Racing to the Top, While Leaving No Child Behind
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.