Thursday, January 18, 2007


(News-Herald, January 18) No Child Left Behind is celebrating its fifth birthday this month (which means, of course, that if it were a human child, it would be time to start running NCLB through a battery of standardized tests). NCLB is also up for review by the feds that spawned it. So many folks are reflecting on the act and its various side-effects.
It’s tempting to dismiss the act simply on the basis of its most obviously objectionable aspects. For instance, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that NCLB is partly a money-making scheme for book publishers. Book publishers write standards for reading, produce materials designed to teach those objectives, and then win government recommendations that only their books be used.
Or the central insanity of NCLB—the 100% success rate. Nobody else in the country is expected to have 100% success. Not doctors, not lawyers and certainly not politicians. Heck, after the Iraqi WMD’s failed to materialize, we were reminded that the heavily staffed, generously funded intelligence community could certainly not be expected to be right all the time.
But here in Pennsylvania, in less than a decade, 100% of all students will be above average (which means, I guess, that they will all be well-educated enough to know that there’s no way 100% of anything can be above average).
Administrators and school boards hate the unfunded mandates (that’s when the government tells you that you must feed each student steak, but you have to pay for it yourself). Conservatives (at least the old school ones) hate having the State grabbing control of local school districts. Teachers resent being treated like the problem in education instead of the front line troops.
It’s easy to let these philosophical issues overwhelm views of NCLB. But at the same time, there are practical aspects to appreciate.
There’s no question that some school districts have, over the years, chosen to warehouse their problem students, to simply tolerate untalented, unmotivated, unwelcome students. Wait a few years, and they’ll go away.
School districts have often catered to the college-bound crowd. If you “just” want to be a welder or a mechanic or a plumber or any of the jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us—well, we sometimes figured that we just didn’t need to try to teach you all that much.
NCLB challenges the idea that some students aren’t worth the great effort it takes to work with them. And that’s an assumption that should be challenged.
NCLB also recognizes the need for some sort of measure of what a school district accomplishes. For way too long, the ed biz was marked by an attitude problem. Questions about what we were doing and how well we were doing it were greeted with a haughty, “We are the public school system. Stop questioning us and trust that we are doing great things.”
The push for a stiff and strenuous standard is a Good Thing, and if we judge NCLB on practical results, we have to give credit for that push.But it is also in the area of practical results that NCLB ultimately has failed, and failed miserably. Because at the heart of those standards, we don’t find a serious attempt to set and evaluate strong valuable learning goals.
All we find is a test. A one-size-fits-all, high-stakes, not-very-good test.
School districts ought to be talking about how to best educate their students. They ought to be talking about what goals are most valuable, what measures are most reliable, what will best produce wise and productive members of society. Instead, school districts are having only one conversation: how do we get better scores on the test? It’s like the head of Ford saying, “Never mind if the cars are any good—are the workers wearing clean uniforms?”
We take class time away so that we can take practice tests. We take teaching time away so that teachers can coach students on the practice items they missed. And if they don’t do well enough on the practice test, we replace some of their enrichment classes with classes about how to take the test. And if we don’t do it, the State threatens to take our school district away.
The tests are exactly what you would expect from a committee of bureaucrats, measuring little of value, and doing it poorly. At the end of the day, the scores prove one thing—how good the students are at taking that standardized test.
NCLB was supposed to transform schools. It has. Where educating students was once our main concern, it is now a side business, an afterthought. We’ll squeeze it in around the edges, once we’ve made certain we get our test scores up.

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