May 22, 2006

On NCLB and goals

It is a frequent criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act that a goal of 100% of students' reaching proficiency in reading and math is unattainable (new link—11:30 am). The counterargument is that unattainable goals are nonetheless useful. In 2014, no matter what the achievement of the country's students, there will be defenders of the original 100% goal who will say that it was necessary to prod schools to improve the education of everyone. The argument is essentially, "Even if it is impossible to reach, it's important to have a goal that's motivating."

The implied "theory of action" here—that one needs to have an official "stretch goal" for education policy that is consistent with our best ideals while still unrealistic—requires a straightforward matching of actions to goals and an understanding by educators of how to improve achievement dramatically. It also assumes a naïve response to such stretch goals, as if they had never been put in place in the past, as if there is no "side effect" of an unattainable goal.

The problem is that all of those assumptions are incorrect.

1) Educators don't know how to help 100% of students reach proficiency, no matter how defined except in a trivial manner (e.g., proficiency gauged by how many students are breathing). There are certainly ways to improve achievement, but most teachers are doing the best they currently know how to do. (Except for the occasional lazy [expletive], bad teaching requires energy, and I'd argue that bad teaching is often more exhausting than good teaching.) And while there is quite a bit of good research on improving reading and math skills for elementary students (so there are plenty of ways that teachers can pick up and apply new skills), I'm far less sanguine about upper grades. It's much harder to move achievement at secondary levels for a variety of reasons—academic problems are cumulative; academic issues are complicated by the logistical demands of juggling classes; and kids get ornery (read: they hit adolescence) in ways that are less tractable than most garden-variety disaffection at elementary ages. In addition, my impression (though will be happy to be proven wrong) is that there is less applied research on adolescent learning in content areas.

2) School responses are not entirely geared towards improving achievement. There is always a certain amount of gaming the system, either at the state level (with proficiency levels that are considerably lower in effect for some states than others) or at local levels (with test-prep in its different flavors, pushing students out, etc.). For a variety of reasons, I don't think you can stuff the gaming-the-system genie back in the bottle. So anyone who talks about goals and sanctions better be prepared to talk about how they intend to ameliorate such gaming.

3) Historically, goal-setting has a mediocre track record, and its legacy is a distrust of current and future goal-setting. Anyone remember the 6 and later 8 national goals for education, that we were to reach by 2000? More prosaically, we've had many times in the past where reforms have been oversold. In the mid-19th century, we had the overselling of things like reform schools. In the mid-20th century, we had the overselling of Head Start. As Michael Katz argued in one of the lesser-discussed parts of his The Irony of Early School Reform (1968), these waves of optimism and overselling are frequently followed by periods of vicious reaction and pessimism (with Social Darwinism and Arthur Jensen's notoriety as the example reactions to the two bits of overselling mentioned above). To my knowledge, no advocate of high-stakes accountability to date has acknowledged the consequences of overselling.

What depresses me most in classroom discussions these days is when I hear undergraduate students react to NCLB and accountability with the "not every child can learn" cavil. It's a political response, and especially with students not a particularly well-thought-out one.

My first week in a postdoc in Tennessee, I heard probably the wisest perspective on this from Sam Dempsey, currently the special-ed director in Winston-Salem's schools. We were talking about teachers' attitudes towards children with disabilities, including his experiences with teachers whose low expectations for students limited what they were willing to do, and Sam said, We can't guarantee a child can learn, but it is our job to keep applying different tactics and not to give up.

That iterative approach is worlds apart from both NCLB and also many hostile reactions to accountability. I think it's a way out (and it's a micro version of Robert Linn's analysis of and alternative to AYP), but I fear that our current world of accountability, in addition to everything else, will sour educators and parents to this. And because NCLB sets a politically high bar, any variation will be hit with the cavil about "lowering standards," without understanding incrementalism as the higher realistic standard.

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Posted in Education policy on May 22, 2006 8:05 AM |