February 9, 2007

And now, a defense of boutique education

At the cost of alienating my new blog-buddy Alexander Russo, who a few days ago said, "Once in a while, Sherman Dorn and I agree about something," I'm going to go in a slightly different direction from my gripe about the NCLB-and-gifted-ed argument Wednesday. Then, I argued that the defense of gifted education was an inappropriate argument against NCLB for a variety of reasons.

Today, let me address the reverse: Are complaints about NCLB good for gifted education and other specialized programs?

Without addressing specifics, I'll say that there are places for specialized programs within education, included gifted education, though not necessarily with the standard rationale you'll hear. I mentioned one yesterday: addressing students who are not only bored in school but bored and likely to get into trouble through that boredom. In addition, gifted education (among other places) provides a legitimate opportunity for trying out challenging material. As long as there's an understanding that the challenging material will eventually be made available more broadly if successful and when hammered out, that "laboratory" environment raises far fewer equity concerns. And when giftedness is thought of in a dynamic way and not as a static quantity, there's less of a danger of reifying it and conflating it with social class, race, ethnicity, etc. A number of researchers in special education, including gifted education, have been working with the elitism/inequality issues for a number of years. I'm confident I'm not breaking any new ground here, and I'm sure my colleagues in my college can go much further in describing current research. The fact that much current gifted education is bounded by a variety of practices and institutional legacies does not mean that it can't be different.

There are other specialized programs that have some justification, as long as we acknowledge tensions between specialization and choice, on the one hand, and common purpose, on the other. In programs without gatekeeping, the within-school choice issue justifies considerable specialization. Yet there's a counter-argument, best explained in The Shopping Mall High School: "boutique shops" (or specialized programs) give the illusion of choice without depth and without a common mission. The real experiences of millions of adults (i.e., former students) provides natural constituencies to maintain various education boutiques in their historical forms.

Now, to an uncomfortable fact: apparently the (DOA) Bush budget proposal includes an interesting shift to fund NCLB: take funds away from federal special-education appropriations (see Public Agenda's blog).  So perhaps it looks like NCLB does threaten some specialized programs (those with high mandated costs and an historically underfunded federal commitment)... or at least the proposed budget. But what about the complaints?

First, to gifted education: The article in the New York Times (and others) gives the impression that gifted educators are whining. Whining generally is not a successful tactic, and it's only a tactic, not a strategy. Regarding the strategy implicit in the article, relying on the political power of wealthy families who are more likely to have children in gifted programs imprisons gifted education in its current structure and practices.  Again, that's not wise in the long term.

Second, to most special education and English-language learning instruction: In both cases, NCLB fails to address the dilemma of assessment (to wit, that one must insist on high standards while acknowledging that age-peer "grade-level" testing will often be insensitive to improvement). Only to complain about the assessment problem risks failing to address the underlying need for accountability. There are some complex (and often unsolved) technical problems, but the political problem is explaining the technical problems appearing as if one is excusing schools for low expectations.

Third, to career and technical education (also part of the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul maneuver of the president's proposed budget): I haven't read that much related to CTE/vocational education in the last few years, at least insofar as NCLB is concerned. So I'm not going to hazard a guess. But if the other two "shops" discussed above are any indication, standard criticism of NCLB will not necessarily help CTE.

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Posted in Education policy on February 9, 2007 12:57 AM |