The education "reform" movement is not just a failure. It is a costly failure, much more expensive than its advocates say.
Cost estimates of the "No Child Left Behind" Act radically underestimate the real cost of the bureaucratic nightmare. This shouldn't be shocking - those estimates are provided by the 'reformers' and politicians who peddle the 'reform' agenda for our public schools. Their estimates generally itemize only testing materials and consultants and systems.
But these estimates ignore the amount of time wasted on test prep. Many kids spend three or four weeks of their school year taking practice tests when they could be really learning. Their teachers must spend that time administering and grading these practice tests. Real education is just put on hold during the ever growing testing season.
This cost is by far the biggest cost of NCLB. The waste demoralizes teachers and students. No learning occurs. And we all pay for it with our taxes. But politicians and policy analysts ignore it.
Economists call this sort of cost an "opportunity cost". So for teachers, the time spent doing test prep is a lost the opportunity for actually teaching. Affected teachers and students to waste a hundred hours a year grading and taking practice exams. Given that there are only about 20 hours of instructional time each school week, wasting 100 hours a year on standardized test prep robs students of an entire month of learning.
But might this all be worth it? After ten years and virtually no progress I don't think so. NCLB is a demoralizing waste.
1 NCLB requirements and consequences
Required testing varies from state to state. At a minimum NCLB requires students in grades three through eight to take standardized tests in math and English every year. And the law requires each school district to designate as 'failing' schools that fail to show 'adequate yearly progress'.
Often schools that are 'failing' are closed. Teachers and administrators may lose their jobs. Students are then forced to transfer to other schools, usually farther away from home. See for instance recent closings in Chicago, where 50 schools were closed - many in the poorest neighborhoods, forcing strapped parents to travel further each day to get their kids to school. (Here's a recent diary on Chicago Public Schools
So NCLB places tremendous pressure on school supervisors and teachers. And the students feel the pressure, too. They are subject to a barrage of mind-numbing testing sessions.
2. Opportunity cost - Teachers' Time
Teachers spend a great deal of time on the standardized testing process. A 2007 survey conducted by the United Federation of Teachers notes that "Teachers spend... the equivalent of a day-and-a-quarter of instruction each week on...assessment-related paperwork".
Test prep often begins months before the actual tests are given:
" In elementary schools, the teachers said that they begin preparing for high-stakes reading and math tests nearly seven and a half weeks, on average, before the test. During this time, the teachers reported, they spend .. about a third of their 22 hours per week of teaching time ...on test prep, squeezing out subjects like science, social studies and the arts. "
The article is archived here.
So if teachers spend 20% of their time on standardized tests - drilling the students, administering the tests, grading the tests and reporting on the tests and if these tests are of no pedagogical value, then I'd say the law requires teachers to waste a lot of time.
The sole service provided by our public school system is teaching. If a law requires half the teachers to waste 20% of their time, then I'd say 10% of the cost of America's public school system is being wasted.
In 2008, US cost of education was about $500 Billion (according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
So it seems that NCLB really costs $50 Billion a year - (10% of $500 Billion). If nothing is gained, then that's a complete waste.
Another Kos diary on how much time is wasted on these tests is here.
3. Contrast with cost estimate from "reformers" at the Hoover Institute
A 2001 study from the Hoover Institute estimated cost of NCLB at $20 a student per year. (article here)With 50 million students in the US, then the total cost of NCLB would be only $1 Billion per year. That is 50 times less than the opportunity cost. But then the Hoover Institute has been in the vanguard of those calling for 'choice' and 'charter schools' and damning the teachers.
4. Opportunity Cost - in terms of wasted student time - one year of school lost
If teachers aren't teaching 10% of the time, then kids are also not learning 10% of the time. Above students directly lose 1/3 of 7 weeks on test prep. I haven't seen a direct surveys of wasted student time but some analogies indicate the waste for students is similar to the waste for teachers.
One Brooklyn mother estimates "I would guess my daughter has spent 100 hours sitting in front of bubble tests this year, including test prep."
The experience of one kid I know provides another anecdote. The kid sees reduced homework loads for the months before the tests are given. I think real homework is associated with real education. So I conclude little or no real education is happening during the test prep season.
Strange Homework - Last year the child's only homework for the month before the tests were taken was to 'read 45 minutes a day without stopping'.
Did the teacher assign any particular book to my child? No.
Did the teacher ask the child anything about the subject of the reading? No.
So why did the teacher give this assignment? Evidently all teachers were told (by the in-school testing coordinator and the principal) to give the assignment so that children would build up their "stamina" for sitting still for the 45 minutes the tests took.
This assignment cannot be seen as educational, except, perhaps, if it can be seen as an introduction to the theater of the absurd.
This year - in a different school in the same district - the same child again had virtually no homework assigned for a month before the tests were given.
Excessive Teacher Absences - And then after the tests have been given, some regular teachers are assigned to grade the standardized tests leaving substitute teachers to fill in the gap.
After-school programs have been reduced during the week of the test and the following weeks.
So if students are missing out on three or four weeks of education each year (at least for grades three to eight), then by the time they're in the 12th grade they've lost an entire year of schooling.
And this concentration on test prep means less funding for arts, physical education, social science and science in our public schools.
5. How much progress has been attained under NCLB?
Here in New York City, the most objective measure indicates virtually none.
The most reliable form of testing is the long established US Department of Education's NAEP tests. Unlike the NCLB tests, these tests are only given to a random sample of children; the curve isn't changed politically.
In 2003 when Bloomberg took over 80% of eighth graders in New York City failed to show 'proficiency' in Math. After 10 years of Bloomberg we see that in 2012 76% of eighth graders were still failing the math test. Similarly in 2003 78% of eighth graders were less than proficient in reading; eight years later only 76% were still graded less than.
So after a decade of NCLB and Bloomberg's policies 3/4 of eighth graders still don't really have an eighth grade education. After a decade of pretend "choice" and charter schools and "leadership" academies we have seen absolutely no progress.
Forget the rhetoric ...'progress' ....'closing the opportunity gap' ...the trumpeting of closing 'failing schools'. The district is still failing its mission. We see that most students are failing to attain reasonable proficiency. NCLB isn't working.
6. Politicians seriously misrepresent the cost of system - they often talk about the costs as only the costs of the tests and the consultants who process the data. But this accounting omits the millions of hours of teacher time spent on prepping, administering and processing tests of no pedagogical value.
7. Reform advocates exaggerate the benefits of the system. They claim that their initiatives - pushing for 'teacher evaluation systems'; grading school based on standardized test performance; creating small schools; creating charter schools are all successes.
Often the politicians couch their language in vague neo-conservative rhetoric, claiming 'parent choice' is good.
8. For example here in New York, Bloomberg and the NYC Schools Chancellor Walcott cite increased graduation rates as proof their methods are working. But they skew the statistics and - more importantly - they omit the fact that kids who are graduating haven't actually been educated.
Eighty percent of NYC public school graduates who enter CUNY (The City University of New York) are required to take remedial classes. Even the Murdoch-owned New York Post has covered this continuing failure of New York schools.
This fraction of unprepared high school graduates is consistent with the performance on the eighth grade NAEP tests - where 75% fail to show proficiency.
In other words those kids have been given diplomas (by politicians claiming that giving diplomas is progress) but the diplomas don't mean they've received a proper education.
9. The Cost of Information
A second economic concept to consider is "the cost of information". How much does it cost to learn a fact or set of facts? And does the benefit of having that information exceed the cost?
As I said the cost of the information gained from NCLB is 50 times greater than "reform" advocates say. And yet no good use has come of that information.
Just saying that a school is 'failing' and then moving the kids to another school doesn't do much, superficially. In fact it seems that just adds strain to the kids (they have to commute further) and the overcrowded schools they are sent to.
Here in New York each declaration of a failing school seems a deliberate attempt to both place a charter school into that building and drive the next school towards 'failure' so that charter schools can be put into those schools too.
Many articles have been written on how the NCLB approach is flawed - schools can be cited as "failing" - even if every kid in the school is "proficient" on the state tests. Students are moved from one overcrowded school to another.
The algorithm leads to strange incentives; principals and supervisors are tempted to cheat. The tests themselves are poorly designed and sometimes have flaws.
NCLB tests do give us information. But it is expensive information and put to no good use.
10. Testing versus testing.
There is a superficial contradiction in my argument I can perhaps resolve. I am criticizing the policy of spending a month of each school year giving every child in half the grades practice standardized tests and then judging whether each school or teacher is 'failing'. Yet I am citing the NAEP test results as evidence of the failure of the policy.
How can I use a test to say tests don't work? I am not saying tests don't work.
The NAEP tests are a reliable diagnostic tool. Their standard has been maintained for almost 50 years. They are only give to random samples of kids is different locations. No test prep is involved. So the results of the NAEP provide a statistical summary.
11 NCLB is a failure. The ideologically driven imposition of this ill-conceived reform wastes Billions of dollars a year. Yet after a decade we see no real progress. Just bashing teachers doesn't really work. The resources wasted on test prep would be better used lowering class size in early grades, increasing availability of pre-k. The magic bullets of the 'reform' agenda - standardized testing, charter schools, closing 'failing' schools - just don't work. Many of our nation's public schools remain mired in a culture of failure; and NCLB just adds to the stress, robbing the kids who most need time with their teachers of just that.
12 Addendum Opportunity Cost - definition
"The Economist" defines opportunity cost as follows:
"The true cost of something is what you give up to get it. This includes not only the money spent in buying (or doing) the something, but also the economic benefits (UTILITY) that you did without because you bought (or did) that particular something and thus can no longer buy (or do) something else." (You can find that glossary here)