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No Child Left Behind Meltdown

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act was widely hailed as a bipartisan cure for the problems of American education.  That no longer rings true; the law has been in force for some time and plenty of children are being left behind every day at schools from all over the land.

The law’s goals include tracking student performance, increasing teacher accountability and improving standards for education — all generally commendable goals, but the law has mostly failed to achieve them.

These days, state after state is scrambling to get exemptions from the law. While some useful reforms were furthered, the law’s emphasis on rigid targets for standardized tests drove school districts all over the country into elaborate and educationally useless efforts to game the system.  Schools jiggered opening days and test dates, hoping that by moving the tests later in the school year, and opening earlier in August, they could raise scores compared to students on the old schedule.

But if gaming the system was the primary way many schools dealt with the law, others went straight to cheating.  Superintendents, principals and teachers routinely committed deliberate and willful fraud to get scores that would bring money to their schools in violation of the clear provisions of the law.  Another one of these scandals has erupted in Georgia. The New York Times reports:

Cheating by officials on 2009 state standardized tests was found in each of 11 schools investigated in Dougherty County, which includes the city of Albany about 200 miles south of Atlanta. The report described dozens of cases of adults giving students answers during tests or correcting their mistakes afterward. One fifth-grade teacher passed students who could not read, the report said, resulting in their not receiving extra help.

The details of the report echoed results of similar investigations this year in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, underscoring a widespread debate about the reliance on high-stakes test results, which are used to evaluate students and teachers and to measure improvements required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The fact that NCLB triggered a national fraud epidemic leads to two conclusions.  The first is that the law was pointing to some real problems.  Schools are failing all over the country; teachers and principals are receiving salaries but aren’t succeeding at their jobs.

The second is that the problem is bigger than the schools, much bigger.  Bad schools aren’t simply a bad teacher or a bad principal problem.  Children from homes where books and reading are important often come to the first grade or even kindergarten with reading skills. From other homes they come knowing very little they haven’t learned from TV.

The school is the place where society’s expectations meet reality: a large chunk of the American population doesn’t have what it takes to function successfully in the contemporary world, and no school system, however lavishly funded and minutely supervised can fix a problem whose roots lie outside the school.  NCLB was successful in highlighting the many, many failing schools, teachers, parents and children across the country, but the more clearly the highlight marked the system’s deficiencies, the more clearly it became apparent that NCLB is not a fix.  NCLB at best is a diagnostic tool; its standards help us identify who is failing, but its provisions cannot make them succeed.

The Via Meadia guess is that there is no such thing as a national solution for the problems of our schools.  Money is not the problem.  With the right kids and parents, a school straight out of Little House on the Prairie would get better results than the most expensive and elaborate program that all the educational foundations, peer-reviewed experts and congressional bill writers in this country can devise.

With the wrong kids from the wrong homes, not all the consultants at the Ford Foundation or all the billions in the Gates Foundation can make schools work.

We need to be a little bit more honest with ourselves.  Schools didn’t cause America’s biggest social problems, and schools can’t cure them.  A public school doesn’t take in sow’s ears and put out silk purses; a school inevitably reflects the strong and weak points of the society and culture around it.

A neighborhood of weak families will rarely have strong schools.  School reform is important and we have a long way to go, but until America finds ways to address its broken homes, we will not be able to fix our broken schools.

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  • Kansas Scott

    Among many problems with NCLB is its focus on comparing how one class of say, third graders, does compared to the previous year’s class of third graders. The point of education is to educate individual human beings, not cohorts.

    What you write about the problems of America being reflected in our schools is true but, to a certain extent, can be misleading. It is true that kids from crummy families do worse than kids from involved and functioning families. But even kids from crummy families can do better in good schools with engaged and supported teachers.

    Success should be measured by how far we move individual kids up the ladder, not how their class happens to have done compared to the previous class.

  • SteveMG

    Isn’t this what Diane Ravitch, to the consternation of conservatives, discovered?

    She was initially a supporter of NCLB and charter schools but abandoned her belief that they would make much, if any, improvements in achievement.

    I still think, at the margins, that teaching to the test still in some cases a marginal improvement over what was done previously. Which was essentially warehousing children.

    Margins and marginal ain’t enough though.

  • Anthony

    WEM, it appears you are proposing a national discussion on the family; a discussion our politicians(at all levels) appear to be adverse to. Just today, I heard a pundit assert that 70% of black children, 65% of Latino children, and 55% of white children (qualified by education level if I remember correctly) are born out of wed lock; Therein lies beginning of NCLB’s public school problems – goals remain laudable and whether diagnostic instrument or constraining standard NLCB brought focus to America’s K-8 educational shortcomings.

    I concur, “a neighborhoodof weak families will rarely have strong schools.” Furthermore, a nation of poorly educated citizens (children) will rarely have a strong economically productive civil society (especially in a changing 21st century world). Among our many concerns as a nation, the health (and education) of America’s families ought to be an agenda item for both Obama and his challengers.

  • silverfiddle

    It all needs to be privatized. Free markets will solve most of education’s ills.

    When it’s a business transaction between parents and a school, with a contract and rules, much of the nonsense will drop out and allow the schools to focus on actually teaching children.

    Some kids from disadvantaged families need to be taught differently, perhaps with longer school days and “homework” being done at school. These are the solutions that the free market would discover and implement.

  • silverfiddle

    Kansas Scott is right. Also, the incentives ignore the naturally occurring Bell Curve, which is the common complaint of teachers I’ve discussed this with.

  • Kenny

    “Money is not the problem.”

    You got that right.

    And if money is the problem, it is that too much is poured into the government schools, thus building up their resistance to reform.

  • Kris

    Shorter version: Schools don’t leave children behind, parents do.

  • Larry, San Francisco

    This is why it is urgent we come up with policies that can provide opportunities for people who don’t do well at school. Unfortunately, manufacturing, technical or other brownfield jobs are not looked at favorably by the powers that be (as one person put it after the Keystone decision, well Obama might be at a party with Daryl Hannah but he would never meet an oil worker). We imported millions of people who are hard to educate:
    We need to think seriously on how to provide a future for these people and not just we are going to fix the schools.

  • Scott

    I agree that the schools and teachers cannot do it all and cannot rescue children who have no support at home. The problem is that schools haven’t told us that. Instead, they have continually told us that they COULD solve the problem if only given more money.

    This lets poor parents off the hook, and sends the message that they don’t have to be involved in their children’s education. Just leave it up to the schools and they’ll take care of it- “Why, just look at all the programs we have for underachieving kids!”

    The schools can’t have it both ways- they told us they could deliver if given more money, and the amount spent per child keeps going up, but results keep going down. It’s the classic bureaucratic argument to every problem- spend more money, and if that doesn’t work it’s because you didn’t spend enough.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Let’s face it, the Labor Gangs run the schools for the benefit of the Teachers, not for the purpose of teaching children. And so the Extortionate Labor Gangs engage in Fraud and Cheating as that is their skill set.
    We will never improve the public school system as long as there is a Teachers Union Monopoly. The Blue Model [does not meet with my approbation]!

  • Thomas G. Stege

    Tell me again why the federal government has any say in K-12 education? It has been a downward spiral ever since they got involved.

  • John Barker

    As one who works in the charter school movement, I have seen our schools degenerate into test score inflation academies. I recommend Daniel Koretz’s book, “Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us.” Koretz is a Harvard professor and also a former teacher. He does a good job of explaining how inappropriate testing constricts the curriculum and lowers the conceptual level of instruction.

  • SC Mike

    Everybody — researchers, policymakers, educators, the public at large — needs to take a long, hard look at all of the participants in childhood education and the environment in which they interact. Parents / custodians, teachers, specialists, and administrators in public education operate in a political environment overseen by a political body, the school board. Each group has its own agenda and incentives that may not be shared with any other group: they don’t intersect when depicted via a Venn diagram.

    Apart from the overt political battles over stuff like creationism, there are significant changes introduced without much analysis of the effect on instruction. About ten years ago I joined others in fighting our school district’s move to block scheduling and its miracle of turning seven periods per day per year into eight subjects — four for each half of the school year — by simply lengthening the class period from ~50 minutes to 90. The district superintendent acknowledged the real motive, it’s easier to administer and schedule with that setup, but stressed that the kids would be exposed to more, so it must be good. Few saw the impact that reducing the hours spent for each subject over the year from 160 to 120 could have, or the six-to-twelve month gap between the current and next levels of subjects like math, English, or foreign languages would probably have on mastery of a subject.

    Problems were found, workarounds like A/B block were instituted, but nobody would acknowledge that former standard, the “Carnegie unit” of 160 hours of instruction per subject per year was still relevant. Bing around for “Carnegie unit” these days and you’ll find it described as surrogate for learning or an inflexible anachronism. If they use an example, it’s 120 hours. The revisionists have been busy.

    I am not saying that the old way is the best way, what I do want to know is whether 120 hours of instruction in a course is enough for a child to attain mastery when in the past we thought 160 hours was required. Alas, there’s no research…

  • Mark

    Ooooh, you spoke the unspeakable! That schools are bad because the students can’t/ won’t do the work. Did lightening strike you? Good thing you have tenure and keep up the good work.
    Here’s a stat or 2 for you.
    46% of students admitted to CSU take remedial math and english
    39% have less than a 3.0 high school gpa
    43% are NAM’s
    Not a coincidence.
    And everyone is wringing hands and pretending not to understand why CA kids are so dumb. so they blame the high schools.

    Merry Christmas

  • Mark Michael

    Florida has made surprising improvements in the educational attainment levels of its K-12 students, especially minorities, over the last decade. See this very readable report put out by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (Indianapolis, IN):

    It’s titled, “Lessons for Ohio from Florida’s K-12 Education Revolution”. Worth reading IMO.

    It has lots of nice, colored graphs clearly illustrating Florida’s surprising progress.

    There are other studies that put the lie to conventional wisdom about school choice. A long study of NYC students who applied to attend its limited number of charter schools was published a year or two ago. NYC has 4 times as many applicants as slots available in the charters, so they use a Lottery system to select who gets to attend. This study tracked the educational attainment of a rep. sample of both lottery “winners” and “losers.” The winners who attended charters did progressively better year after year in the charters than the lottery losers who attended traditional public schools. Those losers had the same achievement levels as the students who did not apply. This study showed that NYC’s charter schools were better than its traditional schools IMO. It (of course) eliminated the selectivity factor, which is often claimed to explain why charter students may do better than others. Also, charters typically get substantially less funding than regular public schools. That needs to be taken into account also.

  • jetty

    When schools graduate a large percentage of kids who can not read, then I would say that the problem lies more with the system. The federal government has exacerbated the problems with this system.

  • Wayne Gersen

    A few points:
    ==>What gets measured gets done… and NCLB measures a very narrow spectrum of schooling… and when students fail to do well on these measurements our public schools are declared “failures”.
    ==>By the time a third grade student takes their first standardized test they will have spent 6% of their life under the influence of a school teacher… and yet teachers assume 100% responsibility for the student’s results on those tests
    ==> If money ISN’T the answer, why do affluent districts spend more for schools and pay higher salaries for teachers? Why do affluent parents spend money for out-of-school enrichment activities? Why do elite private schools have small class sizes and modern facilities?
    ==> We expect students to develop their intellect based on their age… and when students don’t do so we call them “failures”… yet when a student is physically “small for their age” we call them “immature”.
    ==> We have the technological wherewithal to track the progress of individual students and yet we insist on testing groups of students simultaneously by age cohort— reinforcing the notion that intellectual development is age-related and perpetuating a structure of schooling that was established in 1920. Is there ANY business organization operating today that has the same organizational structure as it had in 1920?
    ==>Finally, we administer a battery of performance assessments to virtually every citizen in every state in America… and virtually every “student” passes this battery of tests: it’s the series of tests you need to pass to get a driver’s license. The last time I looked you get the same kind of driver’s license no matter how many times you have to take a section of the test. If we REALLY want all kids to master the content in the tests we are subjecting them to we should use that model of assessment instead of the one-shot tests we use now to determine “how much a student learned”.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I went to a two room school house and got though an Ivy with an honorable discharge. What I see is an awful lot more busy work, home work, and meta work like testing, but not much common sense. I spent a lot of time in that schoolhouse teaching other kids to read, Word by word. If necessary, sound by sound. One on one. Until I got the job done. So did the other kids that could read. That’s the way the little school on the prairie worked. You kept at it until you got the job done. And the teacher used the smart kids to teach the not so smart ones because it worked. But childrens wuz left behind cuz they cudna reed nur rite. Social promotion, like cheap booze or fiat currency works fine at first – but long term – watch out!

  • Richard S

    There’s also the problem of the ed schools. Weaker students often gravitate to them, and much of what is taught there does not produce more effective teachers.

    And I thought NCLB was written by Ted Kennedy’s staff.

  • Luke Lea

    No Child Left Behind was just Bush’s way of befuddling the left. It was a cynical ploy from the get go, at least in my opinion.

  • SC Mike

    NCLB was a fair attempt to establish the sort of accountability in education that’s found in the business world. However, too many educators and administrators resist that notion, believing that such would result in too much pressure on the students and teachers.

    With all the testing going on one could track the progress of individual students, measure net improvement as a function of school or class, etc. That’s fiercely opposed by many teachers, union or no, because they fear that results would be misinterpreted.

    In many ways it does boil down to the motivation and participation of the parents / custodians and the kids. But there’s a significant problem with the weird notions common among educators. The one that really sets me off is their disdain for rote memorization. In the 1990s I made my two kids memorize multiplication tables up to 12×12 because they did not have to in school. (I went bananas one year as I paged through the arithmetic text book that had a Mayan theme and no multiplication tables; not many folks and fewer ten-year-olds have much use for a vigesimal system.)

    Starting with arithmetic one learns rules that one builds upon while progressing to other branches of mathematics. How often does one hear “I’m no good in math.”? Could it be that I get the incorrect change so often because of that?

    Add to that the absence of phonics in some school systems and you’ve got kids who have a heckuva time with foreign languages. Curriculum specialists have come to the rescue with “whole language” instruction in which the kids pretend to learn the language but cannot read or write a word. Although many are taught, about the only foreign language American kids speak with any fluency these days is Spanish.

    Education is hard work and until the majority of citizens appreciate that we’re just going to have to open our doors to waves of immigrants who can do the hard thinking.

  • Mark Michael

    Comment 17. says “If money ISN’T the answer, why do affluent districts spend more for schools and pay higher salaries for teachers? Why do affluent parents spend money for out-of-school enrichment activities? Why do elite private schools have small class sizes and modern facilities?”

    Affluent districts, at least where I live in metro Dayton, Ohio, do not. Dayton City proper spends $14,250/student, while the suburban districts all spend in the neighborhood of $10,000/student. This is actually pretty much true nationwide, as I recall. DC schools spend the most, as I recall. NYC spends maybe $18,000/student.

    In Dayton city, 15,000 students attend the regular public schools (that $14,250/student), 6,000 students attend charters (about $7,000/student), and 1,589 use vouchers to go to private, mostly religious schools ($4,250/student or an elementary student or $5,000 for a HS student). The test scores of the charter students, on average, are substantially higher than the students in the regular public schools. This wasn’t true when charters started in 1999, but the charters’ test scores steadily went up & up. The traditional schools DID ALSO! They had to compete! But, around 2007 or 2008, the charters forged ahead of the traditional schools. The traditional schools were dead last of Ohio’s 612 school districts in 1999, with a solid “F” grade. Today, they get a “C” grade, sometimes a “D” – but no more F’s. The charters (there are 25 to 30, most years) typically get C’s, B’s, and A’s.

    I don’t have the test scores for the voucher students, but a few schools I know about, they’re higher than both charter & traditional public school students.

    More money isn’t the “solution” I’d say,

  • tyree

    As long as society must call “illegal aliens” by false names we are going to have huge problems trying to figure out what is wrong with our schools. Teachers in California have to deal with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of students whose parents are illiterate in Spanish and do not speak English. To pretend that this does not cause problems in the classroom skews all attempts at honest analysis. This is true and I know what I an writing about. My daughter was the only parent at the English speaking parents introduction night. All of the other parents, all of them, were in another building getting their introduction in Spanish.

  • bobby b

    I’m just glad we’ve seen the light and can finally return to a system in which teachers simply tell us what they think they should accomplish, and then tell us later that they accomplished it.

    Face it: nobody was concerned about “teaching to the test”, or stifling creativity, or unfair judgments.

    They were concerned with fair judgments. They hated ’em. They were enraged that we, the great unwashed, deigned to criticize how they were educating our children, when our proper place is to politely ask how much money they need this year. They are the experts, and we are the supplicants, and they will educate our kids as well or as poorly as they decide the situation warrants, and if we keep on questioning their superiority, well, it’ll be “as poorly.”

  • FeFe

    As noted by #15, NCLB worked for Florida for it was the only state in the nation that made a concerted effort to be in compliance. It appears having President Bush’s brother as the governor of the state made all the difference. Even today, nearly ten years on, look at the DOE web site and you will see most states are still out of compliance. When Obama got elected, the collective cheer from teachers on EdWeek and across the nation over no longer having to pretend to comply with NCLB because they just knew Obama would repeal it was sickening.

    Furthermore, it would be most comforting to so many parents across the nation to hear that this legislation will at least continue to be available and tied to IDEA.

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