Sunday, December 30, 2007

What to Do with the Corpse of "No Child Left Behind"

We have a refrigerator magnet at home that is a dated picture of California Redwood loggers taking a memento snapshot of themselves. Behind one proud fellow is the 3/4 sawed out divot of a redwood yet to fall. Joyfully nestled in the divot is his partner posing with a grin of such vacuous consciousness, of a soul so blissfully unaware of the absurdity of his decision, that I still laugh deeply when I see it.

The saying that accompanies the photo is an Einstein quote, "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits".

No single meme better captures the reality of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Bruce Silva was kind enough to suggest a commentary in The American Prospect by Richard Rothstein called Leaving "No Child Left Behind" - Behind Our No. 1 education program is incoherent, unworkable, and doomed. But the next president still can have a huge impact on improving American schooling.

In it, Rothstein summarizes the state of the death of NCLB better than any writer thus far. This is an important read for all educators and it is an outstanding piece of journalism in general. A snippet to whet your appetite:
SCHOOLS AND SOCIAL POLICY

In one respect, NCLB betrays core Democratic principles, denying the importance of all social policy but school reform. Inadequate schools are only one reason disadvantaged children perform poorly. They come to school under stress from high-crime neighborhoods and economically insecure households. Their low-cost day-care tends to park them before televisions, rather than provide opportunities for developmentally appropriate play. They switch schools more often because of inadequate housing and rents rising faster than parents' wages. They have greater health problems, some (like lead poisoning or iron-deficiency anemia) directly depressing cognitive ability, and some causing more absenteeism or inattentiveness. Their households include fewer college-educated adults to provide rich intellectual environments, and their parents are less likely to expect academic success. Nearly 15 percent of the black-white test-score gap can be traced to differences in housing mobility, and 25 percent to differences in child- and maternal-health.

Yet NCLB insists that school improvement alone can raise all children to high proficiency. The law anticipates that with higher expectations, better teachers, improved curriculum, and more testing, all youths will attain full academic competence, poised for college and professional success. Natural human variability would still distinguish children, but these distinctions would have nothing to do with family disadvantage. Then there really would be no reason for progressive housing or health and economic policies. The nation's social and economic problems would take care of themselves, by the next generation.

Teachers of children who come to school hungry, scared, abused, or ill, consider this absurd. But NCLB's aura intimidates educators from acknowledging the obvious. Teachers are expected to repeat the mantra "all children can learn," a truth carrying the mendacious implication that the level to which children learn has nothing to do with their starting points. Teachers are warned that any mention of children's socioeconomic disadvantages only "makes excuses" for teachers' own poor performance.

Of course, there are better and worse schools and better and worse teachers. Of course, some disadvantaged children excel more than others. But NCLB has turned these obvious truths into the fantasy that teachers can wipe out socioeconomic differences among children simply by trying harder.

Denouncing schools as the chief cause of American inequality -- in academic achievement, thus in the labor market, and thus in life generally -- stimulates cynicism among teachers who are expected to act on a theory they know to be false. Many dedicated and talented teachers are abandoning education; they may have achieved exceptional results with disadvantaged children, but with NCLB's bar set so impossibly high, even these are labeled failures.

The continuation of NCLB's rhetoric will also erode support for public education. Educators publicly vow they can eliminate achievement gaps, but they will inevitably fall short. The reasonable conclusion can only be that public education is hopelessly incompetent.


"FIXING" NCLB

Few policy-makers have publicly acknowledged NCLB's demise. Instead, they talk of fixing it. Some want to credit schools for student growth from year to year, rather than for reaching arbitrary proficiency levels. Clearly, adequate progress from different starting points leads to different ending points, but growth-model advocates can't bring themselves to drop the universal-proficiency goal. Doing so would imply lower expectations, on average, for disadvantaged children -- too much for unsophisticated policy discussion to swallow. Consequently, the "fix" is incoherent.

Growth models have even larger error margins than single-year test results because they rely on two unreliable scores (last year's and this year's), not one. And accountability for math and reading growth retains the incentives to abandon non-tested subjects and skills. So some NCLB loyalists now propose accountability for "multiple measures," such as graduation rates. But presently quantifiable skills are too few to minimize goal distortion -- the federal government is unprepared to monitor, for instance, whether students express good citizenship. Further, any mention of diluting a math and reading focus elicits the wrath of "basics" fundamentalists, such as the president and his secretary of education.

America's experiment of using the White House in Washington, D.C. as a free-range psychiatric institution is nearing an end. In Rothstein's article, conservatives who helped craft NCLB admit their failures;
Goal distortion has been particularly troubling, as it should be, to conservatives. Two former assistant secretaries of education (under Ronald Reagan and Bush père), Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, once prominent NCLB advocates, now write:

We should have seen this coming ... more emphasis on some things would inevitably mean less attention to others. ... We were wrong.


They conclude:

[If NCLB continues,] rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities.
But a funny thing is happening in American politics. Liberals are discovering their failures as well. Rothstein writes:
Renouncing federal micromanagement will require liberals to abandon a cherished myth: that only the federal government can protect disadvantaged minorities from Southern states' indifference. The myth is rooted in an isolated fact: In the two decades following Brown v. Board of Education, the federal government forced states to respect rights not only of African Americans but of disabled and immigrant children.

But at other times, the federal government has been no defender of the oppressed. In the early 20th century, state governments enacted minimum-wage, health, and safety laws, only to see them struck down by the Supreme Court. Today, Southern states' attempts to improve education are often impeded by federal policy. Only last year, school integration efforts of Louisville, Kentucky, were prohibited by federal courts, while federal administrative agencies block efforts at integration and affirmative action. In recent decades, states like North Carolina and Texas have been innovators in school improvement. North and South Carolina and Arkansas have had nationally known "education governors" (Jim Hunt, Richard Riley, and Bill Clinton). The greatest potential for greater education improvement in the South lies in boosting African American voting participation, not more federal mandates.
Rebecca Solnit reporting for The Guardian (The Growth of Local Power Is a Bright Spot in Seven Bleak Years of Bush) makes similar observations;
Quietly, doggedly, cities, regions, counties and states have refused to march to the Bush administration's drum when it comes to climate change, the environment and the war. Some of the recent changes are so sweeping that they will probably drag the nation along with them - notably efforts by Vermont, Massachusetts and California to set higher vehicle emissions standards and generally treat climate change as an environmental problem that can be addressed by regulation. The Bush administration has notoriously dragged its feet on doing anything about climate change, and it will now be dragged along by the states, themselves prodded forward by citizens.

It wasn't supposed to work that way. States' rights was a rallying cry for conservatives for much of the 20th century, first in allowing segregation and racial discrimination across the south and then in allowing environmental destruction around the west. Rightwingers have usually believed in a weak federal government - except when they run it; and that weakness, or rather the strength of the local, has been one of the bright spots during the seven bleak years of life under Bush.

The changes operate on all scales. Across the country, quite a lot of cities and towns have passed measures condemning the Iraq war or calling for the troops to be brought home. A handful of California counties have banned GM agriculture, and others have tried but been defeated by industry money - but may try again. North Dakota farmers created so powerful a pact against the use of Monsanto's GM wheat that the corporation eventually gave up on commercialising the invention worldwide.
The heart-warming message in all of this is that it is the adoption of true conservative principles by Liberals that is bringing NCLB to a screeching and fitting halt. Given the intellectual squalor of the past seven years, anything that comes in wake of NCLB will seem like sunshine after a cold, dreary storm.

No one need bury NCLB. It has been rotting away all on its own. Soon only the stench of the Bush administration will be left to remind us of its pernicious and unwelcome insult to national sanity.

No comments:

Cartoons (click to site of ownership):