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:
- "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.
- "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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.