Nan Austin

Words fail them: Take note, student speakers, Congress losing points on presentation

Congressional speeches on both sides warning the other side will ruin the country appear to be having an effect – on what people think of Congress. The underlying message seems worth noting as students head to college interviews and school boards gavel meetings to order during a tough negotiating year.

A recent study found just using words such as – and these are the top nine – gentle, involve, educate, contribute, concerned, give, tolerate, trust and cooperate predicted a rise in public approval. They did not give a corresponding naughty list of words that lowered approval.

“Laboratory research has established that prosocial language can influence whether an audience thinks highly of a speaker. Our findings suggest that this phenomenon generalizes to the real world and can help explain how legislative bodies gain the confidence of the governed,” the report says.

In other words, whether one nods along emphatically with these speeches or feels slightly queasy these folks are running the country, the drumbeat of downers at the podium coincided with lower and lower public opinion of them collectively.

In Congress’ case, following preferred words traced a climb to an approval rating of 50-plus percent in 2002 followed by a slide into single digits by late 2013.

The study, titled “A decline in prosocial language helps explain public disapproval of the U.S. Congress,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It analyzed the 123,927,807 words spoke during in-session speeches of the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1996 to November 2014.

Congress, it should be noted, appears close to passing a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education funding law revolutionized by then-President George W. Bush to include mandated testing and school scoring. The House and Senate passed very different versions of a successor bill.

On Nov. 19 a conference committee reached agreement on a compromise version, passing it 38-1. Key provisions of it can be heard on the Federal Flash, a news video prepared by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The bill could be voted on by the House as soon as Dec. 2 and by the Senate the following week, sending it to President Barack Obama before year’s end.

While details will not be available until Nov. 30, a summary by School Services of California Inc. suggests testing and reporting of subgroup progress will remain. But it would leave to the states what to demand in improvements, only requiring action for the bottom 5 percent of schools and high schools where a third or more of students fail to graduate on time.

Officially, NCLB expired in 2007. What the late educational researcher Gerald Bracey called “one of the weirdest and most punitive laws ever passed” lives on, toothless when it comes to serious reform but still requiring reams of paperwork and sanctions-driven services.

Its promise of having every child at or above grade level by 2014 never came close. In the last of that era’s testing in 2013, just over half (51.2 percent) of Stanislaus County students were at grade level in reading and less than half (44.5 percent) made the grade in math.

Sanctions followed as schools inevitably fell behind, though schools could get a reprieve by showing progress, even if their numbers remained low.

Among the sanctions NCLB still imposes is a demand that schools with continuing low results let students transfer to schools that supposedly are doing better. But since nearly all schools have now failed to achieve perfection, the transfer choices have become largely limited to schools that do not take federal funding for poor children. Those schools are exempt from federal sanctions.

Only a handful of students take advantage of the option, and critics complain that those who leave are often not the students that are struggling.

Another well-intentioned demand still on the books is that schools pay 20 percent of their funding for poor children for private tutoring of the children at low-performing schools, with parents choosing the company. Districts say parents receive the only report of their student’s progress, and there is little or no coordination between tutors and teachers on what kids need to work on.

The private companies charge $30 to $80 an hour per child, according to a chart by the Ceres Unified School District laying out the district’s supplementary educational services for 2013-14. The district paid for 245 children to get four to 16 hours each over the school year, at a cost of $166,495.

Modesto City Schools paid $1.7 million over the same period to 35 private companies, including Apple iPad & Android Tablet Tutoring, Learn It Online LLC and #1Computadora Gratis Para Ti Inc.

No word on whether the new version of the federal education bill includes the mandated tutoring, but the broad brushstrokes suggest not.