They dare to dissent on education 'reform'
By Joan Vennochi | May 14, 2006
NEW BEDFORD Mayor Scott W. Lang is unafraid to put unpopular thoughts on the table.
Good for him.
In defiance of state law, Lang and the New Bedford School Committee want to grant high school diplomas to students who have met all requirements of high school graduation but did not pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. Currently, students who fail one or both of the MCAS English and math tests are only entitled to a ''certificate of attendance." New Bedford wants to issue two types of diplomas -- a state-approved diploma for students who do pass the MCAS and a general high school diploma for those who successfully completed their course work but did not pass the MCAS.
The response is predictable and patronizing: How dare New Bedford challenge the sacred cow of education reform with a threat of civil disobedience?
Well, the president of the United States appears to be telling the country it's OK to selectively disobey laws. Why can't the mayor of New Bedford reach the same conclusion, in pursuit of a legitimate debate about public education?
Thousands of Massachusetts students already receive high school diplomas without passing MCAS tests. They attend private and parochial schools across the state. No one presumes they are undeserving or uneducated because they never had the privilege of being drilled in the art of taking a state-administered, standardized test. Yet, that is precisely the presumption in Massachusetts public schools.
In New Bedford, Lang is challenging that presumption. ''It comes down to this. Public school administrators and teachers are not trusted to accurately assess and pass a kid onto the next grade or course. The law is based on it," said Lang.
Always seeking the next easy headline to pitch to the national media, Mitt Romney is threatening to cut off $103 million in state funding if New Bedford pursues its plan to issue two types of diplomas. Frankly, the governor is irrelevant to this local discussion. He has no interest in understanding what is happening on the ground in Massachusetts classrooms. All he wants is the ability to tout Massachusetts ''ed reform," as he flies across the country on the presidential campaign trail.
As Lang notes, ''Bludgeoning New Bedford into submission doesn't solve the problem."
The problem is not a commitment to education reform. The problem is that too many politicians want to believe that education reform did everything necessary to ''reform" public education -- and now it's simply a matter of making sure students, teachers, and administrators get with the program, stay with it, and reform themselves. They don't want to get to the next level of debate -- how to close the achievement gap between mostly white, suburban public school kids and their counterparts in diverse, low-income, urban school systems.
Nearly 66 percent of students in New Bedford come from low income families versus 26 percent statewide. According to recently reported information, 91 percent of the 631 member senior class at New Bedford High had passed the MCAS.
But a third of New Bedford students drop out over the course of high school, compared with 13 percent statewide. Lang believes students decide to drop out when they fear they will not be able to pass the MCAS. What is more important, he asks, ''To be socialized and involved in a school community or to sit in a seat one day and go through a standardized test?" What about those kids who stay in school, pass the course work, but don't pass the MCAS? Should we just tell them, ''Thanks for coming, we appreciate it, take care?" asks Lang.
Several other Massachusetts communities, including Cambridge and Falmouth, tried to implement the same type of proposal as New Bedford. They backed down when threatened with the loss of state funding. Lang said he does not want to put New Bedford or the schools at risk; but he wonders why the law is considered sacrosanct and why politicians like Romney are so willing to hold money hostage to their definition of education reform. ''To say, 'We're not going to fund your school system,' is absurd," said Lang.
One size rarely fits all, in clothes or education. The challenge is figuring out how to tailor learning to children, wherever they live, whatever their family backgrounds. Public education is not ''reformed" until it is. Public officials who have the spine to point that out deserve praise, not condemnation.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company