Sunday, October 28, 2007

Improving No Child Left Behind

From, of all places, the Los Angeles Times:

The No Child Left Behind Act has made an admitted mishmash of public education. Yet, like nothing before, the law also has schools and the public paying serious attention to how little is learned by so many students, and how inferior conditions fester in schools that enroll large numbers of black, Latino and impoverished children. They are left to struggle, barely mastering elementary reading skills, passed from one grade to the next like scholastic hot potatoes.

Still, how can one like a law so badly framed and rigidly constructed that it erects unfair and unreachable standards, encourages schools to ignore the children most in need of help, labels many a fine school as failing, and has the perverse effect of shrinking history, science and arts education and badly cutting into programs for gifted kids?

With the act up for reauthorization, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) is openly conceding that his original bill was so poorly crafted, the U.S. Education secretary was forced to connive ways around its more awkward provisions. Miller aims to make amends with the new version. Some of the changes are praiseworthy, but others undermine the essential purpose of the law.

One proposed fix is long overdue and widely applauded. Miller would get rid of the arbitrary and useless rule that schools be measured by how many students test as "proficient" each year in reading and math. Proficiency is a meaningless term because each state sets its own standard, and those standards are quite literally all over the map. But the proficiency requirement has had a more insidious effect: Schools tend to ignore students who are truly struggling and concentrate only on those who are just below proficient, who might be boosted over the bar within an academic year. And because they get no credit for pushing students from proficient to advanced, schools are neglecting the top academic performers, and gifted programs have been shrinking or dying nationwide. Miller now wants schools measured by each student's year-to-year progress, which always made a lot more sense.

Miller also has written provisions that encourage states to raise standards and put better teachers in high-poverty schools. The law would no longer hit schools that come close to their growth targets with harsh punitive measures. He includes a modest bonus program that would pay teachers for good performance, including raising test scores. Its reach is limited, but Miller deserves praise for introducing on a formal level the idea that better teachers deserve better pay.

His approach to standardized testing is clumsier. Yes, a single standardized test measuring two subjects -- reading and math -- is an inadequate measure of a school's mettle. Yes, teachers tend to "teach to the test." But at least mastering the subject matter for these tests is more than many students were doing before. Given more wiggle room, schools invariably devise ways to make their students look good while selling them short. That's a major shortcoming of Miller's plan for a pilot program that would allow local districts to come up with their own assessments. Local assessments were what we had before the accountability movement, and they failed. The way the bill is written, a majority of students nationwide could be covered by what's supposed to be an experimental program.

Miller also has written in an extensive list of other objective measures schools could use, in addition to their reading and math tests, to bolster their standing. The list is so broad, though, and can be manipulated in such different ways from school to school that it greatly complicates an already complicated law and could be used to cover up failure. Say a school does great on Advanced Placement tests -- that tells us nothing about its work with low achievers.

There's one other essential flaw in the act that Miller does not address: It still aims to bring all students up to proficiency by 2014. Let's face it. The nation will never make all of its students academically proficient, as long as proficiency is a reasonably high standard. That's like saying all Americans will be above average. Continued growth is realistic; so is narrowing the shameful gap in achievement between white and minority students. Academic stardom for all is not. The public will not trust this law until it at least is honest.

Yes, it definitely has a slant to it, but there are plenty of gems of truth in there. Actually, I think "the public" likes the law--it's the teachers unions (and their adherents) that don't like it.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the public tends, when it is fully informed of the specifics, to say nothing of the unintended consequences of any law, to be less than enthusiastic regardless of the hopeful, sparkling title of the legislation in question. We also know that a great many of our legislators have almost no idea--in many cases none at all--what is actually in bills that receive their wholehearted, public relations infused support. So it is with NCLB. Even Rep. Miller is belatedly admitting that, according to the excerpt posted here.

The question is not whether there are problems in some schools or whether each and every student in America has the best possible educational opportunity, but rather, what is the best and most effective mechanism to address these local problems? A bloated and unrealistic federal law that even its author now admits is just that, or genuine local control? Indeed, some local districts are run by the incompetent and corrupt, but more than sufficient mechanisms exist to run the bums out. That the citizens of those districts may not--for the time being--choose to rid themselves of corruption or incompetence is not an indicator for overbearing federal intrusion.

Any attempt to "fix" this abomination will likely amount to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig. "If it isn't broke, don't fix it" is a maxim that Washington would do well to take to heart, and so is "if it's irreparably broken, throw it out." Federal programs are the proverbial deasts that cannot die, no matter how richly they deserve death.

The passage of NCLB was far more than the nose of the camel under the tent in terms of federal intrusion into local educational decision making. Before we are too dazzled by its bright promise, a promise that even its adherents are now admitting lacks luster, we ought to consider that the NCLB camel is at least halfway into the local schools tent. How much more of that particular beast that will not die do we really want to see making our decisions for us?

Darren said...

As I've said before, if the state legislators haven't figured out by now that the law is bad and they should just not comply, forego the federal $$, and be money ahead in the process, then maybe something else is amiss--like they realize the public supports this.

allenm said...

The only thing wrong with NCLB is that it introduces the public education system to the concept of accountability. When you've gone along without having to answer for misappropriation of public funding for so long the introduction's liable to be less then friendly but the good, old days of substituting demands for money and jargon-laden edu-fads for results are coming to an end. Sic transit gloria.

It's not all that surprising that NCLB has almost as many enemies now as it did friends, then. One of the sillier things any politician can do is notice that a powerful constituency is misusing the public purse. Even sillier is doing something about it but what else is a politician to do? Better to anger a powerful constituency then to be seen to be a fool which is what seems to have driven the passage of NCLB. The public education system got sufficiently high-handed with Title One money that even their expensively-purchased friends in Washington could no longer avoid noticing.

What's the rickety stalking-horse that's trotted out in opposition to NCLB? Local control.

Yes, let us all genuflect to local control which is local only to the extent that all applicable federal guidelines attendant on getting those federal dollars are obeyed. Matter of fact, federal money provides a neat mechanism for gaging the selling price of local control. Fortunately there's still a semblance of local control to display to the public like the facade on an old, Western town. There may be less there then meets that eye but so what? If the public continues to buy the party line then results are obviously subordinated to self-delusion.

But what do you tell the public to explain that 12% of K-12 funding already consists of federal camel? Do you just hope that the public is willing to believe that only 12% of local control is given up to get that 12% of funding or, in that grand tradition of poker players who've drawn to an inside straight, try to bluff? I guess the quality of the opposition to NCLB answers that question.

Trouble is, NBLB is only one battle in a greater war and not the most important battle.

Charter school enabling legislation is now law in forty states and every year the forces of business-as-usual public education focus on NCLB and vouchers is another year a constituency in support of charter schools builds. What's really beautiful about NCLB is that whether in its current form or gelded to the specifications of the NEA, the purpose of improving the education of the public is served.