No Child Left Behind good for bureaucrats, bad for kids
by Robert L. Cutts
It's been interesting to read the first rush of statistics distributed to the media recently on how much progress some of Nevada's public schools report this past academic year under the federal No Child Left Behind program.
NCLB, you'll recall, holds every school accountable for whether the number of its students scoring pre-set grades of proficiency in math and reading on state tests has met U.S. government standards. The program has raised great smoke in the land, but its principle promise is that all schools in the country must and will report 100 percent proficiency among all students by the year 2014.
Or there will be bureaucratic hell to pay.
Most of us recall long evenings and weekends of our own back in school, "cramming" for exams to get those passing grades. But having done some teaching myself, I'm more interested to think about how the educators will get NCLB to work.
I lived in Japan for a while, that wonderland of educational systems, where Americans marveled at the top scores and the astonishing efficiency of schools that seemed to graduate everyone, successfully, into a professional place - nationwide! The secret, many held, was simple. On any day, theoretically throughout the country, every student in every grade in every classroom was studying the exact same topic, likely from the same textbook, as everyone else in that grade. Everybody got the same instruction, therefore equality, therefore the same chance to succeed.
That 'secret' underlies NCLB's own real misdirection: every Japanese student was being prepared in class to answer the same questions on the same tests! The teachers worried little about the principles of liberal or any other kind of education, as we Americans do. They only had to teach the students what sort of questions would be put to them, and what answers to give. Those who had the best memories came out on top.
Quaintly, it was known to students and families throughout the country as "Exam Hell."
American parents and educators alike by now face the deeper questions such an approach raises, including this one: why have a federal testing standard for everyone, when as Congressional researchers themselves point out: "each state determines its own academic standards, the courses taught, the standardized tests used and the cutoff scores that define a student as proficient." Doesn't that mean "pass" in Arizona could equal "fail" in Minnesota? Couldn't the collected, holistic judgments of Arizona and Minnesota teachers be a better metric?
No one knows, because as the same government research pointed out last year, "State education departments are often overwhelmed. Many don't have the staff or the expertise to effectively carry out NCLB's requirements ... and the alarm has been sounded not only by the states but also by private researchers and even the Government Accountability Office."
The government itself isn't sure this can be done but it's already tabulating the results and holding schools to account.
But there's a much, much bigger question: why is Washington, which funds only a part of the NCLB effort, even in the classroom at this level - handing out mandates to states, and telling districts how to measure their results? Education is, to any American community, many things. It's an integral part of the social fabric not just of the community, but of its families. It imbues the young not only with facts and capabilities, and visions of tomorrow's opportunities, but with the importance of independent thinking and the urgency of citizens' responsibilities.
Now it's been turned into a federal program, the same as FEMA or Homeland Security. NCLB charts are up on the walls of federal officials, whose career prospects depend on how much progress they show; government accountants and budgeters are scoring the academic results from all the states and school systems of the union.
Now we all hope to see children motivated, absorbed, learning, building their futures, doing well in school. Some need more or different help than others. They always will; they're just not the same as one another. Is this involuntary nationalization the route we choose as the best to achieve all such things?
As has been much remarked, but needs to be remembered, all that the schools and teachers are really sure of now is, first, their skills of how to motivate, absorb and teach students things like art, music, civics, world history and advance-placement classes. Those are secondary to the program's spreadsheet goals.
And second, if they want to keep their schools and their jobs, throw all or much of that stuff in the back seat and prioritize teaching to the test.
Just move the kids on, no matter how deceptive the statistical results turn out, no matter what they're getting from school. We have to remember that a test that every single person who takes it can pass isn't a real test, and proves nothing about the quality of the education and the life chances he or she is really accruing.
Not only that but the target and the arrow are fast approaching each other: 100 percent success rate, everywhere, by 2014. Even in a pass-fail system, that's something that is going to prove not possible. What will the schools (or states) feel themselves compelled to do to the testing process to wring out those last few impossible percentiles? And what will that wring out of every other student?
Never mind: just find a way, through test or testing, to hand out the sheepskin: the numbers will somehow be made to prove that Washington was right.
• Robert L. Cutts is a career journalist, and the author of "An Empire of Schools: Japan's Universities and the Molding of a National Power Elite."
Robert L. Cutts
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES