Tuesday, February 20, 2007


NCLB is to the land of education blogs what New Found Glory was to the South Florida punk rock scene of my youth: easy to shit on, massively conflated with a variety of other disasters, and only a problem if you took the whole thing too seriously. That said, I find myself spackling other people's blogs with my opinions on this thing, on the way we talk about it, and on how we should manage the interplay of opposition and responsibility.

What it is/ what it ain't
Whenever I read about this piece of federal law on the blogs, I get those angry itchings because of the irresponsible rhetoric employed to argue against this measure. We should all be able to agree that NCLB does not:
  • promote insanity in the young
  • recreate the biblical Fall
  • forbid you from teaching good
  • end bilingual education in California
  • create further ethnic segregation
  • usher in the first generation of low-performing students
  • cause thousands of innocent, hard-working teachers to be ruthlessly fired
This is a measure that says: test, test everyone within reason, report the results, expect to be called out if the numbers aren't good, feel the pressure to improve, and, to a certain extent, figure out how you plan to meet these requirements on your own, specific to both your state, district, and school.

And I think that's a good thing. I think, on the most basic level, that these requirements have brought increased attention and visibility to communities, schools, and certain student groups therein that go all too often ignored. Part of this is the nature of schools, and the fact that it's hard to have a global view of something that is so intensely local, but also because there's been malfeasance. Whether we speak of the much-publicized inner-city school or simply the pockets of student "sub-group" that can be easy to ignore in the absence of measures that make them statistically significant, there are too many kids that we have not done well by. Too many.

NCLB did not cause this. The problems and the gaps and the underachievement were all there before 2002 and will probably be there in 2008 when the democratic majority dismantles the law. NCLB certainly put labels on a pre-existing situation, and there are people who will tell you that this represents an unnecessary labeling resulting in blame, unnatural dichotomies, and a dangerous binary way of looking at school, but I'm not one of them. I'm a naked lunch kinda guy, and I think it's always important to look at what's at the end of the fork, and see it clearly. To a large extent, NCLB has improved our clarity, and if we don't like what we see, it's up to us to make it better.

The Linchpins
It's there at the end of the above, there in the historical tango between federal oversight and local (state) control. It's there as that critical archstone that supports the work we do and the work we ought to be doing. It's there in the fact that for all the regulations, all the legal wranglings, all the outside forces that can seem so daunting and seem to require so much massive intervention, success or failure still resides within the choices and actions of educators. To quote the woman Samuel J. quoted Nelson M. quoting, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, it is that we are powerful beyond measure."

We waste so much time forgetting that it is the responses of educators that make the difference one way or another, in the acquisition of basic skills, the development of critical thought, and the continued practice of being good people. There is poverty, there is underfunding, there is a materialism that creeps like a wasting sickness in a Bronte novel, and still we can make it happen. Still we can work to prepare students, to ready them to combat the problems they will inherit, because inherit they will. In this preparing lies our continued struggle and our commitment to live in discontent against the inequities that plague us.

It is because of our control in shaping environments and in setting the conditions for teaching and learning that we must not speak of NCLB making us do things, at least not on the level of classrooms or schools, and maybe not even on the level of districts. When schools limit access to curriculum, or take away electives, or insist upon a fanatical adherence to scripted curriculum, these are responses to the test-everyone mandate, and must be judged on their merits independent of the existence of the overarching federal legislation. I recognize the danger here, the danger in saying stop complaining that I shot you, it's your body's response to the bullet in your head that's causing all your problems. I get it, but I'm not buying, because the choices in response to the legislature that anger and frustrate so many are simply not the only choices.

Investing in wide-spread implementation of teacher-proof curriculum is a choice not to invest in instilling a process-oriented approach to teaching. Removing electives is a choice to position literacy and math as prerequisites to other endeavors, and one I agree with, but failing to offer supplementary alternatives outside the school day is a choice to repudiate the importance of enrichment. Maintaining traditional school organizational structures, scheduling principles, and class sizes is a choice to structure schools to serve the needs of adults, not the needs of teaching and learning. Emphasizing one means of assessment throughout the year simply because it is the manner in which assessment will occur in May is a choice not to embrace the reality that good teaching is good teaching, and as such, will never detract from ultimate performance.

We have not made effective enough choices to blame outside forces for our problems. That is what I always come back to. We have not controlled what we have the power to control in effective ways, and until we do, I cannot understand why we elevate this law to boogyman status, and make it the target of all our wrath.

There remain aspects to this law that exist beyond our ability to make choices about response. Here I'm thinking of unfunded mandates, sub-group qualifying calculations, the lack of growth provisions, and whether this concept of 100 percent success for 100 percent of a population is really how we need to structure our educational systems. Let us continue to debate these issues relative to their importance. Because they may not be all that important, or at least not now.

I teach in a school where proficiency rates have more than quadrupled in four years, taking us to a place where slightly more than a third of last year's students were proficient. Do we need to allocate time and resources to talking about NCLB proficiency benchmarks for 2014, when we still need to design models and processes to reach a place where half of our eighth graders leave ready for high school? I don't know, and I don't know if this represents an abdication of responsibility or just an appropriate ordering of priority. I have been elsewhere accused of advocating a first-they-came stance with regard to this, and I don't know if that's what I'm doing.

What I do know is this kind of discussion seems to come down to a debate between those who argue that we can never make lasting change from within schools, that it must come from without. This is the Rothstein argument that, to my mind, seems to conflate the closing of the achievement gap with the eradication of all meaningful distinctions between rich and poor. That may certainly be a worthwhile endeavor, but is it the same thing? Is it the purpose of education? Do we educate to become classless, or do we educate to provide the foundation for meritocracy and democracy?

And then we go back and forth on the locus of control and on the extent of power and influence. Poverty vs. schools. NCLB vs. teachers. It may not be fair to say that educators have the full extent of this power and it may not be accurate or acceptable to require educators to function as if they did. But what would happen if, for just a little while, in opposition to how we may feel or what we may have seen at the corner store, what would happen if we pretended, if we just acted as if we did? What then?


Anonymous TLNer in NC said...

I'll raise my glass of wine to your entire rant. I really appreciate a little punk thrown in with some thoughtful assessment of national policy.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

My reponse is a nearly-point-by-point reaction to your post, as I read it, presented in the linked GoogleDoc. I thought about rewriting and condensing this, but perhaps this approach will prove more useful. (As such, I do respond a few times to issues that you address a paragraph later, but I revised each time, taking those later paragraphs into consideration.)

Let me say that I respect the work you do. I've read enough about your teaching situation to say categorically that your job is harder than mine, and I admire you for doing it. I admire your passion and ideas, and value your input. I believe you want the best possible educational system we can have. I hope you believe I want the same thing.

I'm also hoping this response will help bring us one step closer to finding common ground. Even if it doesn't, I appreciate your voice in this debate. We (nationally) need to find some way to agree, but we shouldn't let ourselves take the easy way out in that pursuit.

Thanks for this post and your continued efforts in this ongoing debate/discussion. Beers all around if we should all ever meet offline.

Here is the response.

8:15 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

This is a measure that says: test, test everyone within reason, report the results, expect to be called out if the numbers aren't good, feel the pressure to improve, and, to a certain extent, figure out how you plan to meet these requirements on your own, specific to both your state, district, and school.

Well put.

10:28 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Sorry this has been so long in coming, but could you write more on how you see NCLB as muddying, rather than clarifying?

11:32 AM  
Blogger ponytrax said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams

TMAO, I ran across this while looking for something else, and thought you might get a chuckle -- or something.

No Dentist Left Behind


"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.

"No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?"

"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"That's terrible," he said.

"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control?

"For example," he said, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also," he said, "many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from a young age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he added, "so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

More at the link above.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous A. Mercer said...

You give both the standards and the test too much credit. First, the standards in California are too broad, were set up to meet an end goal (preparing students to meet the A-F requirements for UC/CSU entry) rather than being developmentally appropriate, and the degree of difficulty in the wording exacerbates that effect (http://mizmercer.edublogs.org/2007/03/16/education-and-politics-in-california/). The test is better than the earlier SAT-9 tests, which were norm-referenced, and not tied to the standards. This criticism is based on my experience as a classroom teacher with the test, looking at release test questions and standards from other states, and trainings with experts in testing analysis, and preparation. The NCLB system got jury-rigged on top of the states existing API/II-USP structure. That system was supposed to measure improvement, not have all students reaching proficiency. Because numerous administrations (Democratic and Republican) have refused to “water-down” the standards, we’re stuck with an accountability benchmark that soon, NO ONE in the state will meet. Do you think you will get 75%-80% of your students to proficiency? Because the tests are so rigorously aligned to the grade-level standard that is being tested, it can’t measure growth and improvement. Example: single-digit multiplication is tested on the third grade test, but not tested after that (except as part of other operations). If a student in fourth grade finally memorizes their multiplication facts, but is still struggling with more advanced operations, they could still test at Far Below Basic/Below Basic even though they have gained a skill.

In addition, the curriculum that is “approved” by the state, still does not adequately align with curriculum standards. Since these are “scripted” programs, which many principals/administrators insist be taught “as-is” you have no hope of ever getting students to a proficient level on the state test. The language arts program used in my school, if done as it is given, will only get students to a basic level. I’m fortunate, I can deviate from the scripted curriculum because if I don’t my school will not get out of program improvement. The math program is so out of line with state standards, that we are using books that are for supposed to be (and are) used for low 7th graders, and 6th graders for my fifth grade students. Because the standards are over-broad, students have poor basic number sense, because they are learning so many different concepts in a single school year. Frankly, sometimes I do feel like I’m doing professional malpractice on them.

Look, I think that we need standards, and we need assessment and accountability, this is just a very crude method to get to that point (http://mizmercer.edublogs.org/2007/02/17/nclb-why-wont-you-leave-me-be/). An exam based system is not, in my opinion, where I would like our education system to go.

“I can make no argument for student performance on the CSTs being excluded from any evaluation of my teaching performance.”

I think we are all comfortable with having the growth of most of our students measured (as opposed to AYP, which takes NO account of where students start out). AYP is not about most of our students, it’s about all of them. Are you going to take responsibility for the test scores for ALL of your students? Because that is what NCLB is saying. Everyone of those students is supposed to be at grade-level proficiency by 2014, will your students make the grade?

7:10 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Ms. Mercer

I hear you on the pasted-upon effects of NCLB, but AYP's binary approach to achievement measurement does not overthrow the growth-based measures found within API. They compliment each other in CA in strong ways. On the one hand is the measure that asses growth and let's us demonstrate improvement, and on the other is the rigid measure that forces us to acknowledge whether we are doing an acceptable job... or not.

You wrote: "If a student in fourth grade finally memorizes their multiplication facts, but is still struggling with more advanced operations, they could still test at Far Below Basic/Below Basic even though they have gained a skill."

This makes sense to me beacuse while the student gained a skill they fell proportionately further away from standards. It's great the kid can multiply, but let's not break out the party streamers, because if this student is in middle school, or even fifth grade, they are still woefully behind and we should not hide from this.

I agree additionally with your point about the value of adopted curriculum. As I wrote in this post, this problem is unduly conflated with NCLB. Or, to look at it another way, we accepted this problem until the advent of legislation that suddenly made us just a little more accountable for the teaching and learning that was happening. A lot of the mandated curriculum sucks. Yet this is not the fault of NCLB or an effect of its implementation.

I continue to struggle with folks who trot out the spector of 2014, when so many schools can't hack the 26%/28% level now, and certainly aren't gonna make it up at 44%. But to answer your question, no, 100% of my students will not be proficient if I'm still doing this in 2014. And that's not okay. It's not. It doesn't matter what legal guidelines are or are not in place. That's not okay.

And it's educators (on all levels of the system) who aren't making the grade. Let's not blame kids for what we have (collectively) wrought.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous A. Mercer said...

As much as NCLB/API/STAR annoy me, and as much as I question them, we both agree that some form of assessment is necessary. I just haven't figured out what it is yet. I'm at the point of meeting the API goals for my class for this year, and I do take professional responsiblity for my teaching, but I'm not going to pretend that I can fix every child, and overcome all the problems my students come to school with. I'm not Annie Sullivan, incarnate, but I do have to at least try (and more than half-heartedly). Frankly, not all poor/minority/immigrant/fill-in-the blank kids are "dysfunctional" or come from lousy families. I do have little patience for "but these families/kids are so dysfunctional, what can we do?" That is the reality that we have to deal with and it's not going to change, so I hear your call to "get over it."

8:00 PM  

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