Two views on NCLB
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?
Right off the bat, we get to the core difference between me and Dr. Wheatley: we simply see public education differently. Dr. Wheatley (as he’ll affirm later in this note) gives primacy to the people inside the system – NCLB is a disaster because educators (who are Ohanian’s audience) and others within the industry say it’s a disaster. In this world view, the public education system is an end in itself, and it is the people inside the system who should set the objectives and methods of learning. The people outside the system should have no voice in determining why we educate, how we educate, what we teach, or how we measure progress and success.
For me, public education is a means to an end – external stakeholders (citizens, business, etc.) pay for the public education system and therefore have the right and responsibility to state what we want it to accomplish. The people inside the system are paid to fulfill the objectives set forth by the citizen taxpayers who fund the system.
NCLB came about because the people who fund public education were not satisfied with the system’s outcomes and wanted some way to start gathering independent information on what’s going on in our schools. And while there are any number of flaws in this first effort at accountability (and yes, everyone thinks it can be improved), it has succeeded in providing new information to stakeholders, and more importantly, a focus on outcomes to everyone involved in education.
Quite a difference in perspectives, I’d say – and one that sets the stage for marked disagreements over every aspect of education.
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 I understand it, NCLB was created because poverty does matter, and children in poverty were being swept under the rug. Information on their performance was hidden within averages (in the case of test scores) or with deceptive figures (dropout rates). We can’t address a challenge like ensuring every child in poverty has a shot at a good education unless we can identify the problem and establish a way to gauge progress.
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.
I’ve talked to a lot of businesspeople about NCLB, and yes, there are some who want privatization. However, most people fail to grasp why that is. They’re not interested in privatization from a profit perspective – they’re interested in it because they see how a competitive marketplace (which privatization would create) forces improvement and innovation in an industry, and they see that as the best path to improving our education system. If control over all schools went from the government to a single company, the monopoly would remain, and there would be no improvement.
I would also say that NCLB and school choice (which is where the privatization concept falls in) are simply two different approaches to increasing school quality. If you had a free market for schools, you wouldn’t have NCLB – competition would ensure quality. And if you had strong performance on independent accountability (a la NCLB), there would be little interest in school choice.
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.
I’d like to hear more on this. Which testmakers? What do they say?
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.
This is a common argument in this debate: you can’t test what we’re teaching. It’s the ultimate unassailable position, but I believe it to be patently false. Knowledge can be tested. Skills can be tested. What can we not evaluate? What is the 60-70% of what matters in education that we cannot assess? (And I’ll of course follow up on any response with: matters to whom?)
Also, let’s look at the concept of “high stakes” testing – it sounds scary, but deserves to be broken down.
To be meaningful, any system of assessment must have consequences. If a student cannot demonstrate that he or she has learned some material, there should be consequences: the student should be re-taught, whether that means redoing a unit, being held back a grade, or not graduating. This is not punishment: if we say that students have to know X, Y, and Z in order to succeed in life, we’re doing them a disservice by allowing them to go forward without that knowledge or those skills. We’re setting them up for failure. And if there are no consequences – if we’re just going to advance those students anyway – what’s the point of assessing them? Why measure if you don’t use the measurements for something?
And in terms of validity - how can the validity of a test drop when we attach consequences? Either a test is a valid measure of knowledge and skills, or it is not. It certainly becomes more important due to the addition of consequences – and it may cause anxiety – but it does not affect validity. (And note that in the case of NCLB, the consequences are the school’s, not the students, so the anxiety should reside there, and not with the students – despite what is so often reported.)
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.
Dr. Wheatley’s arguments in the previous two paragraphs seem to focus entirely on the quality of the tests being administered, not on whether we should have independent assessment. Considering that the states (not the federal government) determine what is measured and how it is assessed, surely there’s at least one state doing it right? And if not even one of 50 states can get assessment right, then how can we trust them on the other elements of education?
And I would also argue with the notion (in the last paragraph above) that we don’t need to master lower-level material in order to tackle more complex subject matter. This may be another of those intractable differences between me and Dr. Wheatley – I thought it was pretty well established that one has to master foundational knowledge and processes in order to grasp more advanced material. (See here, and the original Scientific American article here.)
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.
One thing that would be helpful would be to see an alternate proposal for accountability. If you want to eliminate NCLB but believe in establishing a meaningful accountability system, what would that look like? (And when I say meaningful, I would include words like ‘independent’ and ‘objective’ in that definition – I don’t believe there’s much meaning in having the same person who teaches the child also oversee evaluation – there’s too much conflict of interest.)
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!
Many schools for poor children are dreadful. But this has nothing to do with scripted instruction in reading – it’s the only thing with hard evidence behind it showing its effectiveness (see here for information on Project Follow Through).
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.
Again, this comes back to our respective views of the reason for public education. I would argue that citizens (represented by politicians) and businesspeople are the ones who are paying for the system, and who are doing so for a reason: to give children the tools they need to succeed in life. Clearly, those people believe that changing workforce requirements and global competition mean that our children will graduate into a very different world than existed in times past, and that our current education practices are not providing them with the tools they need to live successfully in that world. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for these people to insist that education change accordingly.
And a minor point: NAEP scores have been stagnant for decades. See here for results in math, reading, and science between 1971 and 2004. Pay particular attention to the scores for 17 year olds - the people just about to graduate.
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.
I don’t have any intention of casting aspersions on Dr. Wheatley, although I can understand his concern - there's a lot of flaming in this debate, and I'm glad he's not interested in participating at that level (I'm certainly not). I’m sure he’s a patriot, and when talking about NCLB, it doesn’t seem that political leanings make any difference. (Consider that Kennedy and Miller spearheaded the bill in the Senate and House and continue to argue for it, and that Republicans now want to gut it.) But clearly we see this issue differently.
I’ll wrap by disagreeing with his last statement. Dr.Wheatley says that we’ve all been duped by the promise of NCLB – I would argue that we’ve been duped for decades with faulty information on school performance, and that NCLB (or at least the spirit of NCLB) is an important first step on the road to a solution.
I’ve asked Dr. Wheatley to respond – I’ll be happy to post anything that he cares to send and make public.