The No Child Left Behind Act-A Just So Story: The Lake Wobegon Effect
By Dr. Yvonne Siu-Runyan
...where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
-from A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor
The Lake Wobegon effect is the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others. In a similar way, the large majority of people want their children and themselves to be above average. Our policy and lawmakers unfortunately do not understand the Lake Wobegon Effect, the fallacy of The No Child Left Behind Act. If we want all students to be above average, try as we might, this will never happen.
The practice of using one high stakes test scores taken on a given day to label a student or a school as proficient or not proficient is professional mal-practice. A student is more than a test score. In addition, students' test scores will never be able to tell the entire story about a particular school.
In his article, entitled, "The NCLB Act is a Threat to National Security," Gerald Bracey (The Huffington Post, April 9, 2007) writes, "Many of those personal qualities that we hold dear, resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good in communal life, are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured... Here are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well--like creativity, a sense of adventure, ambition."
As Albert Einstein so wisely said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." When interpreting the numbers from high stakes, this basic mathematical truth must be taken in consideration, or fools we are.
The NCLB Act = A Hoax?
The NCLB Act, a "Just So" story is meant to control through fear and punishment. It is a deliberately skewed tale, not verifiable.
On February 13, 2007, the Commission on No Child Left Behind released its final report and recommendations. In this report, the Commission's recommendations are to:
1. Ensure teachers and principals are effective at improving student achievement for all communities
2. Accelerate progress and close achievement gaps through improved accountability
3. Move beyond the status quo to effective school improvement and quality student options
4. Have fair and accurate assessments of student progress
5. Have high standards for every student in every class
6. Ensure rigorous standards tied to college and workplace readiness
7. Drive progress through reliable and accurate data
8. Address the needs of English language learners
9. Strengthen early childhood education
10. Improve support for migrant students
I question these goals. While the words sound good, I am suspect about what they mean for students, teachers, education, and the well being of our Nation. I also find it interesting that nowhere in this February 13, 2007 report written by the Commission on No Child Left Behind Act was there a mention about the flagrant misuse of public monies reported in U.S. Department of Education Inspector General, which provides scandalous information about the Reading First portion of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Office of Inspector General's report regarding Bush's Reading First Initiative confirm that many shady dealings have gone one and, of course, continue rampantly. If you are interested in more information, I suggest you do a "Google" search using, "Reading First Initiative Scandal" or "Reading First Initiative OIG Report." Tons of information is available. One particular article entitled, "Ed Ignored Early Warnings of Reading First Conflicts, Report Says," ...illuminates the conflicts of interest between commerce and policy
For the entire document regarding this enlightening report about "Reading First Initiative by the Office of Inspector General's, go to:
In addition, scholars like Stephen Krashen, Richard Allington, and Kenneth Goodman (this is just a few) offer a critical examination of The Reading First Initiative and the gains Secretary of Education Spellings makes with regards to the NCLB Act and when she says it is "like Ivory Soap...99.9 pure" ,
While Spellings advocates for the "good" the NCLB Act has done and will continue to do for this country, out the other side of her mouth she decries that schools are failing!
Learning and Being Educated = Involves Meaning + Nurturing Creativity
Real learning requires meaning. Without meaning, learning does not take place. An educated person is one who continues to learn, question, and has the desire to improve oneself in order to better humanity. Education comes from the Latin root, Educare, which means to bring out or lead forth that which is within. Though part of an education involves training and rote memorization, being truly educated involves going beyond rote memory skills, and instead involves using all that we are and have within us to improve humanity. Schools are in the business of educating, not just providing students with a collection of facts and knowledge about the external world. To truly be an educator, effective teachers involve their students in deep understanding of knowledge and culture. When education is devoid of culture, schools become dark dysfunctional caverns, and teachers are reduced to reading scripts written by those far away from the classrooms where there is little joy, and the lessons are designed to be a "one-size fits all curriculum. Education is more than an accumulation of isolated information; it also includes actions for education is for lifelong learning. The end goal of an education is to build character, for without character, education is useless. Being and becoming educated is limitless; training, on the other hand has limits.
What do effective teachers do to help students learn? They bring out the best in their students-they do not label, they inspire, and they understand that to help students learn they must nurture their students' creativity, their students' approximations. and help their students develop the wisdom to make sensible decisions. Effective teachers create communities or environments, which encourage students taking learning risks and make mistakes. Sir Ken Robinson, an influential advocate for education says that we cannot and do not know what the future holds, and education is what will take us into the unknown future. Thus, he states that we should be nurturing the creativity in our young, who are the future. Moreover, if one is not prepared to be wrong, one cannot come up with anything original. To hear his speech go to:
One of former elementary students, D.J., so aptly told a junior level undergraduate class I taught, that learning in a one-room schoolhouse with varying levels and interests of children was easy. When pressed by my one of my undergraduates D.J said, "It's simple. We just helped each other!" Out of the mouths of children comes truth one more time.
Another student, Beau, with whom I worked, was born hard of hearing. His hearing loss went undetected until he was seven years old. This is what he wrote:
I felt like I was in a bubble, isolated from my peers, teachers, and others in my environment. I was unable to listen and communicate effectively. I was frustrated and acted out of character sometimes, because I needed to let the adults around me know that I was having trouble learning. I was frustrated and unaware of what was wrong, and felt incapable compared with the other kids. Once I had the operation, the bubble, which blurred me from my surroundings popped. It was like I was dropped into a new world-one in which I was able to relate yet because I was so behind developmentally and academically I was still different from the other kids...Fortunately, I had supportive teachers, my mother, and good friends who supported me.
I asked Beau, "How have your perceptions about yourself changed and to what do you attribute these changes?" His response:
One of my teachers--she helped me see myself differently. She helped me change my perceptions of myself. This teacher gently "got me out of my shell." I use this term, because she helped me gain the confidence I needed to excel...Now inside and out of classes, I read widely, write about whatever I feel passionately, and think for myself. I have become a leader, a role model for others, and a student who enjoys (for the most part) school...I grew from a person who did not enjoy reading and writing to one that does. I not only read for information and enjoyment, but now I read as a writer...Learning with this teacher was always fun and different.
Though only one case, Beau's comments show the importance of not labeling a student as incapable. Beau also discussed the importance of feeling safe to take risks, and to use his own interests and goals to become a deft reader, writer, and thinker across the curriculum. Today Beau is a freshman attending college in Maryland and doing exceptionally well. He attends MICA on an academic scholarship, works part-time, and has and continues to receive many awards for his academic, artistic, and community accomplishments.
I write about these two students, because they are "real life" situations. Their experiences elucidate the significance of understanding the importance of meaningful learning, nurturing creativity in learning, and creating cooperative and supportive environments for students.
In this time of high stakes testing, "carrot and stick" mandates, and largely because of the NCLB Act, many of our students, not to mention teachers, are suffering. Labeling students and teaching them "stuff" just to pass some test are counterproductive to becoming educated. In my opinion, the NCLB Act is a "Just So" story like the Lake Wobegon Effect.
In Education: A First Book (Macmillan, 1912), the wise words of Thorndike, professor at Columbia University writes, "The parent to whom the school is primarily a means of giving his children an advantage over others from whom their superior training enables them to exact service without equal return, absolutely misconceives the aim of public education" (pg. 27). When discussing skill versus education, Thorndike posits, "No one would assert that skill is the total aim, and no one would deny that it is a fraction of the aim, of education" (47). Thorndike also warns teachers to consider what response is desired when they teach. With this warning in mind, I am suspect of the motives of those who developed, shaped, and continue to support the NCLB Act and high stakes testing.
Teachers' Voices = A Call for Sanity
Many teachers are fearful to speak out, just plain weary, frustrated. Here are a few comments expressed when asked about their current teaching situation, the NCLB Act and high stakes testing:
o I have never had so many kids say that they hate school or hate reading. They are only five-years-old. All I ever do is test.
o The whole situation is very political. It is creating huge divisions and causing more conflict than support. The measurements are an issue.
o Very political. Stop the madness.
o How do we change business ideology and separate products from people?
o Too much testing and data keeping. Time is taken away from teaching.
o My greatest sadness was watching another teacher trying to prep five third grade struggling boys for their first CSAP. What will those boys do when they turn page after page for 50 minutes after all that work and celebrating as they have taken baby steps toward becoming better readers and seeing themselves as readers.
o Back of...and let us do our jobs...stop punishing teachers.
o Causing us to implement "programs" in our district, which administrators believe will be "the answer." The least educated about reading are making the decisions for out district. Those most knowledgeable are seen as troublemakers.
o My school is the recipient of a "Reading First" grant. I do not like a lot of what we're doing to students because of it...Everyone has to teach the same material in the same ways to a very diverse population.
I don't know how many other teachers feel as these teachers do. Nevertheless, in my day-to-day conversations, I get the sense many are disturbed and in conflict about what to do. With the suggestion that student test score be aligned with teacher evaluations, teachers will experience "burn out" for there will ever more dog chasing the tail nonsense. Schools are not factories where the raw products are set before the manufacturing begins and the manufactured product does not leave the factory until it is finished. Students are alive and with that come a whole host of variables with which teachers cannot directly control and unconditionally must consider.
So what can teachers do?
1. When having a discussion with parents about the results of their children's high stakes test score, be sure to discuss the limitation of numbers. Also converse about their children's inquisitiveness, love of learning, their abilities to take learning risks, their special talents, the kind and considerate acts they do. In other words, savor the whole child.
2. Save the students' work and show them to parents when having conferences. The real data is right there for you to use.
3. Do what you think is best for your students.
4. Discuss with parents what being educated truly means and the importance of nurturing their children's creativity-the ability to use imagination to develop original ideas and solutions- as well as logical thinking to find results and draw conclusions in history, literacy, mathematics, the arts, the humanities, the sciences, and the physical aspects of life.
5. Let the parents know you care about the whole child. Put the numbers from high stakes test scores in perspective.
When considering the about the above five suggestions, know that what you do with a child lasts a lifetime, and revel in this understanding. Teachers have great power; we must this power use judiciously and advocate for our students and education. Two influential persons come to mind when I consider the important roles teachers play in the lives of our young people.
"A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled."
-Plutarch (circa 45-1125 AD)
"The secret of education is respecting the pupil."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
-Yvonne Siu-Runyan is Professor Emerita, The University of Northern Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Yvonne Siu-Runyan
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES