Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rules For The Voyage: NCLB

Before anchors are raised on the kind of post this was, the kind many folks disagree with, I set sail with this in the hold:
  1. NCLB says test kids, report what happens, and if you blow, feel the pressure to pick it up. If that makes educators stressed or sad, that level of stress is nothing compared to the stress of being a young person without the skills to be successful.
  2. The pass-rate is incredibly low, and it's absurd for us not to meet them, and absurd to complain.
  3. NCLB does not dictate how students are taught, what they are taught, what happens on a Wednesday at 10:36, and if schools and districts make poor choices in their response to the legislation, we ought to critique those poor decisions, and not the context in which they are made, especially given the nature of that context (see 1. and 2. above).
  4. Basic skills are not basic. They are fundamental, foundational, and critical. In their absence, almost all other leanings are undervalued and under-realized.
  5. Instruction in basic skills is not necessarily mind-numbing and awful. This manner of instruction, in these settings, undoubtedly exists, and it is the reason so many fail so mightily to acquire these skills.
  6. There is a difference between using the arts in instruction, and providing instruction in the arts. The former is right on; the latter can be right on, but I'm always reminded of a line from the West Wing: "If the government were in charge of science, we'd have the best iron lung, but no polio vaccine."
  7. If we acknowledge that there are twin problems in education, one being a so-called "narrowing" of opportunity for high achieving kids, and the other being an inability to provide huge numbers of primarily Black and Latino skills essential, foundational skills, I'm always going to advocate for our efforts to be directed toward solving the problem of how we get more kids learning at a level commensurate to their abilities and the requirements of future life. Always. I'm not denying the existence of the former problem, or that it is a problem, but that it's incumbent on us to fix problems of survival -- and yo, it's diplomas or jail in our cities -- before problems of enrichment.


Blogger ms. v. said...

um... do you mean "commensurate" --? presumably not "commiserate"--? there's no criticism of the content of your post lurking in this correction, it's just a heads-up because I'd want someone to tell me if I slipped up and used the wrong word (and oh, yeah, it's happened).

8:23 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Duly corrected. Should spell check more carefully.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Mary Tedrow said...

I didn't get to chime in last time. Hope I can post this time.
Your overblown confidence in the tests reveals that you are somewhat new to this game. I think you have accepted the frame that the proponents of NCLB have been selling and that is that we NEVER KNEW we were failing kids. Wrong.
The tests have never revealed anything to me - or other professional educators - that which we did not already know about our students. I know who needs help and I know who I feel equipped to help and who I struggle to help. (Where do I start with an eleventh grader reading on the second grade level? Help him/her? Or help the other 27?)
What I need is HELP in helping those students and not a test to show me who is failing at the very important task of literacy. And, unfortunately, the choices being made in order to improve scores at the building, district, and stae levels has more to do with politics than with helping kids become better thinkers, readers, and writers.
What kids need is TIME and ATTENTION both of which cost money. How much money is spent on administering and scoring those tests? Wouldn't it be better spent on hiring the professionals and providing the support for the students who need it most? That, however, is unlikely because the kids who need the most time and attention come from the lower socio-economic ranks and not from the stable families who vote. In addition to that, we're talking about spending money on ALL children. The tests and their scores are for the grown ups - not the kids.
What do my kids need? The FOUR days back that we have already given over to testing (and we've only been in school for six weeks.) The $$$ spent at every level on the tests. The full time testing coordinators who would be better off counseling kids rather than making testing schedules.
Make no mistake my friend, the testing is designed to prove the failures of the public school system. If they are willing to spend all that money on tests why won't they spend a commensurate amount on instruction? Prior to NCLB, during NCLB, and after NCLB I will still be able to point to every child in my room and tell you their strengths and weaknesses. As a professional - I don't need a test to tell me that.

8:03 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I agree with much of what you wrote. If you're doing your job as a professional, very little of the data you get back from those summative measures should be surprising. Is it suprising that it is surprising to so many? Is it suprising that so many try to explain away those results as meaning something other than what they mean? I'm not saying folks never knew. I'm saying the knowing was far less public, and the impetus to change far less compelling.

While the measures themselves cost time and money, they have also opened opportunities for schools that need to receive additional money for additional time. Because we were once in PI, we received a HPSG to extend our school to provide increased instruction. Because we can qualify a massive percentage of our 7th and 8th graders as "at-risk" for failing the CAHSEE, we receive uncapped SIIP funds from the state, which we use to build in an extra hour of instruction, daily. I agree that money spent on consultants whose expertise is in gaming the system rather than providing the means to better instruction is a waste, but the existence of the assessments has clearly opened doors for funding that may otherwise not have been available.

And even if they didn't, I wonder if their existence isn't a bad thing. There aren't many jobs where your effectiveness matters less to your job security, advancement, and salary than it does in teaching. The existence of effective measures of performance (and we're not there yet) pave the way for everything from merit pay, to the accepted understanding that educators are responsible for the growth, or not, of their students.
You're there already, Mary; probably have been for some time. How much company do you keep?

Finally, I agree class size should be smaller, instructional time longer, and greater attention paid to the development of critical skills, especially K-1. Do we get there by standing in line to cast another pebble of dissent at a law we're don't like so much?

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

Hey TMAO. I may not always agree with you, but I do appreciate your passionate concern for education.

That being said, a few responses here to your list:

1. The problem is the test. Not the demand for effectiveness, but the way it's measured. Soooo much data and research on this.

2. True, the low pass rate is embarrassing and absurb. (That doesn't change #1, though.)

3. Not true. Effectiveness is measured by a particular kind of test under NCLB. As any education 101 class will tell you, what you test for, and the manner in which you test for it, determines what you get.

4. True.

5. True.

6. A quality education should attempt to educate the whole person, and the arts are a part of that as much as any other subject. Trace this back to "the true, the good, and the beautiful." How can we even imagine an education that has no concern for beauty? And again, tons of research on the arts and creativity on this one.

7. This is reductive, but your motivation is understandable. The problem is that "the poor will be with you always." If you are always educating for the lowest common denominator in a mass system, you will always have a reductive and uninspiring system. Really, though, this is a structural problem. The way we do school right now assumes a common ability level, arranged by age, that simply does not match reality ... now more than ever. This is true both system-wide and within individual classrooms. Until that structure is re-worked, both ends of the spectrum will suffer at the other's expense.

And a quick comment on the exchange with Mary ... I agree that teacher effectiveness is horribly overlooked--appallingly so. On the other hand, I don't want multiple-choice tests serving as the only measure of my effectiveness, nor do I want my students held up to a national average as a measure of effectiveness. I'm one of seven teachers, during one of twelve years. Outside of that, the influence of parents and community is enormous. Assess what my students can do in my given discipline when they enter my class and compare it to when they leave. Also look at their interest and motivation. That will start to tell you whether or not I'm effective.

And I'm unconvinced about the wasted money: the millions my county pours into standardized testing, while students sit in over-crowded classrooms with shamefully limited resources (both technological and pen-and-paper) is infuriating.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Cal said...

It always sounds extremely noble to say "we should focus on those who have no basic skills, not the smart kids" but there are two very real problems with that sentiment.

First, there's no evidence that it's true. We've been coping with a society in which the bottom third has had no basic skills for quite some time. There has been, for some time, a serious question as to whether or blithe assumptions about teaching everyone to be "symbol manipulators" is even remotely possible. Arguably, bringing back unskilled to blue collar jobs and limiting immigration in large numbers would serve this population better than spending tons of money in the hopes of bumping reading scores. Likewise, spending more to improve education for the smart half may give us considerable dividends.

Second, the kids who you propose to give short shrift to (the high achieveing top quarter, let's say) have parents who, for the most part, pay the bills for public education. Make them feel as if public education really isn't about them and they leave. With their exit goes their support for spending. This has been demonstrated time and again: for the best overall public education, keep the suburbs happy.

As a rule, the suburbs are not happy with NCLB. If you want to be sure that your low income kids still have any funding for public education, that should concern you.

10:14 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Eric,

How goes it? We've hit upon our previous disagreements with how testing is structured, etc., some of which is driven by the different populations we teach. A venn diagram of you and I has an empty middle, methinks.

That said, let me say this about the tests in California, which are the only ones I know anything about. When I look at released questions, I ask myself, would a solid reader and thinker be able to answer these questions? Would a solid reader and thinker be challenged by some of these questions? Are the questions, by and large, responsive to instruction, and fair? The answers to these questions is "yes."

I'm sure the ed 101 class I never took would support your theories on the pygmalion effect of testing. That same class would also tell you that once kids master a topic or a skill you move on to harder topics. If you teach kids who can already do the work asked for on these tests, what's the problem? Move on, teach more and better, and the scores will take care of themselves.

I hear you on accountability, and I've written somewhere on this winding blog that I don't think a single measure is ideal. But, we ain't got a damn thing in place right now. Unless your contractual situation is very much different than mine, I have no accountability to anything. No one has any grounds to critique me, especially since there is no common definition of "effective." Given the dearth of any measure, I'll take an incomplete measure to get the ball moving.

Finally, we're in agreement that the underlying assumption of age-dependent skill commonality upon which we structure schools is woefully out of touch. We need serious structural reform that would allow kids access to a wide-range of instruction, starting with the skills they most need. How do you suggest we structure such a system, Eric, without using some form of objective-generated data?

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

Alas for that empty middle ... but no hard feelings. I'm just working through difficult questions in my head, for which I don't think I have definite answers, and enjoy doing that with folks who don't already agree with me because it makes my thinking better. So thanks for that!

I didn't mean to imply that I'm anti-testing, or even anti-multiple-choice testing. And for basic reading skills, I think a carefully-designed multiple-choice test can do the trick. I don't think that's the case for writing, though. Nor do I think it's the case for higher-level reading, analysis, and critique, or any sort of generative/creative/synthesizing kinds of mental work.

So, if we want to use m.c. tests for basic reading skills, I think that's fine. But what's after that? As it stands now, just more m.c. tests. That's what I find unacceptable. Why should so much, across all grades and disciplines, rest on a single form of assessment (and that only occurs every other year or so)?

Further, if schools approached these tests as "bare minimum" skills, that would be fine. In my experiences, though, they don't. For example, in my county, elementary students take 32 "CMS" tests--multiple-choice tests that are supposed to "prep" them for the state test. There are only 36 weeks of school. That's the kind of insanity that's driving me nuts.

Also, science and history tests, at least here in VA, are purely memory tests ... page after page of date and fact recollection. Nothing that can even remotely test an understanding of the purpose and approach of the discipline, for example.

As for the accountability, do you really think it's fair that your students, who come in at "level 1," and students two districts over, who come in at "level 6," are both expected to reach "level 7" by the end of the year? And if your students don't reach that level, you lose your job? I'm not being rhetorical, here ... are you really OK with that? Or is my understanding of accountability off somehow?

As for re-structuring, I'd go back to my earlier statement. M.c. tests might be fine for basic skills. After that, I'm not sure yet. But I don't think m.c. tests are the answer.

What are your ideas?

Thanks for your continual thoughtfulness and challenges.

7:34 AM  
Blogger AnthonyCody said...

You argue that NCLB does not dictate what or how kids are taught. I think this is fundamentally specious. NCLB may not say precisely what students ought to be learning at 10:36 am, but in having a test that gives huge weight to reading, somewhat less to math, and very little to anything else, AND creating a set of harsh consequences for schools that do not produce ever-rising test scores, NCLB is indeed dictating that instructional time be focused on reading, math and test prep. And research is showing that is exactly what we are getting. See today's article in the SF Chronicle; "Science courses nearly extinct in elementary grades, study finds."
The study that is the source for this article states: "While some schools and districts recognize and plan to pursue opportunities for improving science education, others struggle with the pressures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that has rendered attention to science a low priority and the new materials and assessments inconsequential. As concluded in a recent national study,11 NCLB has focused attention on literacy and math and increased the pressure at Program Improvement (PI) schools to perform in these two subject areas. This state of affairs has exacerbated the already low priority of science in the curriculum."

I agree with you that we should avoid a dichotomy that says we should favor either basic skills or what are absurdly categorized as "enrichment" topics like science and history. But I think that dichotomy is exactly what NCLB has created, and enforced, with subjects other than reading and math left behind.

11:48 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I keep trying to find the time to respond, and keep failing. I'm gonna try some more.

I think we agree that provided sensible, rigorous standards, and accurate tests, we're in a good place to assess student achievement of those standards (which ought to be starting points). If tests cease to have either reliability or validity past that point, I kinda wanna say: Screw it. Don't bother.

Because I'm not really worried about assessing HOW FAR past a standard level kids progress. Maybe some day when we're better, but not now, and you know, maybe not ever. The state ought to guarantee that every child reach a certain standard outlined by the standards, and once that standard is reached, the state ceases to chart achievement and progress.

Is this low expectations? Abandoning the high achievers? Some Ayn Randian nightmare of disregarding the men of the mind? No. We're talking about measures designed to assure a basic level of effectiveness. Especially since we don't have that level, our concern must necessarily begin, and for the moment, end here.

We need to acknowledge that this is the bare minimum, When it requires Herculian efforts to reach the bare minimum, we know our systems are broken and it's time to get innovative in the repairs. When schools and districts do not treat foundational skills as foundation only, I want them called out and flogged, because that's a big fat display of ineptitude that gets covered up when folks go finger-pointing at Washington.

I'm not sure how a of-course-we-test-only-the-basics approach effects accountability systems and the like. If we test for everything, than I reject, as I'm sure you do, a binary pass/fail model. Growth is the key, and growth must be calculated on a sliding scale. The higher kid, the more difficult the progress, and therefore teachers need to show proportionately less of it to demonstrate excellence. The converse is true for kids teaching low-achieving kids.

Are we moving anywhere?

8:06 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I think that sucks ass. Of course I do. But I teach kids who arrive at the 7th grade with 2nd grade reading levels, and so do tons of people who work with you in the 510. More time with Foss Kits won't help that. More time with art won't help that. More time on computers and using technology won't help that.

Where do my kids go? You could give them less time with me, and provide them with mentoring electives, art classes, and wood shop, but how does that benefit them? What drop-out feels good about the drawing he made in his 8th grade art class, or the time he studied tadpoles? Seriously.

Mine is not a manifesto for the ages, just for the crisis.

Yes, there are consequences for schools that are unable to teach kids reading and fractions. Shouldn't there be? If these places are so inept that they must take every minute out of every thing that isn't reading and math just to make sure 1/3 passes, doesn't that say more about the ineffective structure, organization, and human capital in our systems than it does about a law that says make sure some kids learn some stuff?

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

I know what you mean about finding time. I'd like to spend more time thinking about this and related issues and not steal all your comment space in the process. I'm going to try to write up some thoughts and make some connections in a blog post soon (focusing on these ideas, not directly responding to you), but I'll post the link here when I do that if you're interested.

In the meantime, a few quick, undeveloped thoughts:

I agree with much of what you said in your last comment. The national focus *should* be on reaching basic standards at this point (I appreciate your "manifesto for the crisis" approach), we shouldn't be having so much trouble getting students to that basic level, and schools should be flogged when they stop seeing "foundational" skills as foundational only. I wonder if we'd agree on the best methods for going about reaching those goals, or on the causes behind the problems? But those are different discussions.

A major issue for me is "accurate tests." I'm just not comfortable with any system of assessment that relies so heavily on multiple-choice questions. I think this is the "empty middle" you referred to earlier. A longer discussion about your view of assessment would be interesting.

Also, you didn't answer my question in regards to accountability, but maybe this isn't the place for that? (Incidentally, I found the discussion of merit-based pay over on Eduwonkette to be pretty interesting.)

Overall, I think we are moving somewhere. Thanks for the responses.

12:33 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Thought I did address accountability. In any event, it's all about growth, and a sliding growth scale. The lower the student, the more potential (and need) for improvement, therefore the more improvement necessary to show progress, meritorous teaching, etc. The higher the student, the less potential and need for achievement, the less improvement required. Never where you end up, always how far you traveled.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

Sorry, I did see that, but didn't quite make the full connection. My fault, and thanks.

2:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home