The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The NCLB “resistance movement”

I came across an article a few days ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. Its title sums it up: “No Child Left Behind critic a hit with teachers; conference speaker draws ovation with plan to lobby against ’02 law.” A few paragraphs for context:

Susan Ohanian has a $71.40-a-person plan to stop the federal No Child Left Behind act.

That's the sum that thousands of teachers would have to shell out to finance a whirlwind lobbying effort aimed at abolishing the 2002 law, which is up for reauthorization next year.

Ohanian, a longtime teacher who writes and speaks about educational issues, spoke Saturday at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference in Nashville, which drew about 7,000 people. Her talk got a standing ovation.


The "resistance movement," as Ohanian called it, would include collecting and submitting 1 million signatures to Congress, organizing a march on Washington, buying ads in national publications and supporting existing groups that are working to repeal the law.

For those who would like to learn why Ms. Ohanian wants to see NCLB repealed, there’s plenty of information at her website. But if you’ve been at this a while, none of her arguments will come as a surprise.

When considering their proposal, remember that we have had evidence of poor K-12 performance for some time. We have a dropout rate of approximately 30%, higher among minorities and those living in urban areas (see here). Of our fourth graders, only 42% of black and 46% of Hispanic students have basic or greater reading skills (see here). And we know that, given a choice between looking good and performing well, both states and teachers (and here) have given in to the temptation of grade inflation.

But before NCLB, local schools had plausible deniability – sure there are problems, but they’re not our problems. And the public had no independent source of data to claim otherwise. It wasn’t until NCLB came along, with its requirements not only for school-level information in specific areas but also for disaggregated data, that we – the parents and other members of the interested public – were able to see the problems in our own backyards. And it wasn’t until we had that information that we were in a position to demand change.

Ms. Ohanian and her supporters want to see NCLB eliminated. Apparently it’s better not to see the problem at all (or at least not let the public see it) than to deal with it and correct it. Imagine if you turned on a light in the kitchen and saw cockroaches – and, rather than deal with the cockroach problem, you chose instead to turn off the light. That’s what we’re talking about here.

In order to make their case, they’re relying on at least one misconception about the law: that the feds are dictating what we should measure and how we should measure it. In reality, NCLB does no such thing. While it does specify the subjects and grades in which it wants to see progress, it is up to the states to determine what students should know, and it is up to the states to determine how that knowledge should be assessed. In other words, states set the standards, and states select the tests; if Ms. Ohanian considers those things flawed, she should take her case up with the 50 states, not with the federal law.

Ms. Ohanian (and others) also continue to present the logical fallacy that, if we eliminate standardized testing, that teachers will be able to get back to more robust and effective instruction. How is this possible? Most state tests assess the more rudimentary aspects of reading and math – if kids are failing those, how in the world could they otherwise be working at a more advanced level?

And also – what’s wrong with teaching to the test, if the test properly reflects what it is we want kids to learn? That’s how effective instructional models are set up – you determine what it is you want students to know; you develop a lesson plan to impart that information; and you assess students to make sure they learned what it is you intended to teach. If the tests are flawed, as Ms. Ohanian states, then fix the tests – but don’t dismantle the entire system.

While I’m not surprised that some teachers dislike the idea of independent evaluation, I am surprised that Ms. Ohanian received such a strong response from attendees of the National Council of Teachers of English conference (specifically, “a standing ovation.”). The bulk of NCTE’s K-12 members are at the secondary school level – the same teachers who have been speaking out about the poor reading and writing skills of incoming students. How do they think student skills are going to improve? If we don’t specify the skills we want kids to have, and set up a system to make sure kids have developed those skills, how will we ever ensure our kids are ready for high school-level work?

I can understand someone wanting to improve standards of tested subjects, and I can understand someone wanting to improve how student knowledge is assessed in those subjects. (As an aside, remember that those need to happen at the state level under NCLB).

But what I can’t understand is someone wanting to scrap the idea of independent evaluation entirely. We have failed to provide adequate instruction to millions of kids over the years, hiding those failures through the use of flawed assessment systems and deceptive reporting practices. It’s time to give kids the education we’ve promised them – something that will only happen through independent reporting as required by NCLB.


  • Nice post, Brett. I posted about this article a few days ago, thinking much the same as you. This whole "resistance movement" seems like thoughtless and knee-jerk hogwash to me, but hey, the anti-NCLB bandwagon is going at full steam.

    By Blogger Psychogeek, at 11:33 AM  

  • Brett,

    I understand why Ohanian sounds crazy to you, so why DOES she get such applause? And why are so many leading educational researchers and even statisticians clapping along, and writing their own books to say NCLB is a disaster?

    Because there has never been an education law that was so brilliantly marketed (complete with bullying into silence people who suggested that poverty matters!), and yet was designed in so many ways to do the opposite of what is effective in the long run.

    As an educational researcher and teacher educator, I teach teachers, future teachers and doctoral students about curriculum, lesson plans, content standards, child development, and motivation. NCLB undermines every one of those areas.

    Most researchers assume that NCLB is really designed to privatize education--why else set goals that are flatly impossible to achieve (This isn't Lake Wobegone--all children will never be on grade level), then send the money to (poorly supervised) private vendors when schools inevitably fail.

    Next, according to our professional standards (APA, AERA, etc) , high-stakes testing is educational malpractice. Even the testmakers say tests are not designed to be used this way.

    Also, most of what matters is simply not on the tests, and will never be something you can bubble in. Tests have their place, but they're probably good for about 30-40% of what matters in education, and their validity drops when you attach high-stakes to them.

    Education is about learning, and unlike business, it's not much about performance, and not at all about products or profits. Whatever you want to use in business, carrots, sticks and competition have a dreadful track record in education. Sure, you can get short term obedience, but in the long run, they work about as well as a fad diet.

    Yes, it sounds reasonable to say teachers should teach to tests, but it's more complicated than that. If we're talking about knowledge, teaching to tests is a very bad idea--tests are designed to sample 15-20 of what we teach. To teach to the test often becomes teaching mostly the 20% that will be tested, and not teaching the other 80% that is equally important, and without which that 20% is useless trivia.

    It also sounds reasonable to say that tests can't be preventing teachers from teaching high-level content if the scores reveal kids haven't mastered the lower-level stuff. It SOUNDS reasonable, but it's wrong. There is an infinite amount of lower-level content we can teach and test, but much of it is trivial, and is not necessary to master in order to move onto more complex subject matter. The tests have education stuck in 1st gear on this low-level content. Exemplary magnet schools have had to dumb down their content because "higher-standards" often just means learning a LOT of lower level material. This is the nonsense that high-stakes testing creates in schools.

    Cockroach analogies aside, educators DO want meaningful accountability, but standardized tests can only be a piece of that, and local control must be a big piece of that process.

    I teach teachers in the poorest major city in America, and many schools for poor children have become absolutely dreadful. If rich folks won't put up with scripted instruction for their children, why are we subjecting poor children to this mind-numbing nonsense? Talk about increasing the learning gap!

    Never mind that the public has been misled about the state of American education for decades, and has been misled about the need for high-skill jobs, and have been misled about the tests themselves, and about how students and NCLB are doing (Increases in NAEP scores came almost entirely before NCLB kicked in). We're tired of the politicians and CEOs misleading Americans about education (I assume they just don't know any better), and we researchers are finally speaking up.

    If America's teachers weren't afraid of losing their jobs for speaking up, NCLB would have been dropped like a bad habit two years ago--because teachers would be telling everyone just what is going on.

    I require teachers to learn about content standards, and the deepest irony of all is that teacher are not supposed to focus on some of the very sensible outcomes that have been dreamed up by the business community (What we look for in new workers) because they are not in the content standards-because they are hard to quantify on tests.

    America is the drunk looking for the keys to its educational future under the streetlamp of high stakes testing, but that's not where the keys are.

    And no, I'm not some left-wing nut. The U.S. flag is waving out front right now, I attend church every Sunday, and yes, I teach Sunday School.

    God Bless You, and please help some of your friends wake up to NCLB. We were duped.

    - Karl Wheatley
    Cleveland State University

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:42 PM  

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