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NCLB Outrages

The New Age Democrats Say "Don't Give A Muffin To These Moose"

Here is the Third Wave, Neo-Democrat take on NCLB.

There is a great series of children's books with titles like If You Give a Moose a Muffin, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The storylines suggest that if you give a moose a muffin, a pig a pancake, or a mouse a cookie they will inevitably want something more, like milk or syrup, to go with it, and then something to go with that, and will never stop asking for more.

Though the books are aimed at young children they hold a lesson for adults involved in today's NCLB debate. On March 25, The New York Times reported on a letter from 14 states asking for changes to NCLB's accountability system. These states seek to use "growth models" to measure school progress relatively instead of the current adequate yearly progress (AYP) system that requires states to establish common, and eventually higher, performance targets for all schools based on state standards and tests.

Superficially it sounds like a reasonable request. Some schools have so few students proficient on state tests that it would be virtually impossible for them to reach even modest goals in a single year. Isn't this just more evidence of NCLB's nefarious intent and fatal flaws? After all, even many of the law's supporters are uncomfortable penalizing schools that began far behind but are making significant progress.

No, it's not. For starters, NCLB's "safe harbor" already provides a route for such schools to make AYP, even if they do not meet state goals for that year, if they steadily decrease the percentage of students not proficient and make progress on other indicators. Indeed what advocates of substituting growth models are really asking is to be allowed to lower the bar for how much schools must close achievement gaps.

Rather than flaws of NCLB, the call to water down the law shows the extent of inequities in education and why NCLB's relentless focus on forcing states and school districts to confront them is vital. Although we live in a nation that is rightly proud of its many outstanding public schools, we also live in one where the average African-American and Hispanic 12th grader reads and does math about as well as the average white eighth grader. According to the Urban Institute and Harvard Civil Rights Project, Hispanic and black students have about a 50 percent chance of finishing high school, and completion rates in many urban communities are substantially lower. As organized interest groups gin up resistance to NCLB by arguing that achievement gap data don't really represent what's going on in desirable communities with overall high-performing schools, it's worth remembering that these statistics represent real, live children -- and they do go to school somewhere! Nor are achievement gaps solely an urban problem. New NAEP data shows racial achievement gaps exist in all kinds of communities. It's these persistent problems -- not NCLB's focus on addressing them -- that is slowly eroding support for public education.

California Democratic Congressman George Miller told The New York Times that the problem with allowing growth models to substitute for the existing AYP parameters is that under the former, "they [low-performing schools] are sort of always arriving, but they never get there. We want all of our children to be proficient in reading and math and other subjects. Growth alone can't be good enough."

Miller is exactly right. And NCLB does not require schools to achieve 100 percent test scores or even get 100 percent of students to pass. It merely requires states to strive to ensure that almost all students (excluding those for whom such standards are inappropriate) achieve at a state established level of proficiency on pretty basic measures of reading and math. Moreover, schools should not be held accountable for single year test scores, and NCLB gives states flexibility to average school test scores over multiple years and employ other measures to ensure score validity. Cutting through the jargon, this means ensuring schools are teaching students to read and do math at least as well as those on both sides of the NCLB debate expect for their own children.

Besides, growth models can be integrated with NCLB. States can, and should, acknowledge and reward schools succeeding in challenging circumstances and relative to similar schools. But ironically, allowing growth models to substitute for fixed targets could potentially take us back not just to before NCLB but to the pre-1994 era of differing standards and accountability schemes for Title I and non-Title I schools, albeit under the guise of a more sophisticated approach to accountability.

Though not by any means perfect, NCLB moves the ball on equity. But doing so is a political as well as a substantive challenge. An Achilles heel of democratic government is that, regardless of the merits, organized groups can often work their will against disorganized beneficiaries of particular policies. In the case of education accountability, there will always be calls for change when consequences start to matter, whether now or -- if lawmakers should unfortunately decide to punt -- again in several years. Giving these moose a muffin now is not only poor policy but will simply embolden others to want something to go with it, and then something to go with that, and before long there won't be much left of NCLB except a lot of rhetoric about standards, expectations, and improvement wrapped around a toothless law allowing everyone to happily say, "see, we supported the goals of NCLB all along!"

In any event, if lawmakers can't even hang tough on the notion that public schools should strive to ensure most students can read and do math, it's going to become increasingly difficult to resist, intellectually at least, the libertarian/conservative position that where schools are demonstrably not working parents should be allowed to use as they see fit the public money dedicated to educating their children. In that environment, NCLB will probably look pretty good in hindsight.

Further Reading:

"14 States Ask U.S. to Revise Some Education Law Rules,"
Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times (03/25/04):

If You Take a Mouse to School,
Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond (2002):

"Real Education Solutions,"
Sacramento Bee Editorial (04/31/04):

"Paige Finds Schools Act a Tough Sell,"
Elizabeth Shogren, Los Angeles Times (03/29/04):

"Education Act Splits Chiefs,"
George Archibald, Washington Times (03/29/04):

"Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,"
Gary Orfield, Daniel Iosen, Johanna Weld, and Christopher B. Swanson,
Harvard Civil Rights Project (02/25/04):

"Who Graduates? Who Doesn't?"
Christopher B. Swanson, Urban Institute (02/25/04):

"NAEP Urban Scores Revisited,"
21st Century Schools Project Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 1 (01/13/04):

— Progressive Policy Institute
Don't Give A Muffin To These Moose
21st Century Schools Project Bulletin: Vol 4, No 7


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