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The No Child Left Behind Act has a number of unintended consequences that educators and citizens need to mull over before reauthorizing the law in its current form. What's clear is that educational accountability systems in the past, as well as NCLB, have changed the business of school on a day-to-day basis, often in ways that belie the stated purposes of these policies - i.e., to improve the overall quality of education that students receive, with a focus on increasing opportunities for disadvantaged kids. Part 2 of 3 in a series on NCLB.

On Monday, I focused on what we gain through the No Child Left Behind Act. What's clear is that the accountability systems most studied - Texas, North Carolina, and Chicago - have increased test scores. Whether these increases translate into meaningful improvements in the life chances of children is unknown. Nonetheless, for those who equate achievement with test scores, accountability systems are very successful.

But my theme this week is policy trade-offs; that is, all policies have costs and benefits. What's clear is that accountability systems in the past, as well as NCLB, have changed the business of school on a day-to-day basis, often in ways that belie the stated purposes of these policies - i.e., to improve the overall quality of education that students receive, with a focus on increasing opportunities for disadvantaged kids. Many have made these points more eloquently than I can, so see also Jim Horn's comprehensive posting about what is left behind, as well as Debbie Meier and Diane Ravitch's on-going exchange at "Bridging Differences." But to summarize, here's what we're losing:

  1. "Hey Mom! What's a tundra?": What about non-tested subjects?

The Center for Education Policy reports that 44 percent of school districts in the country have made substantial cutbacks in social studies, science, art, and music lessons in elementary school.

  1. "Hey Mom! What do you mean there's no Halloween parade?": The value of "pointless" kid stuff

Maybe I'm sentimental, but is it so bad to have Halloween parades and Valentine's Day parties and trips to watch penguins at the zoo?

For just a couple of days a year, can we have no objectives on the board, no SWBAT (students will be able to), no authentic assessment, and no Do-Nows? I'm not suggesting we let the childrens run wild. And of course I understand why principals feel like schools don't have time to just muck around, even once in a while. But maybe a tiny bit would keep everyone sane, students and teachers alike.

  1. What about non-tested competencies we care about?

Teaching kids to do well on a test is not the same thing as teaching them to be critical thinkers, good scientists, and creative mathematicians. Let me give a very concrete example. Teaching kids how to do science - how to design an experiment to test a hypothesis - is not the same thing as teaching them the details of photosynthesis for a multiple choice exam. Surely kids need basic skills, but I am not convinced by the temporal ordering demanded by NCLB - i.e. "first things first." Diane Ravitch says it better:

If youngsters, in large numbers, have not learned and cannot use the basic skills, they are not likely to be prepared to be thinking citizens of our democracy. Thinking citizens need the tools and the power of reading and math, and they need the skills and knowledge of science and history so as to contribute to our common project as a democracy.

  1. What happened to the idea of deliberative discussion about the goals of education?

It's increasingly difficult to move forward a serious discussion of what schools are for. It's a foregone conclusion in many circles that schools are for increasing test scores, period. Again, Diane Ravitch provides a succinct explanation of this problem:

It is educators who are being pushed aside, as businessmen, lawyers, MBAs, and other organization men and women move in to rationalize education and run it like a business....The business leaders think that the problems of education are all managerial; they belittle the importance of curriculum and instruction. They don’t understand anything about the civic purpose of education. And right now, they have the upper hand.

  1. What about non-academic goals of education?  

Imagine that you were rewarded for doing a particular part of your job well, while other equally important components remained unacknowledged. It's likely that you would begin to focus your time and attention on the rewarded task and shortchange the unrewarded one. Herein lies the problem with NCLB, which assumes that the only goal of schooling is to raise students’ test scores.

Public schools, like most organizations, have many goals. Certainly, a central goal of American schools is to prepare children for their futures through improving their academic skills.

A second goal of public schools is to prepare children to become active citizens in a democratic society. Students, at the very least, must have the social skills and academic tools necessary to serve on a jury, vote, and understand the rights and responsibilities implied by our social contract.

A third goal of public schools is social mobility. The social mobility goal sees schools as breaking the link between parents and children. In this view, schools level the playing field by providing a venue in which each student can showcase his natural talent and merit.

While they are not mutually exclusive, the three goals introduce very different metrics of educational success. However, the current policy debate about NCLB, which privileges students' standardized test scores as the sole measure of school performance, is strangely out of sync with the longstanding American acknowledgement of the multiple goals of education.

We want our children to grow up not only to be skilled workers, but good citizens, good neighbors, and good parents. Social and civic development are important for each of these goals. Even those unconvinced about the intrinsic value of these non-cognitive skills would agree that task persistence, flexibility, eagerness to learn, and civic mindedness matter because they can boost academic achievement.

Originally posted to eduwonkette on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 12:35 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Six weeks are available in Virginia (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hulagirl, LaFajita

    For just a couple of days a year, can we have no objectives on the board, no SWBAT (students will be able to), no authentic assessment, and no Do-Nows?

    I'm familiar, as a parent, with Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOLs). What am I encoutering/hearing from other parents:
    .... * Some classrooms stop teaching after the SOLs, as the teachers feel like they've completed their year's requirement, leaving six weeks basically without educational instruction.

  •  This country's education system is broken and (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bob Love, blue book, LaFajita, jlms qkw

    need an immediate fix. In this globalize economy where good-paying jobs are scarcity, higher education will be the key to survival, otherwise we will never come to know when we became obsolete.

    •  That's the idea (0+ / 0-)

      TPTB (The Powers That Be) want cheap factory workers and other kinds of serf; no education beyond being able to obey orders and follow simple commands is necessary. For more qualified people, just shop abroad in Asia, where you can get them two a penny...

  •  Social mobility (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LaFajita, jlms qkw

    A third goal of public schools is social mobility. The social mobility goal sees schools as breaking the link between parents and children. In this view, schools level the playing field by providing a venue in which each student can showcase his natural talent and merit.

    Society needs the work done by poorer-paid people.

    Imagine if every job done by people making less than $15 an hour vanished.

  •  Why waste time (0+ / 0-)

    learning about the tundra.  It'll be gone soon enough.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 01:41:06 PM PDT

  •  My principal has said, Teach to the test." (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bob Love, jlms qkw

    and I bend by giving my kids practice tests ... but I refuse to compromise their education (though I may be compromising my employment!).

  •  congrats on your rescue (0+ / 0-)

    here is a tip:  TIP
    rec'd too

    don't kossacks have kids ? nieces, nephews ?  

    thanks for writing,

  •  Most of the "Western Civilization" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spoc42

    threatened by terrorism and gay marriage consists of the "social studies, science, art, and music" being dropped from the curriculum.

    Once these are gone, "American Culture" will consist of re-runs of Bonanza and a few infomercials.

    "I don't think I intended to break the law." - Monica Goodling

    by Bob Love on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 12:13:16 AM PDT

  •  Socializing vs. Socialization (0+ / 0-)

    We want our children to grow up not only to be skilled workers, but good citizens, good neighbors, and good parents. Social and civic development are important for each of these goals.

    Thank you for bringing this up!

    I remember back in the 80's when the assault on public schools first hit my awareness level. Defenders of the system talked about the value of socialization; detractors immediately howled "Schools are places to socialize! They are places to learn!"

    The problem, of course, is that the detractors were conflating (maybe purposely) the concept of "having social occasions" (time to hang out with your friends and have fun) and "learning social skills" (how to work together with different people, how to cooperate, how to lead, how to follow, how to get out of the way--in general, how to be "not an asshole").

    In Arizona, any hint of "socialization" was barred from serious discussions as "fluff and nonsense" (much like the concept of "building self esteem" was misunderstood as "don't hurt the wittle babies feewings"). So civic classes and such were given short shrift, managed social activities (retreats, class community projects, student council activities) were reduced to save money, and competition for grades and test scores increased.

    And it may just be my impression, but it seems like the current crop of "young Republicans" and 20-30 year old pundits and celebrities have the highest percentage of clueless, self-centered assholes I ever seen.

  •  Table Stakes (0+ / 0-)

    When I worked at Oracle back in the 90s we had a concept called "Table Stakes".

    Point was simple... it didn't matter how well you played poker or how good your cards were if you didn't have the table stakes to get into the game.

    In the same way, if you don't have basic reading and math skills you do not have the table stakes to get into the game to be an active citizen in a democratic society (because you don't have the necessary skills to understand the issues) or any chance at social mobility anywhere but downwards unless you happen to excel in one of the few high paying careers that do not require academic skills such as certain sports.

    All of these other things you talk about - music, civics, the scientific method, etc. are important and valuable... for kids who already have the table stakes of the three Rs.  For those who don't they are needless luxuries of secondary importance compared to the vital necessity of teaching basic skills.

    One possiblity to make sure that the kids who have learned the basics also have time for other skills that are harder to test might be to de-emphasize scores for kids who are already significantly above average - if increasing their scores won't improve a school's measured performance then there is no point in teaching them to the test - but that could have the perverse result of causing schools to cut resources to such students in order to try to do better with ones who are failing.  That's not good either - we don't want top colleges to only be accessibly to kids with parents rich enough to send them to private schools.

    All in all, despite its many failings, NCLB has forced educational systems that were often captive to administrators, teachers, and local politicians to instead focus on improving the performance of students.  And that's a good thing.  I totally agree we should look for ways to improve it... but do you have any really serious suggestions that would not result in schools returning to their old practice of assuring parents that they were above average comfortable in the knowlege that there was no way for parents to know they were lying?

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