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Leaving “No Child Left Behind” Behind

[Editor’s note: teacherken is a high school social studies teacher in the MD suburbs of DC and an active blogger on education and other subjects. This post was originally posted at Daily Kos.]

Our No. 1 education program is incoherent, unworkable, and doomed. But the next president still can have a huge impact on improving American schooling.

So says perhaps the most cogent writer on educational matters, Richard Rothstein, in a piece in The American Prospect whose title, like that of this diary, is Leaving “No Child Left Behind” Behind. Before The New York Times lost its senses, Rothstein wrote columns regularly on educational matters. Those of us who try to help the general public and policy matters understand the reality of educational policy have often drawn some of our best arguments from his work.

The article, which just became available online, presents the key issues as well as they can be presented, and there is little I can add, although I will offer a few comments of my own. The notable educational figure Deborah Meier has said that we should blog about this and distribute the article as widely as possible. I urge you to consider doing what you can, including if warranted recommending this diary, to make the article as visible as possible.

Let me begin by offering verbatim Rothstein’s first two paragraphs:

The next president has a unique opportunity to start from scratch in education policy, without the deadweight of a failed, inherited No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The new president and Congress can recapture the “small d” democratic mantle by restoring local control of education, while initiating policies for which the federal government is uniquely suited — providing better achievement data and equalizing the states’ fiscal capacity to provide for all children.

This opportunity exists because NCLB is dead. It will not be reauthorized — not this year, not ever. The coalition that promoted the 2001 bipartisan law has hopelessly splintered, although NCLB’s advocates in the administration and the Congress continue to imagine (at least publicly) that tinkering can put it back together.

Let me make a slight discursus with my own comments. I’m not quite as confident as Rothstein is in that second paragraph. It is true that most who follow educational policy believe that having failed to get reauthorization during the Congressional session about to end the administration will have to content itself with a continuing resolution. I have written often of the horrors of that – the funding continues as the same insufficient level as the current law while the clock on punitive sanctions continues to run. I think that is likely, but because of the fear of the damage that might do there may be the possibility that a new coalition could pass something different, and then the question would be if Bush would veto it, or accept it as a validation of his cheif domestic policy legacy. I think in that case a veto would be possible, but not absolutely certain.

But let’s focus on what Rothstein has to say. In the beginning of his piece he provides an analysis of how the law came to be, including Rove’s ability to persuade some Republicans that the bill might be a way at making inroads into the African-American vote and Democrats equally as cynical in accepting impossibly high goals (100% proficiency) as a means of justifying huge increases in federal expenditures for education. But as Rothstein notes

What few Democrats understood, however, was that test-based accountability might spur teachers but would also corrupt schooling in ways that overshadowed any possible score increases. Excessive testing is now so unpopular that Congress’ newly elected Democrats campaigned in 2006 against NCLB and now won’t support reauthorization. Senior Democrats are also hearing from parents, teachers, school boards, and state legislators.

And despite urgings from George Miller and Ted Kennedy, without whose support the original proposal would not have become law, that they can fix the legislation, Republicans are now inclined towards their normal traditional emphasis on local control of schools and many of the Democrats elected in 2006 campaigned against NCLB and are unwilling to support reauthorization.

Rothstein provides a cogent analysis, understandable to the layman, of the basic flaws with a test-based accountability system. He focuses on four key points.

GOAL DISTORTION On this Rothstein points to Edward Deming who warned

business to “eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals” because they encourage short-, not long-term vision.

He offers additional support for a qualitative approach from Peter Drucker. Given how often some people want to argue that schools should be run more like businesses (although on that point I would disagree and would remind people of businessman Jamie Vollmer’s famous Blueberry Story which illustrates how schools are different) it is interesting that Rothstein can provide evidence from two of the most admired figures who have written about business management. Of equal importance is his reference to two well-known early supporters of the law, both of whom worked in the Bush 41 Department of Education, Checker (that is what he likes to be called) Finn and Diane Ravitch, and he quotes them in two snippets, both of which I reproduce:

We should have seen this coming … more emphasis on some things would inevitably mean less attention to others. … We were wrong.

[If NCLB continues,] rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities.

TEST RELIABILITY Rothstein provides a readily comprehendable explanation of the limits of our approach to testing. He references the work of Kane and Staiger, who raised enough warnings that those working on the original proposal delayed enactment for six months while they tried unsuccessfully to address the problems.

THE PROFICIENCY MYTH I note that researcher Gerald Bracey has long criticized the proficiency levels of NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) and that a study just put out by Brookings agrees with Bracey’s criticisms. On this let me simply offer the first paragraph Rothstein presents under this category, and urge you to read the rest of what he has to say on the topic:

Even with inordinate attention to math and reading, it is practically and conceptually ludicrous to expect all students to be proficient at challenging levels. Even if we eliminated all disparities based on socioeconomic status, human variability prevents a single standard from challenging all. The normal I.Q. range, 85 to 115, includes about two-thirds of the population. “Challenging” achievement for those at 115 would be impossibly hard for those at 85, and “challenging” achievement for those at 85 would be too easy for those at 115.

Whether or not you accept the idea that IQ is all that meaningful, or even that it is fixed (and the latter point is currently under serious challenge) it is amazing to me that the obviousness of the point Rothstein is making has NOT been part of the discussion. Perhaps people were afraid of the attack of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” but dishonesty and lack of reality do not serve the interests of anyone.

THE BUBBLE KIDS This refers to the strategy being taken by schools, of ignoring those who will succeed on the mandated tests and those with little hope, and focusing the vast amount of efforts on those around the cut point, whose scores could slip below success or those just below possibly be raised. Having all of these kids succeed results in the gross measure of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) going up.

Rothstein explores three more main topics. In SCHOOLS AND SOCIAL POLICY he starts by emphasizing how NCLB betrays core Democratic principles by

denying the importance of all social policy but school reform. Inadequate schools are only one reason disadvantaged children perform poorly.

Rothstein reminds us of all the factors that contribute to poor school performance, and this is a subject on which he has written extensively in recent years. At the end of this section he offers a stark warning:

The continuation of NCLB’s rhetoric will also erode support for public education. Educators publicly vow they can eliminate achievement gaps, but they will inevitably fall short. The reasonable conclusion can only be that public education is hopelessly incompetent.

Rothstein next explores the possibility of “FIXING” NCLB. Summarizing briefly, he tells liberals they are going to have to abandon the long-cherished idea that the Federal government is going to be able to solve our educational problems. He puts this in the context of the history of federal aid to education, acknowledges that the underlying Elementary and Secondary Education Act will at some point be reuathorized, although probably increasingly ignored by states upon whom the burden of fixing our educational problems will likely fall.

Rothstein follows this with a section entitled WHAT THE NEXT PRESIDENT CAN DO. He offers two key suggestions. The first is to provide data on student performance not for accountability but to guide state policy makers. He argues for an extension of NAEP for those purposes. He also argues for the federal government providing more fiscal equalization. He observes that New Jersey spends 65% more per student than does Mississippi, not because the latter state cares that much less, but because it lacks the economic base and resources to spend that much. He points out that current Federal spending policy exacerbates the underlying inequities. But to achieve a policy which will take money from high income states like New Jersey and send it to lower income states like Mississippi will take, as Rothstein notes,

political courage not typically found in either Washington party. There’s a role here for presidential leadership.

Rothstein offers his suggestions in the context that the Congress will continue in Democratic hands (he is writing for The American Prospect) and the White House will also switch parties. It is in that context that he offers his final paragraph:

Abandoning federal micromanagement of education has a hidden benefit: helping to reinvigorate American democracy in an age of increasingly anomic and media-driven politics. Local school boards in the nation’s nearly 15,000 school districts (but not in the biggest cities) can still provide an opportunity for meaningful citizen participation. Debating and deciding the goals of education for a community’s children is a unique American privilege and responsibility. Restoring it is a mission worthy of a new administration.

I have often written online about educational policy. I have pointed people at a variety of published pieces, to important studies. I have written about my own experiences and observations, in the hope that people might begin to understand the reality of what our educational policies have been doing. I do not think I have ever written about a more important published piece than I do in this posting. Regardless of what you may think of my writing, I urge you to make the Rothstein piece as widely visible as possible. If you have contacts with the presidential campaigns, insist that their policy people read this. If you are connected with school boards and superintendents, at local or state level, pass this on to them as well. It is that important a piece of writing.

And now I will get ready myself for another school day, attempting to enable my students to have a positive learning environment despite the depredations of NCLB upon meaningful learning.

Peace.

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