The mass media was quick to fixate on the one “positive” element of the recent CCJEF v. Rell school funding lawsuit ruling, missing the many series problems associated with decision.
In her first piece, Problems with the CCJEF Decision – Will equity without adequacy be enough to help Connecticut’s neediest children?, education advocate and Hearst Media Group columnist Wendy Lecker looked at the school finance portion of the judge’s action. Here, in Demanding more in elementary schools, she looks at some of the education policy elements of the ruling.
This piece first appeared in the Stamford Advocate. You can read and comment on the original at: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Wendy-Lecker-Demanding-more-in-elementary-schools-9242568.php
More about the extremely disappointing CCJEF v. Rell ruling by Wendy Lecker
As noted in my previous column, CCJEF trial judge Thomas Moukawsher refused to order the state to ensure adequate resources in schools, though determining constitutional adequacy was his responsibility. By contrast, the judge freely issued sweeping directives regarding educational policy.
The judge issued far-reaching orders involving elementary and high school education and teacher evaluations. He also aired abhorrent views toward children with disabilities, which several commentators already addressed.
This column addresses his orders regarding elementary education. I will address the others in subsequent columns.
Moukawsher observed that the educational disparities in secondary school begin in elementary school. (He actually acknowledged that they begin before elementary school, but declined to rule that preschool is essential.)
Moukawsher’s “fix” for elementary school was to order the state to define elementary education as being “primarily related to developing basic literacy and numeracy skills needed for secondary school.”
Most of us understand that to thrive in secondary school, children must develop skills beyond basic numeracy and literacy. From an early age, children must develop the ability to think critically, creatively and independently.
There is no real division among brain functions — cognitive, social and motor — so they all must be developed in concert. As neuroscientist Adele Diamond observed, “a human being is not just an intellect or just a body … we ignore any of those dimensions at our peril in … educating children.”
However, Moukawsher ruled that elementary school should concern itself with basic literacy and numeracy skills. Moreover, he demanded that this definition have “force,” “substantial consequences” and be “verifiable” — code for high-stakes statewide standardized elementary school exit exams.
The judge’s myopic focus was emphasized by his suggestion for giving the required definition “force.” He declared that the state definition “might gain some heft, for example, if the rest of school stopped for students who leave third grade without basic literacy skills. School for them might be focused solely on acquiring those skills. Eighth-grade testing would have to show they have acquired those skills before they move on to secondary school. This would give the schools four school years to fix the problem for most children.”
Many children who do not score well on standardized tests are poor and experience stress in their lives that inhibits learning. Others are just learning English. Others have disabilities. Any lag in reading does not mean a child cannot think at grade level or beyond. Moreover, many low-income children have limited exposure to the wide variety of experiences their more affluent peers enjoy. Yet Moukawsher’s prescription for “fixing” them is to limit their education to reading instruction. No art, music, physical education, social studies, science, drama, or field trips. This “solution” will leave our neediest children further behind developmentally.
Moukawsher’s proposal not only threatens to hinder development for our neediest children. It is not even an effective way to teach reading.
As Wheelock College’s Diane Levin explains, children cannot learn to read in a vacuum. The more children can make associations between words and their experiences, the better readers they become. Exposure to wide-ranging subjects and activities is part of learning to read. It is especially crucial for disadvantaged children, who may have limited life experiences outside school.
Moreover, learning to read requires engagement. Children must see the value of reading and writing in helping them get better at something that they like to do.
The Kansas Supreme Court understood this concept when it ordered that Kansas must ensure a host of programs as part of a constitutionally adequate education. The court recognized that “modern schools … have sought to aid students whose individual circumstances … diminish their ability to learn. Some examples … are programs providing breakfast or lunch, pre-school or after school programs, all day kindergarten, field trips, or even theater, band, or athletic endeavors, all which broaden one’s base of association such that it may spark inquiry, acceptance, or, otherwise, give purpose to the pursuit of an education.”
What type of education is necessary for Connecticut’s children? Should we merely try pouring words into their heads? Or should we heed what modern science reveals about how children learn and ensure that every child, not matter what her circumstance, has the opportunity to learn basic and complex skills, so that she can develop into a responsible citizen?
Judge Moukawsher opted for the former, constricted view — one that experts know fails to accomplish even his meager goals.
Connecticut must demand better than that if we want to achieve the equal educational opportunities our constitution demands.