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NCLB Outrages


Ohanian Comment: Skip the first two paragraphs. The writer oversimplifies and mischaracterizes inclusion. I have reservations about inclusion but for reasons he doesn't mention. I post this commentary because Berger does what few do--warns against the national curriculum that is the end goal of NCLB.

by Peter Berger

Liberals and conservatives occasionally set aside their ideological differences to promote terrible education ideas. A decade or two ago they agreed about a practice called inclusion. Inclusion involved, and still involves, putting kids with significant learning and behavioral problems in the regular classroom, regardless of how well they can learn there or how disruptive they are. Liberals thought it would boost self-esteem and sensitivity. Conservatives thought it would cost less.

They were both wrong.

The 21st century's landmark adventure in bipartisan educational folly, No Child Left Behind, mandates that every American child be academically proficient by 2014. That's every child, in case you think you read it wrong. Regulations make scant allowance for mental handicaps and learning disabilities. NCLB holds schools accountable for endemic economic and social disadvantages, regular students who struggle with academics, and the battalions who simply don't care and won't do the work.

NCLB permits each state to define its own standards of proficiency. But the goal of universal proficiency itself is so unrealistic that officials from California to Massachusetts anticipate that near 99 percent of their schools will fail to attain it.

In the meantime until 2014, NCLB requires schools to make "adequate yearly progress" toward universal proficiency. In order to avoid sanctions for failing to meet AYP mandates, states are tactically "adjusting" their interim objectives. These adjusted intermediate expectations no state calls them lower expectations are like a balloon payment mortgage. The early monthly installments become easier to make, but that final lump sum payment is a killer. In the same way, reducing interim AYP targets provides the illusion of progress and forestalls sanctions, but the giant achievement gap looming in 2013 will confirm NCLB's bankruptcy.

Further complicating matters, new tests developed to assess achievement and AYP have proven staggeringly invalid and unreliable. This means that even if your school makes AYP, or doesn't, the experts aren't really sure if you have, or haven't. According to a RAND analyst, these state-of-the-art assessments are merely identifying "lucky" and "unlucky" schools, words statisticians don't ordinarily like to hear.

As states have addressed the AYP problem by lowering their newly minted high standards and tinkering with their tests, many have reported improvements. On Idaho's state assessment, for example, 90 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in mathematics. But when Idaho kids took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 46 percent met its proficiency standards. New York's proficiency rate fell from 85 to 36 percent. North Carolina's stellar 92 percent skidded to 40. Similarly, more than 80 percent of Texas and Tennessee eighth-graders scored proficient on their states' reading tests, but only one-fourth achieved proficiency on the NAEP.

In light of the statehouse finagling, some liberals and conservatives are calling for nationwide standards and a nationwide test. It might not be surprising to hear liberals take this stance. After all, they're supposed to be the champions of big Washington government.

Across the aisle, since education is the history textbook example of a constitutionally devolved state responsibility, you'd expect that conservatives, who typically claim they want to shrink the federal government, would be reluctant to rush in and federalize public education. At least that's what you might've expected until President Bush, an erstwhile disciple of conservatism, unveiled NCLB in his Rose Garden.

Laying aside our political preferences and ideological loyalties, should Washington set and enforce national education standards? Isn't education important enough to be in federal hands?

Or is it too important?

Admittedly, local school control hasn't been an unqualified success. Mark Twain once observed that "God made idiots for practice. Then he made school boards." Looking past the humor and exaggeration, many local board members, though diligent, don't really know much about education beyond what they experienced as students. While most serve from a sincere sense of civic duty, more than a few have private agendas and axes to grind.

Fortunately, that's never true about the people we send to Washington.

Critics claim NCLB isn't working because it grants states too much discretion and leeway to duck federal mandates and deadlines. They propose solving the problem by further reducing states' power and vesting it in the federal government. Except states and towns aren't less interested in academic achievement than the average Congressman, or less able to manage schools than the White House. In fact, NCLB compelled many states and districts to suspend existing school improvement efforts.

NCLB is a disaster because its targets are unrealistic, and its mechanisms unwieldy, ill-conceived, and counterproductive. The remedy for NCLB's federal overreaching isn't to expand the federal role in education even further.

NCLB can't make every student succeed. A Super-NCLB won't make it happen either.

The federal government's authority should match its expertise. That's why my hometown can't declare war on anybody and why we don't send our own ambassador to the U.N. But education is about determining what and how to teach children, and government doesn't get any more local and closer to home than that.

"National standards" may sound like we're really mobilizing to tackle education reform. But the federal government has no particular education expertise. Education policy is about teaching methods, and which stories to read, and what year to introduce fractions. There are bad ideas and poor practices, but no single timetable or methodology works equally well for all schools, teachers, and classrooms. Local boards, and the principals and teachers they hire, not Washington bureaucrats, are best positioned to make those decisions.

National standards mean a national curriculum that matches a national test. A national curriculum means every fourth-grader in every school in every state needs to learn the same things in time for that test.

I don't mean that teachers should follow their hearts and just teach what they want. There's a body of skills and knowledge that most Americans would agree students need to acquire. But we won't all agree precisely about what, how, or when. That's what a national curriculum requires. There's no merit in uniformity for its own sake and plenty to be lost in requiring uniformity at the expense of disserving the aptitudes and circumstances present in each actual classroom where learning happens.

American schools have many problems. Too many Americans aren't interested in effort, achievement, and decent behavior. Too many educators have subscribed to follies like whole language and arithmetic-free math. Curricula have been watered down in a vain attempt to guarantee success. Discipline has grown lax. Standards have slipped. We've devoted ourselves to making kids feel good instead of teaching them much.

We don't need another program to change all that. We don't need another law. We don't need more tests. We don't need our No Child Left Behind federal government to tell us what's wrong, or how to fix it.

There's nothing you can learn about schools in the halls of Congress that you can't learn better working in the halls of any school.

Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield Middle School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

— Peter Berger
Rutland Herald


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