Stories, Learning & Place

Friday, July 24, 2009

Holding teachers accountable
   The myth and the madness of NCLB

No Child Left Behind is a massive invitation to scapegoating. By setting unserious goals that cannot be met, it manufactures a steady stream of bad news headlines. Of course, this is manna for the noisy poseurs who afflict our political discourse, holding forth as though they were leaders, assigning blame for all that’s gone wrong with the country--after all, bad news is the lifeblood of those who want attention, a name, a little power.

Universities, think tanks, foundations, unions and journalists daily offer their diagnoses or their prescriptions to save us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into the maelstrom. America daily tells itself a thousand stories about how badly our schools are failing, and most of these stories now include the words “standards” and “accountability,” both of which suggest that teachers have failed us.

That’s a comforting thought, in many ways. Believing it gets everyone else off the hook, psychologically.

It saves us from needing examine our relationship with an economy that has no use for millions of people. We can simply say that those millions need to be better educated and then all will be well. The young man with an IQ of seventy simply needs to get a bachelor’s degree and become a knowledge worker adept at 21st Century Skills. If teachers fail to do that, we need to strengthen accountability.

It saves us from an uncomfortable lingering over the avalanche of data showing that children do best in homes where both natural parents are present. We can remain children ourselves, indulging our fantasies and our whims, worrying about whether we are personally fulfilled enough, getting and spending and chasing our bliss. As long as the kids get 21st Century Skills, they will be fine. Teachers need to get up to speed.

It saves us from clarifying what we believe enough to stand for it unambiguously. We can leave the kids’ moral instruction to television and video games and pop culture, collecting snippets of research from NPR that bolster our hope that just the way we are turns out to be just right. We need to keep repeating that condoms make sex safe. Diversity means each of us is okay. Tolerance means nobody can judge me. The important thing is to respect copyright.

All students can learn. All students can succeed. If there are problems, the teachers have failed. We need standards. We need accountability. By 2014, 100% of our children must be proficient in reading and math. The bad news comes in the form of numbers, which give a comforting illusion of control.

Unfortunately, some some critics say 2014 is too soon. More reasonable people, though, see that 100% of people are not going to meet a rigorous standard ever. They also see that the standards are unscientific and unreasonable. Congress has not been able to find credible support for the way it reports proficiency.

Repeatedly the agencies that have been commissioned to evaluate how the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) sets proficiency levels have denounced the process. Although the feds don’t define proficiency in NCLB--leaving that to the states--increasingly state scores are judged against the NAEP, which is taken as the most reliable standard. The first evaluation of the NAEP, done in 1991, called the process for determining proficiency “ridiculous.” Congress then turned to the General Accounting Office, which reported that the approach was “inherently flawed.” So the U.S. Department of Education sought input from the National Academy of Education, which found that the proficiency definitions were “unreasonably high.” Finally, the Education Department asked the National Academy of Sciences to examine the matter. It found that the process was “fundamentally flawed” and that the results “do not appear to be reasonable.”

Those were not the answers Congress wanted so they were ignored, except for the Congressionally-mandated small print that appears in annual NAEP reports warning that conclusions about how many students are actually proficient may not be warranted. At the same time, the large print in press releases highlights those unwarranted conclusions. One benefit of having power is that sanity is optional.

Though it’s true that American students do more poorly in some international measures than students from other countries, my point at the moment is that the children from no country even come close to the standards set by NCLB. In 2001, Sweden topped an international reading test, but two-thirds of Swedish students were not proficient readers as defined by the NAEP. Taiwan topped an international math exam, though 60 percent would have scored below proficient as defined by NAEP. To meet the standard, people with IQs as low as 65 would need to be proficient.

Also, students who are absent 25% of the time need to be proficient. Students who are strung out on drugs need to be proficient. Students who refuse to take the test need to be proficient. Students who are being raped by step-fathers need to be proficient. Students whose mothers change their schools seven times a year as they move from boyfriend to boyfriend need to be proficient. For now, the plan is to hold teachers accountable.

From the start, experts understood that expecting all students to achieve proficiency “defies reality.” Nevertheless, the sanctions schools face are real enough. The power that is being concentrated in Washington really is diminishing the power of states, and of school boards, and of teachers, and of parents. At the moment, schools are the main targets, but the talk is shifting more and more to teachers. Merit pay linked to test scores--that sort of thing.

When that too fails, as it must, parents and students will come into focus as targets themselves.The idea has been established that the central government can set behavioral goals for citizens and then establish data collection systems to track progress. The current debate about what, exactly, those goals should be is a little like a debate about whether we should smoke cigarettes or pipes--the right choice is somewhere behind us.

But there’s no going back.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 07/24 at 01:23 AM
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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