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NCLB Outrages

The Future of American Education

Yvonne Comments: The panel appeared to come to the conclusion that the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) is severely lacking. Most of the criticism centered on poor standards and methods of enforcing these standards.

Geez, we have always have standards. Just get rid of this insane law.

Ohanian Comment: It looks like the panel avoided the real problem with NCLB--its corporate push to destroy public education.

by Luukas Ilves

Public education is an issue that has reclaimed the national stage with a degree of prominence it hasn’t occupied since the busing controversies. Yet, despite its role as a global economic juggernaut, the overall quality of American education continues to be languishing in comparison to the rest of the world. Under these auspices, three panelists representing a broad swath of the political spectrum gathered on Thursday evening to discuss the future of American education.

The panelists were Michael Kirst, a former President of the California State Board of Education and Linda Darling-Hammond, both faculty at the School of Education, and Eric Hanushek, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The panel was organized as a collaborative effort between the Roosevelt Institution, Stanford In Government, the Stanford Democrats and the Stanford Republicans. Perhaps in part because of the participation of so many student groups, the panel had a large attendance of around ninety people.

Each of the panelists communicated different thoughts on education. Hanushek spoke in terms of increasing measurable results. He found a need for better measures of performance, incentives to perform and understanding of what works. Kirst was less sanguine about the state of affairs, pointing to statistics that indicate that only 68% of students graduate from high school, only 40% attend any kind of college, 27% make it to their sophomore year and a paltry 18% graduate with either an associate or bachelor’s degree. Kirst outlined a dispute between those who favor choice and those who argue for more stringent uniform standards, where “the big winner is currently standards-based reform… which has lead to a fairly large increase in central control.” Hanushek explained, “My interest in choice in schools is not that I want to start a new chain of private schools, but I want private schools to put pressure on the public schools.”

Darling-Hammond had a more radical overhaul of the education system in mind. She pointed out that “most countries fund their schools centrally and equally, while in this country the top ten percent of districts spend ten times as much as the bottom ten percent,” which only serves to reinforce socio-economic shortcomings in the poorest district. She had seen “schools that you would think of being in a third world country right here in [California].” In addition to improving teaching quality, she counseled an overhaul of “factory-model schools that were invented at the turn of the century that aren’t designed so that in-depth learning can occur.”
Most of the discussion from that point dropped many of these issues. The panelists spoke little on privatization and competition, on fundamental overhaul, or on equalizing spending, as much as they concentrated on the issues of testing, teacher quality and accountability, improving school finance, and the No Child Left Behind Act. Though the panelists presented different specific proposals, their comments were mostly complementary.

The panel appeared to come to the conclusion that the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) is severely lacking. Most of the criticism centered on poor standards and methods of enforcing these standards. The panel first addressed teachers. Kirst commented that the way in which teacher qualification “has been defined left so many loopholes that it’s been easy to declare teachers as highly qualified and make a mockery of it. In California intern-teachers who are virtual novices are declared highly qualified from their first day on the job.” Hanushek suggested that this was “absolutely the worst part of NCLB, hands down.” He attributes the problem largely unto the use of state standards of qualifications, of which he said “they suck.” Darling-Hammond agreed with Kirst’s and Hanushek’s disapproval, but saw the issue not as a problem of state standards but as an “example of why it’s hard to legislate federally things that might be worked out on the state level.”

The panel next addressed the effectiveness of standardized testing. The panel did not dismiss the possibility of testing, but took issue with how America tests its children. Hanushek began by commenting that “the skills measured on our standardized tests have proved quite important in terms of labor market for individual earnings and looking at which nations do well and which don’t. Someone at the 85th percentile, as opposed to someone at the 50th percentile, can expect to earn 12 percent more each year of his life.” But despite the usefulness of standards, Hanushek felt we “have a set of pretty bad tests.”

Darling-Hammond and Kirst assailed the use of multiple-choice testing and called for performance assessment – tests that measure actual writing, research and problem solving. “The countries at the top of world rankings use performance assessment.” She explained the NCLB pushes states away from performance assessment, because it mandates “annual assessment, which is expensive to do with performance assessment.”

Kirst called NCLB “a sorta-good first draft,” eliciting laughs from the audience, but intoning that it is “here to stay.” He focused on high schools, where the NCLB has had little effect: “NCLB is really a K through 8 program.” He also mentioned that “multiple choice is not a global standard. Most countries of the British Commonwealth use written assessments.” Darling-Hammond added that students tested by multiple-choice tests actually perform less well on tests than those who learn to read critically.

On the subject of school finance, the panel seemed to agree that communities should be able to add more money to their schools, but that the basis of funding for all schools would need to be adequate enough. The current system is untenable because of the wide discrepancies in funding it allows. The panel also did come to the conclusion that though more money is useful, funding is not everything – issues like teacher retention and efficient testing matter too. The panel found that teacher retention and their willingness to work in problem schools has far more to do with good teacher education and a good working environment.

Michael Kirst concluded with a response to a question on American higher education, which despite problems with K-12 education has purportedly remained best in the world: “The US representation comes from its highly ranked world-class universities. While the percentage of students entering higher education has gone up twenty percent in twenty years, the number graduating has gone up three percent. If you start at non-selective colleges and look at the bottom 80 percent of the population, there is no data that we are the best in the world.”
The panel was notable for its friendly level of conversation between the panelists. The panelists were quite responsive to each other’s comments and focused their suggestions on policy improvement and not political confrontation. Indeed, the panelists left partisan politics almost entirely out of their discussion. It would seem that despite much heated rhetoric on capital hill, education is one area where compromise and cooperation do occur.

— Luukas Ilves
The Stanford Review


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