February 12, 2008

On excuses for unintended consequences

Oh, my: I head out of town for a week, and when I get back there's a trail of tears blogs on curriculum narrowing:

While there is some question about the extent of curriculum narrowing that followed NCLB (see: no causal language there), the basic argument in these entries is over whether NCLB creates incentives to narrow the curriculum and the extent to which the variation in curriculum narrowing shows that schools don't have to narrow the curriculum to do well on tests.

(...except for Eduwonk's red herring about low bars, which essentially is that because states can set relatively low thresholds for proficiency, that eliminates the incentive to narrow curriculum, stuff test-prep into the kids up the wazoo, etc. No economist or behaviorist would accept an argument of "hey, the marginal change required is low, so that doesn't create an incentive for changed behavior." Either would reply that's a question that should be left to evidence, not speculation. I'm not an economist or a behaviorist, but I don't buy the hand-waving about low bars, either. And, as 'kette points out, isn't NCLB supposed to change behavior? You can't simultaneously say NCLB is changing some behavior you like without acknowledging that it has the potential to provoke behavior we don't like.)

If we agree that thousands of schools are making poor decisions in response to the pressure of test-based accountability, then the operative question is, How do we help schools and educators make better decisions? Charles Barone and others suggest we hold up exemplars and say, "Follow them." That's the effective-schools-literature strategy, and we've paddled that boat since the late 1970s without getting where we want, so we know at least that it's not enough. Robert Pondiscio and other core-knowledge or other-curriculum standards folks would say, "Build the curriculum, and they will follow." That's a step towards regulating input more than outcomes, which I suspect will not be politically viable, but I may be wrong. George Miller, Ted Kennedy, and others propose to increase the number of measures used, with legislative language that assumes that AYP can be finely tuned. I don't buy that argument: test-based accountability is a cudgel, not a scalpel. My instinct is to say, Watch the decision-making, but that's because I distrust black-box handwaving, and I know it's hard to operationalize a procedural standard within a test-prep culture.

The meta-political question is deeper and one that I think most people understand in spots if not generally: you either own reform or you lose the reformer label. If you do not acknowledge problems through implementation and own them, you give up a huge chunk of credibility. Whether I agree with them on an issue or not, I give credit to Ed Trust for occasionally identifying problems with implementation and deciding to own the issue (e.g., growth models). They haven't done that with 100%-proficiency goals or test-prep (yet), but it's a healthy dynamic where they have done it. You could say the same with Fordham and curriculum-narrowing (or Diane Ravitch with the same issue plus test-prep). Or Miller and Kennedy and 100% proficiency (though their concrete ideas on those points are Rube-Goldbergesque).

I haven't seen that nearly as much with Barone, Eduwonk, or some others, and the failure to own problems with NCLB ignores the fundamental fact of post-NCLB politics: Parents of public-school children are far more skeptical of test-based accountability than they were 5 years ago. Own the problems or lose control.

Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 12, 2008 11:38 AM |