A Philosopher's Blog

Racing to the Top, While Leaving No Child Behind

Posted in Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2011
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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was put in place during George W. Bush’s administration and was “replaced” with Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT). Despite the difference between the names, the core of each seems to be basically the same. They also seem to share the quality of being bad ideas.

The underlying idea for NCLB was that regular testing in public schools (with public results) would improved education. This was tried in Texas and it was claimed that Texas showed remarkable improvement from this system. This seemed to have been enough to sell the idea to Congress. Unfortunately, there was one minor problem with this: the reality seems to have been that Texas students showed no improvement, even after 20 years of this approach. In fact, Texas students are in the bottom 10% of American students in both math and literacy. Given that Texas was used to justify NCLB, this seems to be a rather serious problem.

Sadly, Texas did serve as an excellent example of the effects of this approach to education. The NCLB agenda seems to have had a similar impact on states across the nation. That is, this approach seems to have yielded little in what could be reasonable called positive results for education. It has, however, been good business for those who sell the tests used in assessment.

Being a somewhat experienced professor, I can attest that standardized testing of this sort is generally not the best means of assessing abilities. However, the most serious problem is that making the testing the focus means that true education is shortchanged in favor of training students to take specific tests. I taught a class on standardized test preparation for several years and can, based on my experience, be reasonable confident that training students for a standardized test is not the same as providing them with the knowledge and skills that are critical to the rest of life.

In addition to what seems to be a clear flaw in the underlying method, there was also the approach taken. To be specific, NCLB required that 100% of all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014. While this was a laudable goal, it also seems to be one that is impossible to achieve. To make matters worse, the NCLB approach was based on punishment for failing to meet goals rather than rewarding schools for success. This punitive approach seems to have caused significant damage to the public education system. Unrealistic goals backed up by severe punishments, as one would imagine, are not the best way to create success. Unless, of course, success is defined in a somewhat different way. After all, this approach has served to open up a market for private schools and thus might turn out to be profitable for the folks who own such institutions.

When Obama came into office, many people hoped that he would change the approach to education. His administration did make some changes, such as giving the program a new name and adding some incentives (competition for federal money) into the mix. They also changed to an even greater reliance on tests and even made the obviously mistaken claim that teachers are solely responsible for whether test scores improve or worsen. Some people see this as a betrayal of their hopes.

This approach seems to be obviously fundamentally flawed. First, while these tests can be a useful measure of certain aspects of education, they are far from a complete measure. This is one reason that experienced educators do not simply hand out their own versions of standardized tests in classes, but instead make use of a diverse range of means of assessing performance. There is also, as noted above, the problem that teaching students how to take standardized tests and providing them with the knowledge and skills they will need in life are two different things. As I mentioned before, I have fairly extensive experience with standardized tests and I also am very familiar with assessment methods (I have served on an assessment committee since 2004). As such, I am reasonably confident in my claims. I am, however, open to the possibility that I am wrong. In fact, it would be wonderful if I were wrong at that  RTTT has the right approach to education that will save the day for American students. I doubt this is the case, however. Rather, I expect that this approach will mainly serve to damage the American education system and make us less competitive in the global marketplace. It will, however, be a boon for those who sell the tests and those who run private schools.

Second, the claim that teachers are the sole factor determining tests scores is, to stray from my usual tone, pure bullshit. To believe such a claim a person would have to accept that parents, the social conditions, and the children have no causal role in the matter. This is absurd to such a degree that the burden of proof seems to squarely rest on those who claim that teachers are entirely responsible. To use an analogy, this would be on par with hold a school coach completely responsible for team performance and refusing to accept that the players, their parents and other factors could have anything to do with winning or losing.

Having been a professor for quite some time, I do accept that the educator does have a considerable amount of responsibility for the quality of the education provided. However, the majority of the responsibility rests on the student and even the best educator cannot reach and improve everyone.

Some might suspect that making teachers solely accountable and linking their employment and salaries to these test scores is a way to reduce teachers’ salaries and fire teachers. This would seem consistent with the recent attacks on education and educators, especially attempts to destroy teachers’ unions. While these unions do have their flaws, they do serve as a counterbalance to those who would inflict damaging cuts on education and impose damaging systems.

Obama has been talking a good game about education, but it remains to be seen if he will implement substantial changes.

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13 Responses

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  1. frk said, on March 31, 2011 at 9:06 am

    . . .seems impossible to achieve”
    “Seems, madam? Nay it is.””
    Among fellow educators that I spoke to at the the time NCLB was introduced, the immediate reaction was “Hmph. Anyone who works with kids, anyone who works with human beings for that matter, KNOWS that 100% proficiency is impossible for every child. What’s going to happen is that districts and states will begin lowering the bar to make 100% attainable. Let’s just hope that this ends before the final product enters college.”
    We also knew teachers would become scapegoats.

    Teachers may not be able to teach, but they can sure read the tea leaves. They can smell what’s blowin’ in the wind. See the writing on The Wall.*

    *Dumbest basketball team in history chanting “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no ball control.”

  2. urbannight said, on March 31, 2011 at 10:33 am

    I was a GED examiner for a number of years during the Bush years and what I noticed was the increasing numbers of kids who were telling me that their teachers told them to drop out and get thier GED instead. These were mostly bright kids too. They usually passed the exams on the first try without any trouble. GED exams are not easy.

    The reasons for low grades at school were because of marginalization. Piercings and Tats. Goth and Grunge. Smart kids that don’t fit in and are bored at school. Because engaging the students was too much trouble, the school district had a policy to get them to leave school instead. I spoke with freinds who were teachers and I was dating a teacher at the time. They said it was a way of dealing with the No Child Left Behind policy that required higher testing score.

    The policy also allowed for districts to make their own standardized test to meet state requirements. So teachers at each school spent a large portion of their time reviewing the standards, writing test questions, reviewing questions written by other teachers and not focusing on the lessons for the students in class. The result is that classes were taught based on the tests the teachers were trying to create and teachers didn’t focus on students. Which also encouraged teachers, who had students that were smart enough for the material but too much work otherwise, to tell the students to drop out and get GEDs.

    • frk said, on March 31, 2011 at 11:57 am

      I strongly agree, but I’d make two minor changes.

      “. . .the tests the teachers were trying to create ”
      The tests the teachers were ‘required’ to create?

      ” . . .teachers at each school spent a large portion of their time reviewing the standards, writing test questions, reviewing questions written by other teachers and not focusing on the lessons for the students in class.”
      Teachers at some schools were ‘required’ to spend. . .?

      Because of potential financial benefits to the states, districts, superintendents and principles were ‘encouraged’ to ‘encourage’ their teachers to increase test scores.
      If test scores increased, then graduation rates would increase. The states would get their money and the federal government could pat itself on the back for a well done.
      Alas, ’twas not to be—- as foretold by teachers and anyone with common sense when NCLB was passed. And so it goes.

      The buck stops with those in the Senate and House of both parties who signed on to NCLB.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 31, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    What do you expect from a big federal bureaucracy with a “one size fits all” policy?

    Education should be handled at the local level.

    • frk said, on March 31, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      Have you ever been to a local school board meeting? I have. Some of them are a hoot. Some are just pitiful. But most boards get something done during the meeting.
      352 school districts in Indiana. 1,039 in California. 15,746 in the country. Thus multiplying the laughs.

      I’m not saying it’s common or uncommon for school board members to seek a board position while their children are attending school or that they use their official position in any way to influence their child’s success in school . I’m not saying that it’s common or uncommon for a school board member to get behind a certain candidate for teaching positions because the candidate is part of his family tree (is that called nepotism?)

      http://thealternativepress.com/articles/city-school-board-adopts-safeguards-against-nepotism–2

      But this source comes right out and claims to be “unbiased and fact-checked” and we all know what that means, don’t we? Better fact check it yourself.

      And corruption on school boards hasn’t disappeared. Google
      And turnout for school board elections is notoriously low. Google

      I’m uncertain as to whether throwing this responsibility back into local laps will get the desired results (other than the fact that it would solve, for some, for a time , the still debatable states rights issue that has swirled around the Dept of Ed since its inception). Are you certain it will get the desired results?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      True. Bush and the Republicans really got the government right into the local schools. Maybe the Democrats can cut back that federal beast.

      Any wagers on that happening? :)

  4. jelillie said, on March 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    I agree with the commentator who would put education back in the hands of the local government. Barak knows as little about me and the educational needs of my children as I know about him and his.

  5. Asur said, on March 31, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    There’s no problem with a national standard for primary and secondary education; in fact, it’s desirable.

    The problem is that such a standard should be soley for curriculum, not the students’ mastery of that curriculum. As others have pointed out, the are too many factors outside the control of the school at play in the latter to hold the school (or teachers) accountable for it.

    • frk said, on April 1, 2011 at 8:25 am

      I believe you’re absolutely correct about focusing on curriculum not student mastery. At the very least the curriculum matter must be dealt with before the other problems can be fairly addressed.

      Inconsistency in curriculum is a killer, in small and large ways. Changing from one reading program to another and back again in primary school, when students are learning and honing the reading skills is confusing to the child and harmful to their progress. Having each district chase after each new idea that comes down the pike is foolish on the face of it. It reminds me of Homer Simpson and his fascination with shiny things. NCLB and its ever-shifting approaches to achieving its dubious end is a killer.
      But achieving consensus on a federal focus may be a killer as well. States’ righters will be up in arms. Right behind them will be creationists(or whatever they call themselves now).The battle that ensues will be bloodier than any health care battles we’ve gone through.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

        I’m for a consistent core curriculum, but teachers should have some freedom to determine the content and methodology of their classes. After all, people have different styles, specialties and talents.

        There has been some behind the scenes conflict at universities regarding standardized curriculum. The administrators who are for it generally seem to think that professors are merely being obstructive when they refuse to all use the same book and syllabus for classes. However, standardizing classes imposes on academic freedom and has greater potential for problems than the current system. One obvious concern is that a senior faculty member/chair could use this to force the junior faculty to use their book in classes or push their own agenda into all the classes. In general, the current system seems to do a reasonably good job of ensuring that the classes provide the needed content. In any case, if a professor is so bad at their job that they cannot do this, standardized curriculum won’t help.

        • frk said, on April 1, 2011 at 10:38 am

          Must the concepts of a consistent core curriculum and teacher freedom be mutually exclusive? Providing basic guidelines–defining in general what broad goals should be reached and what subject matter should be covered while allowing freedom of textbook choice and individual presentation seem within the realm of the possible. But can “the system” accept such a reasonable approach?

          On the question of teacher competency— Absent a valid, fair, realistic, non-political evaluation procedure employed on a regular basis the problem will persist. In one school district I taught in the principal performed regular perfunctory evaluations, usually during the last week of the school year. He moved on to a higher position in another district and was replaced by a principal who never conducted evaluations. . .

        • Asur said, on April 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm

          I don’t think academic freedom should exist below the college level, though; creativity and choice in how to impart a body of skills and knowledge, yes, but choosing which skills and what knowledge, no. Leave that for schooling that isn’t mandatory to attend.

          I think the best model for curriculum is essentially a ‘next-level-up’ model. For example, 4 years of high school would cover the same material you’d get in college-level 101 classes, just built up over those 4 years; middle school would do the same for the first year of high school, and so on.

  6. frk said, on April 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Right. If choice in personal teaching style is stifled, robots could perform the job. A good evaluator might suggest/demand changes that could improve communications with the students, recommend/require improvement in classroom efficiency, etc., but when the ‘person’ is removed from personal all that remains is Al the Robot at the front of the classroom.

    The ‘body of skills and knowledge’ issue has never been addressed in many public primary and secondary schools. But I don’t believe removing the teacher from the decision-making process will eliminate the problem. It could possibly make it a hotter issue than it is at present. Assuming that we’re talking about public schools here, who decides which textbooks are chosen? Who determines whether or not creationism is a subject worth delving into at length? ? The school board. If the board is very conservative, and you’re among the 48% minority that disagrees with their choices, your only option may be take them to court or to send your children elsewhere, likely at your own expense. You may have to move to another county or state. Or home school. How would you react to a school board that insists on a text that promotes creationism over evolution?

    A specific body of basic skills and knowledge would provide an nice framework for your “next-level-up” model. In fact, I don’t see how the model would succeed without it. The only barrier to success might be the ideologies of some of those who decide how to interpret and apply the words “specific” and “basic”.


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