The NCLB “resistance movement”
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 Ohanian wants to see NCLB repealed, there’s plenty of information at her website.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.