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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The NCLB Bubble and What It Means for Nonfiction

As the Headlines Trace the Collapse of the Housing Bubble, Schools Face a Different Disaster

Did you all catch the piece in the Times this morning about the squeeze schools face with NCLB? www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/education/13child.html Basically, schools made a deal with NCLB, promising slow progress for a few years, then rapid improvement in testing scores later one. But there are three problems with that devil’s bargin: 1) we have reached "later on" and the schools have no chance of making the, say, 11% improvement they have promised. According to one expert, every elementary school in California will fail to meet its goals in a few years. 2) The whole goal system is flawed because progress is determined by standards that vary by state. So in easy-test-states some schools will meet their standards, and not educate their kids, while hard-test states will fail to meet standards, while actually doing more to challenge and educate students. 3) Turns out the schools made this deal to rapidly increase their scores based on the assumption that the rules would change in 2007 when NCLB came up for renewal. NCLB may well change, but Washington is busy with other bubbles, and so nothing has happened yet.

Surely you don’t need me to point out the problems with NCLB. But having just been at a terrific public school in Urbana, IL (albeit a magnet school in a university town), I see what public education can be. And the contrast between the engaged thinking the 8th graders were encouraged to do at University High, and the labored effort to meet reading and math proficiency goals, could not be greater. An administrator at Uni High told me he had recently read a study that said the amount of difference schools can make is limited — because the challenges kids and their families face are often so much greater than any great teaching can address. If we leave private school entirely out of the equation, it still seems to me there are at least two, and maybe 100 (two times the states) different kinds of schools in America. Those which are fighting the arcana of legislation and the challenges of language, poverty, health, and those in which young people are thinking at the level of college students. 

So, writers and and editors, what does this split in even our public schools mean to us? I suggest it means there really are two distinct school communities for nonfiction, and that when we create, edit, publish, and review nonfiction we need to be clear about that. Challenging nonfiction should not be judged by the standards of laboring students, and carefully lexiled nonfiction should not be judged by the capacities of magnet schools. When we blur what we mean by "students" we may well lose twice.