The No Child Left Behind Hoax
The No Child Left Behind Hoax
[This is a talk by Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp given at a meeting on "The No Child Left Behind Hoax" sponsored by Portland Area Rethinking Schools on
My name is Stan Karp and for the last 27 years I've been a high school teacher in
Now as a school reform addict, I know that I'm here today among friends. I know what Friday afternoon means to most teachers (and most other folks), and for so many of you to turn out on a Friday afternoon to talk about school reformâ€”the good, the bad, and, in the case of the law we're here to discuss today, the very uglyâ€”you have be a little addicted too.
I bet you're the kind of people who know what AYP stands for, and that some of you get a crazed look in your eyes when you hear the words "highly qualified teacher." And some of you probably still have to grit your teeth to call the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 by the euphemistic Bush title: "No Child Left Behind." (My current favorite variation is: No Child's Behind Left.)
Unfortunately, the new federal education law, which is currently wreaking havoc in schools from
Top Ten Reasons Why NCLB is a Fraud
Now I'm not a big David Letterman fan. I'm usually fast asleep long before he tells his first joke. But I want to borrow one of his gimmicks today and offer up my "Top Ten Reasons Why the New Federal Education Law is a Fraud," why the NCLB Act will not deliver on its promises to close the academic achievement gaps among groups of students, or bring school improvement to low performing schools, or assure that every child has a high quality teacher.
Now let me say at the outset that these are all worthy goals. Who would oppose a federal pledge to "Leave No Child Behind"? Who opposes the idea that all kids should receive a high quality education from a well-prepared teacher and that schools should be accountable for serving all children?
One of the problems we have in responding to this law is that it comes couched in high-sounding rhetoric that appeals to everyone who cares about schools and kids. And if you raise your voice and say, wait a minute this sounds nice, but the real impact this law is going to have in schools will not achieve any of these wonderful goals but instead is going to seriously damage one of the most important democratic institutions we have, then you need to be prepared to do a lot of explainingâ€¦and I'm going to try to do some of that today.
And maybe we need to start these explanations by reminding people that this is not the first time we have heard high-sounding rhetoric from
Do you remember hearing that we were going to bring freedom to the Iraqi people who would welcome
Do you remember hearing that all we needed to get the economy going was a few billion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and a few billion more for the corporations?
Do you remember hearing that Al Gore won
So it's not like we don't have a lot of experience to remind us that we need to look behind the rhetoric we hear from our political leaders and the information we get from the media to discover the real agendas at work in our country's public policy and political life.
If you do look behind the rhetoric, you'll find many reasons why NCLB is a fraud that will leave many children behind and may in fact leave no public school standing. I'm going to lay out all ten of my reasons first, just to give an indication of the many issues NCLB raises, most of them poorly, and then, focus on a couple of what I think are the most important issues and hopefully come back to others in later discussion or through questions and answers. I also want to save a little time to mention some ways people are responding to NCLB around the country and what the prospects are for transforming it into a law that can really help our schools and our kids or for getting rid of it.
Here's why I think NCLB is hoax:
1. The massive increase in testing that NCLB will impose on schools will hurt their educational performance, not improve it.
2. The funding for NCLB does not come anywhere near the levels that would be needed to reach even the narrow and dubious goal of producing 100% passing rates on state tests for all students by 2014.
3. The mandate that NCLB imposes on schools to eliminate inequality in test scores among all student groups within 12 years is a mandate that is placed on no other social institution, and reflects the hypocrisy at the heart of the law.
4. The sanctions that NCLB imposes on schools that don't meet its test score targets will hurt poor schools and poor communities most.
5. The transfer and choice provisions of NCLB will create chaos and produce greater inequality within the public system without increasing the capacity of receiving schools to deliver better educational services.
6. These same transfer and choice provisions will not give low-income parents any more control over school bureaucracies than food stamps give them over the supermarkets.
7. The provisions about using scientifically-based instructional practices are neither scientifically valid nor educationally sound and will harmfully impact classrooms in what may be the single most important instructional area, the teaching of reading.
8. The supplemental tutorial provisions of NCLB will channel public funds to private companies for ideological and political reasons, not sound educational ones.
9. NCLB is part of a larger political and ideological effort to privatize social programs, reduce the public sector, and ultimately replace local control of institutions like schools with marketplace reforms that substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens.
10. NCLB moves control over curriculum and instructional issues away from teachers, classrooms, schools and local districts where it should be, and puts it in the hands of state and federal education bureaucracies and politicians. It represents the single biggest assault on local control of schools in the history of federal education policy.
OK, that's ten: But frankly this law is so bad, I needed 11, so here's #11 on my top ten list of reasons why NCLB is a fraud:
11. NCLB includes provisions that try to push prayer, military recruiters, and homophobia into schools while pushing multiculturalism, teacher innovation, and creative curriculum reform out.
Where did NCLB come From?
Now obviously we can only take up some of these issues today. But it's also important to ask where NCLB came from. This law is a key part of the Bush Administration's domestic policy, and will play a prominent role in its re-election campaign.
But we need to remember that NCLB is very much a bipartisan monstrosity. It passed 381-41 in the House and 87-10 in the Senate.1 While there have been some disagreements, particularly over funding levels, the law's main Democratic architects, Sen. Edward Kennedy of
The Bush Administration is trying to use NCLB to promote an aggressive agenda of privatization, including attempts to revive a voucher movement that has been defeated in every state referendum where people had a chance to vote. For Bush, education reform is an "outreach" issue. He came into office as a dubiously-elected President with historically low levels of support among African Americans and a well-deserved anti-poor, pro-business image. Education is one of the few areas that allows a Republican President to posture, however disingenuously, as an ally of poor communities of color, especially those that have been badly served by public education.
But the common ground that really gave birth to NCLB was the standards movement. And this traces back to the first education, President George Bush the elder, and to the Governor's Education Summits promoted by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The standardize and test strategy now enshrined in NCLB, and raised to new and absurd heights by the adequate yearly progress formulas now being imposed on your local neighborhood school, was made possible by a decade of promoting standards and tests as the key to school improvement.
Over the past ten years, virtually every state has adopted new curriculum standards. These standards are of widely varying educational quality and relevance to what takes place in real schools. But NCLB puts states, districts and schools under federal mandate to enforce the standards above all other considerations through annual state testing or face losing federal funds.
One of the more amazing things about NCLB is how the most intrusive education law in the history of federal policy, which now has
One of the biggest challenges we face in responding to this law is explaining to the public in general and to parents in particular what's wrong with the overuse and misuse of standards and tests, and that opposing standards and tests does not mean opposing accountability for schools or for ourselves, as teachers. We need to remember that defending public education from the kind of attacks that NCLB represents, does not mean defending what now exists. As Monty Neill of FairTest points out in an article in the current issue of Rethinking Schools, we need to recognize that a section of the civil rights lobby supported NCLB precisely because they saw it as "a powerful step toward ensuring that states and districts address long-ignored educational needs that have led to weak education for many students."2
We need to address these concerns and to develop new and credible processes for school accountability and improvement. But we also have to make clear why the standards and testing regime holds out no hope of solving the problems it pretends to document. Many of us know that standards and tests offer a kind of counterfeit accountability, one that sorts and labels kids on the basis of multiple choice questions as a substitute for educating them. Mandating standards and tests is also a substitute for the much more difficult and costly process of real school improvement. Externally imposed standards and tests do virtually nothing to increase the capacity of schools to deliver better educational services. They also generally impose high-stakes consequences on the victims of educational failure rather than on those responsible for it. For all the talk about "accountability," there is no accountability in this new law for the politicians who are imposing large measures of ill-conceived and counterproductive administrative and budgetary chaos on schools and local districts.
Still we do need to find more effective ways to show to parents and communities how the narrow misuse of standards and test can make things worse instead of better for their kids and their schools. When tests are used to make high stakes decisions about whether kids get promoted or graduate, or whether schools lose funding, or teachers lose their jobs, they narrow the focus of what teachers do in classrooms and limit the ability of schools to serve the broader needs of children and their communities.
High-stakes tests push struggling students out of school; they promote tracking; they encourage schools to adopt inappropriate practices for young children, children with special needs and English language learners. Overuse of testing encourages cheating scandals, and makes schools and students vulnerable to inaccurate and, at times, corrupt practices by commercial testing firms. On top of all that, standardized tests are scientifically unreliable and provide little real useful information about the learning needs of students.
In the past two decades, most states and districts have already dramatically increased the use of standardized tests without solving the problems of poor schools. Quite the opposite, they have turned many schools into "dittolands" where dismal test prep drives the curriculum. Now some estimates are that the new federal law will require states to give more than 200 additional tests on top of what they're already using.3
As many of you know, NCLB requires states to give annual tests in reading and math in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Additional annual tests are mandated in science beginning in 2007. (If you teach social studies, music or art, not to mention my own favorite, journalism, forget it. You are not on the test and your programs will receive less and less support or resources. Incidentally,
This obsessive over-reliance on standardized tests in the name of accountability is more than bad education policy. It is a political effort to push other more democratic approaches to school improvement, like multicultural curriculum reform, smaller schools & class size, alternative assessment practices and school-based, collaborative professional development, to the sidelines.
In the past two decades, the standards and testing movement has done even more than the privatization schemes of the voucher supporters to move school power away from teachers, classrooms, schools and local districts, and to put it in the hands of state and national politicians.
AYP and School Improvement
But, as I said before, the standards and testing regime holds out no hope of solving the problems it puts under the spotlight. The key to school improvement is not standards and tests, but teachers and students. And while those teachers and students need a complicated mix of support, resources, motivation, pressure, leadership and professional skills to succeed, the idea that this mixture can be provided by standards and tests is simply wrong, and is not supported by any educational research or real world experience.
The AYP formulas in the new federal law are the latest example of just how damaging this approach can be. They simply set schools up to fail, including largely successful ones. They seem designed to demoralize educators and create a widespread public perception of systemic failure that will erode the common ground that a universal system of public education needs to survive. The AYP formulas also invest a ridiculous power in an extremely unreliable measureâ€”year-to-year changes in standardized test scores. Under AYP each school is judged by a matrix of 40 indicators tied to state test scores. Maybe you've seen the charts. There are ten student groups: total population, special education students, English language learners, white, African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, Hispanic, other ethnicities, and economically disadvantaged. (Interestingly, there is no gender break down.) In each category there are two mandates: 95% of kids in each group must take the state assessment, and each group must make its AYP target, which is the increment needed to bring all students in every group to 100% passing by 2014. Any school that misses even one of these targets for two consecutive years gets put on the needs improvement list and is supposed to start permitting student transfers. Three years brings corrective action and supplemental tutorial services; four years brings reconstitution, including replacement of school staff; five years brings restructuring, which can mean anything from state takeover to imposing private management on public schools.
There are a variety of interpretations of how these sanctions will be implemented, but they really represent a grab bag of random ideas that have been pulled out of thin air. A study by the conservative Fordham Foundation, an enthusiastic supporter of NCLB, noted that the "reform interventions" mandated by the new law have a success rate of well below 50%,4 but they are codified in NCLB as if they were proven paths to school improvement. Since this is uncharted territory based on political agendas rather than educational experience or real knowledge of what it takes for schools to improve, the potential for chaos is enormous. In fact, creating chaos is actually one of the political agendas at work.
All of these sanctions are triggered by annual changes in the AYP numbers. Yet researchers have found that 70% of the change in year-to-year test scores can be caused by random fluctuationâ€”things like variations in transient student population or statistical error in the tests themselves. They concluded, "The AYP system cannot tell the difference between a learning gain and random noise."5 The smaller the group or sub-group, the greater the margin for error. As a matter of fact one of the key variables in state implementation of NCLB is the size that is set for the relevant subgroups. For example, Minnesota made a substantial revision in the number of schools on its needs improvement list when it changed the threshold for the number of special education students a school must have from 20 to 40.6 Some research, however, suggests that any subgroup sample less than 170 is inherently unreliable and that the more diverse a school is the more unreliable the data.7
Another way states are responding to NCLB is by lowering their standards to avoid sanctions. For example, last year when the list of failing schools came outâ€”excuse me, I should say the lists of schools in need of improvement but which are generally reported in the local paper as failing schoolsâ€”
In Texas, the supposed model for the Bush education plan, the Texas State Board was so horrified at the poor performance on the new third grade reading test, they voted to reduce the number of correct answers students needed so fewer schools would miss their AYP targets.10
This is the kind of school improvement you can expect from AYP. First huge areas of schooling are excluded completely from what is tested, and then statistical game-playing manipulates what's left.