NCLB first

Much of Barack Obama’s education agenda is too costly to be enacted during an economic crisis, writes Diane Ravitch in Forbes. However, the administration can move quickly to revise No Child Left Behind.

First, it should eliminate the goal of universal proficiency by 2014, because it is unattainable. Period. No state or nation has ever achieved 100% proficiency. Second, it should recognize that the federal government is best at providing accurate information, such as what children in each grade need to know to be abreast of international standards (that is known as the curriculum) and whether our children are meeting those standards (that is, testing); third, the administration should expect states and districts to fashion appropriate reforms and remedies for their schools.

Currently, states are allowed to define “proficiency” as they like. Many have set a low bar. If the feds set global standards for basic, proficient and advanced skills, I wonder what goals would be achievable. Could we realistically expect that 90 percent of students would master basic skills? What percentage of students could reach proficiency?

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  1. I am certain that there will be plenty who stand up and cheer at Ms. Ravitch’s suggestion. However, it really begs many further questions. For instance, if 100% proficiency is unattainable (no matter where the bar is set, and even with a separate set of rules for those with cognitive disabilities), what level of proficiency ought we accept, and why (and who)? She cites a study that does a projection of California, based on past progress–indicating that by 2014 100% of California schools will be performing at less than required (state defined) levels of proficiency. This, of course, presupposes that all available remedies have already been imposed and that the rate of improvement will remain constant.

    If we have learned anything from history, it is that when schools/districts are allowed to move “with all deliberate speed,” very little happens. It was not until groups of black parents filed suit over their children’s denial of the right to an education as was defined in Brown, that schools began to implement meaningful remedies. Not that there was no action taken prior. There were districts that closed down rather than integrate There were various “choice,” and “magnet” plans that moved the onus for desegretation from the districts to the students. And, in the end, when put under constitutional scrutiny, districts made changes that resulted in desegregation.

    So, the California plan–as cited in the study that Ravitch refers to–which allowed for a gradual slope of improvement, followed by a steeper requirement further down the line, may have erred in assuming that if given extra time, districts would find their way to improvement. This approach may only have allowed for prolonging the inevitable and enabling denial. It is true that most “restructured” schools don’t truly restructure much. And my guess is that the ones that hold out until restructure is mandated have just been waiting for a change in the law–or retirement. This doesn’t mean that restructure is a waste of time–only that it is seldom meaningfully implemented.

    I am not terribly opposed to national standards. But I know how long it took each of the 50 states to build the standards and assessment infrastructures that they are now operating under. I don’t see a change to national standards as being useful any time in the near future. The current requirement that states participate in NAEP provides a common yardstick while allowing for all of those individualities that some seem to think belong closest to home. We already have a pretty clear idea of which states have elected to teach to watered down standards and which ones are excelling.

    Perhaps what we need is to establish a right to a certain level of proficiency–no matter how long it might take. Any student who doesn’t get it in the first 12 years might be entitled to continued education until such time as they can be determined to be “proficient.” States might then be held accountable for a percentage who actually reach that level within the expected time-frame. Perhaps all remedial work would have to be done with local $. Community colleges could contract to provide remediation to superannuated non-grads.

    But, make no mistake, regardless of how uncomfortable or embarrassed or annoyed teachers and others have been with the current assessment system, we cannot afford to move away from accountability.

  2. Robert Wright says:

    I nominate John McCain for Sec. of Education.

  3. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Realistically, I think 75% is an ambitious goal.

  4. Wherever a national bar is set will be in the wrong place.

    Accountability is necessary, yes. The question in a federalist system is “whose decision is it?” Some decisions belong to the feds, some to the states, some to the districts, some to the buildings, some to families, and some to students.

    In my view, of the above entities, the feds are the last who should decide “what is an acceptable level of performance?”

    We waste too much time arguing about policies decided afar and it’s a huge distraction from the real work. My administrators are nearly deaf to local voices, some of whom have workable suggestions, because of the roar of NCLB in their little minds.

  5. Margo/Mom,

    The projections I’ve seen for California seem to indicate most schools will be failing to meet proficiency standards before the 2013-2014 deadline. Given the data I’ve seen for our local district, I’d expect most schools with any significant social-economically disadvantaged or hispanic populations to be failing the standards within the next two years. One approach to managing this situation is to essentially let the system fail. I don’t know enough about the funding implications of this approach to believe it is acceptable. Looks like huge cuts in education funding are already in the works in California. A couple other approaches would be to lower standards somehow or get rid of NCLB accountability. None of these approaches are attractive and its hard to tell if any will make a difference in the long run. The factors for eventual student success might turn out to be completely independent of any of these approaches.

    Thought I would also share a related experience:

    I recently had a chance to ask our district superintendent and his executive staff why all of the students in our district are not proficient in language arts and mathematics. I would characterize the initial response as flabbergasted that any parent would ever ask such a question. Made me wonder if I was the first. If not, they must not get asked this question very often. After the initial surprise, I got what seemed like a bunch of defensive statements that didn’t even seem to attempt to answer the question. I was told that California has higher standards than other states, that CA compares very well on NAEP, and other such statements ( don’t get me wrong these are all good, but didn’t answer my question ). Then it occurred to me that maybe they were trying to tell me that the standards are too high. But on directly asking this question the immediate response was no, the standards are not too high. Eventually I was told that three factors were the top reasons for not reaching the proficiency goals: poverty, student mobility, and the number of english language learners. Its pretty clear that these three reasons are not independent and after asking enough questions it seemed everyone was in agreement.

    I also got to ask the obvious follow up question: What do we do to get all students to a level of proficiency? The answer focused on getting students access to more school teaching: provide every child with quality preschool, increase the number of classroom hours in the day, and increase the length of the school year. Which of course means increasing education funding. I’d be very pleasantly surprised if California can afford these solutions anytime soon.

    I came away from this meeting with the understanding that our district staff pretty much feels and thinks that they are at the mercy of the environment in terms of reaching student achievement standards. So by simple extrapolation I’d guess many other district staffs in California are thinking and feeling the same way.

    I for one, don’t know of any shortcuts for them. My response is, “Parents teach your children”, as the system seems to be stressed out.

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    > My response is, “Parents teach your children”, as the system seems to be stressed out.

    If that’s the answer, why are we paying for public schools?

  7. Andy,

    Or, how come we’re paying the amount we pay?