Reforming Schools Through Continued Failure
Dr. Donald C. Orlich
Art Buchwald’s “Only a failure works” was released on August 12, 1979. Political satirist extraordinaire, Buchwald observed how the government will only fund an educational program “providing it’s iffy,” but never one that is successful.
Buchwald’s commentary describes perfectly the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the state of Washington’s awful WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning). Elected policy-makers willingly dump tax money on two failed school reform models.
Nationally, the costs associated with high-stakes tests required by NCLB will cost the states between $1.9 and $5.0 billion. Contracts with Riverside Publishers and Pearson Education Measurement tally up to $173 million just for the WASL. Ring up another $34.7 million for the ill-conceived 2006 WASL remediation caper; plus the Mesa, Arizona buy out trip for 190 teachers, and the direct cost hits $207 million.
The indirect costs, that is lost instructional time, test preparation, and administration for the WASL easily reach another $100 million. In 1993, Gov. Booth Gardner with irrational exuberance initiated his educational package. It now approaches $1.0 Billion and counting. Recently he recanted that if we want school competitions, then hold a tournament.
The social costs of the WASL are enormous. Last year in Aberdeen a child was verbally molested by his principal and teacher for not completing an inane WASL writing prompt. “You look out the window and see your principal flying by.” Being a critical thinker, this youngster brilliantly said that such a statement was an insult to his principal and he would not insult her. The psychological damage heaped on this child is a textbook case of WASL-induced trauma.
In Spokane, two students torched the beautiful Sacajewea Middle School Library, no doubt labeled unsuccessful because of their WASL scores.
Art, music, health, physical education, industrial and vocational arts, American History, and recess are being curtailed to make room for WASL preparation. The statewide WASL pass rates range by subgroups from under five percent for children in special education to 82% in grade ten reading. The pass rate for minority students ranges between twenty and thirty percent. Since the WASL is failing at school reform it is continuously refunded, just as Buchwald observed.
There is no way to salvage the WASL monster. Dump it! An entire generation of children has suffered enough. Get the teachers back in the classroom to do the job for which they were hired—to teach. Stop funding the WASL. Dire Straits would call it “money for nothing.” That point being made, what would be some reasonable alternatives?
First, follow the state of Nebraska by not using high-stakes tests to punish children. That state uses a combination of valid tests (ITBS), local tests, student portfolios and local curriculum standards written at the “appropriate” level. Examine the state of Washington Grade Level Expectations (GLEs). They are a hodge-podge of statements that are inappropriate for most children and illustrate random learning events rather than a coordinated and sequential program.
Second, the state auditor and treasurer should fiscally analyze NCLB to determine if it costs Washington State more money to accept the federal pittance than to send it back.
Third, do no harm. Every standard must be field-tested in a variety of classrooms to determine the age and student developmental appropriateness before being implemented statewide.
Fourth, any discussion of statewide curriculum must be research based. Where is it adopted? What achievement results have been shown? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that program? How much staff development is required to implement the program? Based on local needs assessments, local school districts should make program, textbook and curriculum decisions. Yes, this is diversity, and when did curriculum diversity become a dirty word and centralization applauded?
Fifth, scuttle those clichés, “world class,” “global competition,” and other jingoistic nonsense. What fourth grader is concerned about competing with kids from a country with an unpronounceable name? Provide all children the best basic education that is appropriate to age and grade level.
Sixth, feedback from tests is a critical key to student learning. The WASL offers absolutely no useful feedback. To learn from any assessment, specific information must be given to each student and teacher as to what exactly was missed and why.
Seventh, the road to reform is riddled with the wrecks of bandwagons. Be cautious and demand credible evidence that any proposed program really impacts student achievement.
School reform nationally and statewide is a massive fiscal waste and a grand educational failure.
Dr. Donald C. Orlich is professor emeritus at Washington State University. He is author of “School Reform: The Great American Brain Robbery,” 2006, PublishAmerica.com; and coauthor of “Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction,” 8th edition, 2007, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Donald C. Orlich
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES