No child left behind what?

No Child Left Behind requires radical reform, writes Nicholas Lemann in Washington Monthly.

What schools need is, first, a national standard of what proficiency in reading and math means; second, a curriculum that gets students to that level; and finally, tests tailored specifically to that curriculum. That way teaching the class and “teaching to the test” are the same thing.

Neither candidate has called for abolishing NCLB. Lemann has hopes it will survive the election. However, it’s more likely it will be made weaker than stronger.

Via This Week in Education.

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  1. NCLB is a good idea, great in theory and flawed in implementation. Teachers and schools need to be held accountable.

    There will be little true improvement in education however until a system that holds students and parents accountable is devised and put into place.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    At this point, this is not exactly radical–it is the core of NCLB. The snag is that the will for national standards was lacking, so the requirement to set standards fell on the states. The problem thus far has not been with the standards/curriculum/assessment triumverate–although doing the standards/assessment piece 50 times instead of one is a bit excessive. Curriculum, in large part, is determined locally (district level in most states). We are not well structured, as it turns out to handle this. It is likely that this task is best performed by well-qualified teachers supported with adequate planning time. Our system has not been set up to guarantee development and selection of well-qualified teachers and their equitable distribution across districts. Planning time is not only anathema, but frequently poorly used. Lesson planning has previously been seen as a task that falls to the individual teachers, within a curriculum structure generally provided by a purchased textbook.

    This was the first big surprise when we required testing and reporting–all kids were not well served under this system. What to do? Most districts looked at what they had to work with and panicked. Mythologies grew up: some kids don’t test well; they know the material, they just don’t recognize it when they see it on the test; they can’t learn because the don’t have enough parents, books or sleep. Strategies were laid in place to respond to these myths (intensive test prep), as well as to some knowledge, gained from examining the data, that all kids were not being exposed to a sufficiently representative sample of the “standards.” (Note–in the rush to teach “the standards,” as opposed to teaching “to the standards,” the important step of developing curriculum was overlooked). District committees were rushed into place to develop pacing charts–to ensure that everything that might be on the test would be covered. Never mind that most testing systems set the proficiency bar low enough that knowing everything is not necessary (in acknowledgement that the testing sample is, in fact a sample of the knowledge contained in the standards). Knowing important things well enough gave way to trying to ensure that everyone knows everything. The pacing charts became a supervisory tool to ensure that teachers taught everything.

    Still, very little thought to developing a meaningful curriculum. Of course there is no shortage of salesmen offering them–and helpfully complying by seeing that everything required by every standard in 50 states is included. Would national standards address this problem? No, although it could simplify the issues faced of the curriculum sellers. It would also enable some cost efficiency in test development. But, unless we step back and get a grasp on meaningful curriculum and empowered teachers (which includes far more than telling them they can do what they want), it will stop short of bringing improved learning to the classroom. It also does not address the ongoing inability of schools to adequately respond to learning problems–both those that are cognitive and those that are more adaptive and sociologically based.

    I suspect we have the resources available in most districts to be able to impact these things. But it requires an ability to accept responsibility for learning, a willingness to be flexible, an openness to supporting teacher collaboration and planning–not just through time, but also with facilitation, goal setting and appropriate evaluation, and an ability to move teachers where their skills are the most needed.

  3. I believe the Fordham Institute has consistently measured and claimed that many states are making “standard” tests easier so that more students are “proficient”. Wouldn’t surprise me if more states follow this approach the closer we get to 2014.

    If something doesn’t change soon, most CA schools will be on program improvement at that time.

  4. A profession willingly subjects itself to national norms of behavior and performance, so that being a member of the profession really means something–and more or less the same thing–to the people who require their services. As educators, we have resisted this for years. We have unions, sure, but we refuse to have our version of the ABA or the AMA. We refuse to set our own standards (the failure to meet which could result in removal from the profession), and have refused to hold ourselves accountable for pretty much anything except our own, personal judgment, claiming that no one outside our classroom can understand what we do. It’s not surprising that standards and accountability have been imposed upon us. And it’s not surprising that they’ve been misguided or mis-implemented, or both.

    A sane conversation on education could easily set some broad national standards for content and performance in the core subjects, leaving room for local variance or addition. But we’re incapable of having sane conversations.

  5. Is NCLB only a big deal in the large cities? I ask this because our district, and the surrounding districts, have not had to change their curriculum because of NCLB. The major effect of NCLB is the need to hire another administrator to handle the reporting requirements, and this expense is borne by the individual districts. Just another unfunded mandate which is raising our taxes!

    NCLB has also made it easier for the building administrators to force certain of the tenured teachers to actually teach the curriculum. But the curriculum hasn’t needed to be changed–it was already excellent.

    (Upstate Central New York)

  6. Many people seem to think that if state standards don’t to do the job, what we need is national standards. It seems to me that if state attempts at writing standards produce mostly frustration, the last thing we want to do is to scale up to the national level.

    But if we must have national standards, I propose two ways to write them. The first way, the usual way, is to spend a billion dollars, set up teams of “experts”, hire consultants, (make that consulting firms, not just consultants), take at least two years to get to a final report, expect at least 10,000 pages. Second way, call up your local elementary school and ask to speak to the sixth grade teacher whom the principal recommends as the best. Offer her a hundred dollars to write up on two pages the standards that kids should meet to be called literate. Give her five working days.

    Which will produce the better standards? I have my opinion. Of course not everyone will be satisfied with standards produced by any methods. But if we do it my way, and don’t like the results, we can just do it again next week.

    Call me a grinch, but I don’t agree at all Nicholas Lemann. In his article he says,

    “What schools need is, first, a national standard of what proficiency in reading and math means; second, a curriculum that gets students to that level; and finally, tests tailored specifically to that curriculum. That way teaching the class and “teaching to the test” are the same thing.”

    Schools are not perfect, but I am thinking more and more that the schools we have are the result of many trade offs among rather powerful cultural forces. Those forces, and the resulting trade offs, are not easily moved or manipulated. Standards, with or without sanctions, are just one more factor in the mix. All those other factors will not just go away. If standards clash with other forces in the mix the result may be quite unpredictable and may or may not be beneficial.

    Apparently Lemann thinks that if we decide on standards, then a curriculum would quickly follow. I don’t see why. And then, apparently, tests tailored specifically to that curriculum are the next easy step. Again I don’t see why. What it looks like to me is a vast and expensive effort that cannot possibly please more than a small part of the population or reasonably be expected to be a net benefit.

    Why not just settle for a mission statement? Maybe we could cut that billion down to a half, and cause less frustration to boot.

  7. Brian,

    Perhaps we spent too much money in creating it but we already have a national standard called NAEP. The Fordham Institute uses this as the benchmark in analyzing state standards. Here’s a link to the federal government website which is a portal to all things NAEP:

    So why in the world didn’t we use this for NCLB? Well once a standard becomes a high-stakes standard politicians are much more motivated to question its validity. Hence one of the arguments against high-stakes standards is that they eventually get watered down. And according to the Fordham Institute this is exactly what is happening.

  8. CharterMom says:

    As a parent who is interested in education, I do believe that a large part of the problem with NCLB is that it allowed the states to set the standards and the tests. Here in NC our EOG test is horrible. Last year both my kids (middle-school aged) came home complaining about the tests — one called the tests “opinionated” and the other complained that many times the right answer wasn’t there so you had to find the one you thought they wanted. Having reviewed sample tests, I thought their opinions were pretty accurate. Since their school also administers the Stanford tests twice a year, I asked them what they thought of those tests. They both were in agreement — those tests were fine.

    The result of the horrible EOG tests here is that teachers have to spend a fair amount of time teaching the expected test answers instead of teaching the material. So while EOG scores keep going up, the NAEP scores don’t. NC gave up using any other standardized test several years ago so comparisons to other tests can’t be made. My kids get the Stanford only because they go to a charter school and that school uses Stanford as measurement and diagnostic tools. They use the EOG only because it’s required by law.

    Interestingly enough, I heard Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor here say that one thing he would do to improve education is to eliminate the state test and switch to a nationally normed test. He said it would save money while also allowing NC to compare itself to the nation. I thought that was a pretty sound idea. He also said that he would get rid of calculators in K-5 (our current EOG requires they be available) so the kids could focus on learning the math basics.

  9. CharterMom:

    I don’t know anything specific about the NC EOG tests. But I can tell you that they are measuring something different than the Stanford. The EOG–and other tests required by NCLB are “criterion referenced.” This means that they are measuring how much of a body of knowledge a student is conversant with. The Stanford is a “norm-referenced” test. This means that it is comparing students to other students of similar age and (presumably) experience. A good norm-referenced test is likely to come out with the “bell-shaped curve” that we have all heard of. A criterion referenced test could come out with all students above, or below, a mark (proficiency), or some percentage-=-depending on where the bar is set (example–most potential drivers are eventually able to pass the written driver’s exam–it is designed to ensure that everyone who drives knows a certain minimum amount of stuff about traffic laws, etc).

    I would be skeptical of a gubernatorial candidate who promises to get rid of criterion referenced testing and replace it with something norm referenced–which I suspect is what he is talking about when he says nationally normed. To my knowledge the only criterion-referenced national test is NAEP. Is this what he is proposing? Would he propose new state standards to align with NAEP?

    You might want to ask if he is intending to turn away Title I dollars–which is the basis for No Child Left Behind. You might also want to have some conversations with school/math teachers. What is being taught mathematically in K-5? Calculators don’t help in memorizing math facts, it is true–but they can be invaluable in doing other things: converting fractions to decimals, figuring percentages, applying formulae (helps to keep the focus on how the problem is being solved).

    I would just be very careful of anyone who is promising pie in the sky to you. They may not completely grasp what it is that they are talking about.

  10. Ryan Booth says:

    As a 6th-grade math teacher, I can say that the idea of largely giving up calculators in elementary school is one that I would enthusiastically endorse.

    Because our 4th-grade LEAP test (passing necessary for promotion) allows calculators, the students I get in 6th grade have abysmal skills in basic arithmetic. Fewer than 25% of the incoming students in my inner-city school know their multiplication tables.

    This has a tremendous effect when, for example, I teach students how to find the greatest common factor of two numbers. If a student can’t look at the number 77 and recognize that 77 is 7 x 11, then he can’t solve the GCF problem.


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