Teacher Michael Loeb at work at his Bronx school
To reach Michael Loeb’s grade 6 special needs class, visitors must first check in with the armed security guard who sits at the head of the school’s cavernous and windowless ground-floor lobby.
The school’s hallways, also starved of natural light, are a sickly olive green. But Mr Loeb’s fourth-floor classroom explodes with colour - the blue and yellow of his alma mater, George Washington University, forms the backdrop to displays of student work and exhortations to achieve. “Every student will grow a year and a half in reading,” declares one mission statement.
The choice of university colours seeks to plant the seed of ambition in each student. This is the Bronx and Mr Loeb’s class is a mix of Hispanic, African-American and white students, of attention deficit disorders and dyslexia. The school, the Urban Institute of Mathematics, is taking over the site of a “failed” school that is undergoing restructuring - code for closing. Mr Loeb is one of the latest instalments of an American educational experiment, Teach For America, which recruits college graduates, subjects them to a two- or three-week orientation program and five weeks of summer school while they study at night.
After another brief orientation they are sent to schools in disadvantaged urban and rural areas, to be supervised and mentored for the next two years.
“The goal is to fix our school system so these kids have a chance,” says Mr Loeb, who graduated in journalism last May and began full-time special needs teaching in September. He is 23, and like every other Teach for America participant this reporter has met, enthusiastic, energetic and committed.
“Most Americans believe in capitalism and having to work hard for rewards,” he says. “We also believe in a fair starting line, but some of these kids I serve have been ignored by society and are behind from the start.”
His students began with reading abilities ranging from grade 1 to grade 4. Their range has since shifted up a grade level. “We have a high reliance on data,” he says. “I will test their reading five times this year.”
In the hall is a reminder to all students: “New York State Math Test. Tuesday and Wednesday March 10 and 11, 2009. Good Luck”
Testing, measuring progress and worries over the state of education in the US are chronic. Among George W Bush’s self-declared greatest achievements was his No Child Left Behind policy, intended to address under-achievement among disadvantaged students.
Before Mr Bush, President Clinton was proposing greater federal involvement in education, and before Clinton the Teach For America scheme was started to overcome the effects of economic and social disadvantage.
Now, like Australia, America is being promised an education revolution under Barack Obama. His education secretary Arne Duncan has made clear his critical view of No Child Left Behind: “I think we are lying to children and families when we tell children that they are meeting standards and, in fact, they are woefully unprepared to be successful in high school and have almost no chance of going to a good university and being successful.”
So what is the state of America’s schools? President Obama’s assessment is challenging. The US has one of the highest high school drop-out rates of any industrialised nation; low achievement in international terms in senior maths and science; six million students performing below their grade level in reading; half of all teenagers unable to grasp basic fractions; almost 90 per cent of African American and Latino year 8s lacking proficiency in maths, and only 20 per cent of school leavers ready for college level English and maths.
According to Harvard University professor of education Richard Elmore, much of the US education system is mediocre. There is, he says, a huge variability in standards.
Mr Obama has talked the talk for a long while. Fixing education was a recurring theme of his even before he won the Democratic nomination. He forsees an education revolution that will improve preschooling and access to tertiary education.
He has promised to offer tax credits to cover two-thirds of the tuition at an average public college, and to make community college completely free. In return, students would be expected to “serve their country, whether it’s by teaching or volunteering or joining the Peace Corps”.
He has vowed to try to expand summer learning programs for minority and disadvantaged students and to massively increase resources for after-school programs. A particular focus has been better training for teachers, and more reward for skilled teaching. In 2004 as an Illinois senator he co-sponsored legislation to create a Chicago academy to develop quality teachers for demanding urban school districts, and teaching scholarships to encourage undergraduates into the profession. As president he is promising the same on the national stage.
The Teach for America scheme places its teacher recruits in schools for two years. The national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, worries that mere weeks of training are not enough, and points to the fact that many participants do not remain as classroom teachers beyond the initial two-year stint.
But Teach for America highlights the enduring problems in the US education system. What the scheme describes as “our nation’s greatest injustice” is that half the children growing up in poor and minority communities will not graduate from high school by the age of 18, and those who do will function at year 8 level.
Teach For America executive vice president Kevin Huffman says children in the areas the program operates arrive at class already behind. “They come from living in poverty, they lack access to health care and nutrition, their parents may be working two jobs to make ends meet, they lack access to early childhood education.
“And schools don’t get designed to close the gaps. Under-girding the whole thing is an historical ambivalence to the outcomes for kids in lower income areas.”
The No Child Left Behind program introduced a massive expansion of testing, along with sanctions for so-called “failing schools” which could lead to closure.
If it achieved nothing else, the program forced schools to consider how minority students were coping. “No Child Left Behind has taken a beating. There’s much that needs to be changed, but the reality is it’s stepping up the accountability framework for long term success,” Mr Huffman says.
Critics say that the program resulted in teachers devoting their time to preparing students for a standardised test of questionable quality. And the pressure of testing narrowed the curriculum, forcing out subjects like music and art.
“The downside of this is we treasure what we measure,” says University of Pennsylvania professor of education policy Peg Goertz. “If we are measuring the three Rs that’s what the kids are going to be taught.”
Professor Elmore says it will not be sufficient for the country to recruit “good” people to be teachers. The US still has not followed other countries in setting up a sustained teacher professional development system.
He says the US relies on testing as its main lever of accountability and improvement, yet teachers are often ill-equipped to do the things asked of them.
“We have a test-driven system that has no human investment strategy behind it. You are trying to raise performance by getting people to do things they don’t know how to do,” Professor Elmore says.
The models for constantly improving teaching standards through professional development programs, he says, are found in Ontario, Canada, and Victoria, Australia.
“I think the fact that the minister and the Premier in Victoria are aware that the decisions they are making about the education sector matter in electoral terms has had a huge impact,” Professor Elmore says.
“The political consequences are not high enough in the US. We have to make this a quality of life issue for middle-class Americans. It’s not just that it’s scary to walk down the street in parts of the city, but what happens to these kids is going to determine your future standard of living. These people are going to determine your social security.”
Where Obama has spoken of improving teaching standards, Arne Duncan - who played professional basketball in Melbourne from 1987 to 1991 - has echoed those views but also stressed expanding early childhood education and improving student assessment. He is likely to push for more uniform academic standards rather than leaving the states to set their own, and has publicly wondered about whether No Child Left Behind has led to a dumbing down of standards as states ensured they met targets.
Mr Duncan, whose family has a 50-year history of involvement in Chicago public education, is close to Mr Obama, whose idea of recreation is a pick-up game of basketball. Mr Duncan, described by those who know him as “completely unflappable”, shares Mr Obama’s cool, reflective style.
And he is credited with reviving Chicago’s notoriously troubled school system.
There has been a massive transformation of the culture of schooling in Chicago,” Professor Elmore says. “You can walk into schools in the most dangerous, the most devastated neighbourhood in Chicago and there is a calm, orderly environment. The kids feel safe. The teachers are on task. The buildings look terrific. Everything works.”
He has brought the city’s schools to what Professor Elmore calls “high level basics”. The challenge is to go higher.
Professor Goertz says the choice of Mr Duncan to head education indicates that the president’s concern are less about resources and more about how education is delivered.
The new education secretary has promised a national listening tour to hear what others think before beginning his program.
Ask American educators where the educational priorities lie and you hear different answers: capital spending on schools; teacher development, increased preschool and after-school programs, an “achieving culture”.
The Obama administration’s stimulus package that won Congressional approval last month included $A150 billion for education. It’s a start.
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