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NCLB Outrages

Ohanian Comment:Just what's so useful about all this "fine-grained information," anyway? It lets you know that on Thursday, Oct. 30, Johnny chose the right multiple-choice answer for where to put a particular comma. That is a very very very small bit of information that is of little use. Of course, the author works for an outfit that collects, organizes, and distributes reports on these small bits of information. She calls NAEP the "gold standard tests." Please read my research of the NAEP: How Does NAEP Label a Reader. Few people bother to look at the actual questions and the scorers' comments. It is an eye-opener.

By Julia Steiny

Dear Next President of the United States:

Soon you will be confronted with what to do about the 600-pound-gorilla
federal law called No Child Left Behind. While it is almost universally
hated, you must proceed carefully, because it did get states to collect
and publish data about the kids who were most ignored â poor kids,
children of color and those with special needs. This attention was a
good thing, and long overdue.

The only other really good thing NCLB did was to force states to build
21st-century data systems that could handle the oceans of new
information â many more test results, participation rates, demographics,
finances, opinion surveys, and so forth. Fine-grained information is
really useful, when it is used well.

Sadly, NCLB used the good information to hunt for failure. Honestly,
âsuccessâ is hardly mentioned in the lawâs massive 1,200 pages. Instead,
NCLB identified 37 âtargetsâ schools had to hit â participation and
proficiency rates on test scores, broken down by race, economic status
and gender. By 2014, all students are expected to be proficient in
English, math and science.

Anticipating the 2014 deadline for perfection, states set schedules of
interim targets that step up every few years to reach 100-percent
proficiency. Math scores have always been lower than the English
results, so the increases for the math targets are necessarily steeper
than those for English. Missing even one target puts the school on
public notice as a âschool in need of improvement,â the lawâs euphemism
for failure. Since its passage in 2002, the law has been strafing the
education landscape with âfailureâ labels.

And during that time, the scores on the National Assessment of Education
Progress â the gold-standard tests â barely budged. NCLB isnât working well.

So hereâs the solution: Go positive. Big time. Turn NCLBâs unrelenting
negativity exactly 180 degrees. Remember that at the other end of the
federal policy are children â squirmy little creatures born with
powerful appetites for soaking up information. They donât always want to
learn what the teacher wants to teach, but they respond well to positive
attitudes and grown-ups who are nice to them. The perky, upbeat tone of
voice that kindergarten teachers use with children should be the tone of
the rewritten law.

In fact, donât let any policymaker anywhere near that lawâs
reauthorization who can not think like a loving parent. Good parents
discipline, which means âto teach,â in the sense of giving instruction
to a disciple. Clueless parents punish, which is to say cause pain when
the child misbehaves, in a misguided attempt to force the child to
cooperate. Copious research shows that punishment doesnât work with
children. Why would it work with schools?

As presidential candidates, both of you keep talking about âchange.â The
change education most needs is a resurrection of a red-blooded, can-do
American spirit that believes in success, creates incentives and praises
rigorous effort, as good parents do.

Every day, NCLB produces miserable news. None of South Carolinaâs 85
school districts succeeded at making the Adequate Yearly Progress
demanded by NCLB, for the second year in a row. The whole state is âin
need of improvement.â Is this doing their kids any good?

Nearly one-third of all Illinois public schools failed to meet their
performance targets.

California officials predict that every one of the 6,000-plus schools
that serve low-income students will be deemed failures â needing
ârestructuring,â in the words of the law â by the year 2014.

And these are only examples. Failure is mushrooming throughout the
country. Weâre watching a slow, bloody train wreck whose devastation
will be complete in 2014.

All along, researchers argued emphatically that it is impossible for all
subgroups of children to improve their achievement in lockstep to
perfect proficiency. They were largely silenced as racists and wusses.
States did as they were told, and built curriculum frameworks for each
subject and each grade level, from which tests were developed. Building
robust, data-driven accountability systems was something educators
needed to do. But to give schools time to get their act together, state
departments of education made it easy to hit the targets in the first
few years. But NCLB is now six years old, so the bars for the targets
are rising with ever-steeper demands to meet the deadline. Most schools
have not figured out how to force their students to ace the tests, which
is why weâre seeing mass failure.

NCLB has cultivated academic failure just as the zero-tolerance laws of
the 1990s cultivated a criminal population that filled the prisons to
overflowing. Those with great faith in the powers of punishment see huge
numbers of acceptable casualties as evidence of rigor.

Iâm all for accountability, but NCLB turned out to be a witch hunt. Itâs
not using good information to good purpose.

So, dear Mr. Next President, I recommend putting all the new data
systems to work finding schools where the kidsâ eyes are bright and
hopeful, where the teachers regularly laugh with their students, where
taking tests is a mere annoyance that assures the community that robust
learning is thriving. Such schools exist. Use your celebrity to make a
fuss over them. Encourage others to adopt their can-do techniques. Feed,
cajole, incentivize, intrigue, and trick schools into developing strong
appetites for great teaching and learning.

If you really do mean change, then go militantly positive with NCLB. Be
the good parent. Instead of Mommie Dearest.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults
for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information
Works!, Rhode Islandâs school-accountability project.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal


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