begins the erosion of the long-established and widely accepted educational policy of mainstreaming.

As I have written many times before, elected and appointed state officials, many of whom have never taught in the classroom, are passing laws dictating what state-certified professional educators should be doing in the classroom. With this obscured provision to begin the surreptitious dismantling of mainstreaming, they are also deciding in Santa Fe which students should be in which classrooms. Fischmann was right; the bill was not what I had thought. But either Fischmann should read with care the whole bill, including pages 9 and 10, for, in many ways it is not what he thinks it is. Or he should come clean about his positions on public education, for, in many ways, they are not what he has led others and me to think they are.

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