August 30, 2012

"No Child Left Behind and the Spirit of Democratic Education"

—a chapter from Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us by Mike Rose

One of the contemporary forces shaping the way we think and talk about school has been the proliferation of high-stakes, standardized testing, exemplified in our day by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As I write this in early 2009, the future of the bill is uncertain, though it will most likely be renewed, but with significant revision. Even if NCLB itself is not renewed, the impulses and principles represented by it will be part of educational policy for the foreseeable future.

When we look back over the history of social policy, we see how often a particular policy had unintended consequences. In the immediate push and pull of passing legislation, questions of broader impact and philosophy rarely get asked. With that in mind, it would be good to step back for a moment and consider NCLB in broader terms: what kind of education does a program of such testing foster? That question resonates with an even more basic one: what kind of education befits a democracy?

Why School

Historically, education has been a state affair, but NCLB is a federal act that requires each state to develop its own testing program in mathematics and English language arts. Federal funding is affected by performance on these tests, and each state must show continual progress on them until 2014, when all students are expected to demonstrate grade-level proficiency. A further bold move is that the states have to report at the school level test results along a number of student criteria, including race/ethnicity, income level, English language proficiency, and disability. Continual improvement by these targeted subgroups must occur, or schools will be put on notice and, eventually, sanctioned. Much has been broadcast and written about NCLB, from defense or criticism of its ranking and potential sanctioning of schools, to the considerable procedural and technical difficulties of implementation, to the resistance from parent groups, school districts, and even state houses to it.

One undeniable value of NCLB is that it casts a bright light on those underserved populations of students who get lost in averaged measures of performance. The assumption is that if schools expect more of such students they will achieve—and the tests will measure their achievement. Some civil rights groups have vigorously supported NCLB because of its focus on poor children and children of color, and some education activists have used the law to lobby, and in some cases sue, for the curricular and financial resources needed to comply with its mandates.

There are aspects of NCLB that are clearly democratic. The assumption that all children can learn and develop. The responsibility of public institutions to their citizenry. The dissatisfaction with business as usual and a belief that institutions can be improved.

What is worth exploring, though, is the degree to which these tenets are invested in an accountability mechanism that might restrict their full realization. A score on a standardized test seems like a straightforward indicator of achievement. The score goes up, goes down, or remains the same. But there are, in fact, a host of procedural and technical problems in developing, administering, scoring, and interpreting such tests. (And there are also concerns about how schools and districts can manipulate them.) "In most cases," writes measurement specialist Robert Linn, "the instruments and technology have not been up to the demands placed on them by high-stakes accountability." No wonder, then, that there is a robust debate among testing experts about what, finally, can be deduced from the scores about a student's or a school's achievement.

There is a second, related issue. Tests embody definitions of knowledge, learning, and teaching. A test that would include, say, the writing of an essay, or a music recital, or the performance of an experiment embodies different notions of cognition and instruction than do typical tasks on standardized tests: multiple choice items, matching, fill-ins. I have given both kinds of tests, both have value, but the get at different things, represent knowledge in different ways, might match or be distant from a school's curriculum, can require different methods of teaching. When one kind of test dominates and when the stakes are high, the tests can drive and compress a curriculum. What is tested gains in importance and other subjects fade. Math is hit hard while art and debate are pushed to the margin—if they survive at all.

There is no doubt that NCLB jolted some low-performing schools to evaluate and redirect their inadequate curricula. The result has been improvement on test scores, and this has become a major source of support for NCLB. The key issue is how teachers and administrators accomplish this revision: through a strictly functional and unimaginative curriculum (which, admittedly, might be better than what came before) or through a rich course of study that, as by-product, affects test scores.

A teacher I know tells this story. In response to the NCLB mandate to focus on all children, this teacher's district issued a page-long checklist on each student to be used in each class the student took. Every teacher was to mark every time he or she assisted a child, asked if the child understands, noted a behavior problem, and so on. This requirement applied to all students, every class—though principals, in an attempt to keep instruction from collapsing under the regulation, told teachers to pay special attention to their students who were most at risk. The intention here was a good one, but the means by which it was accomplished was so formulaic and cumbersome that it devastated teaching. It can be ridiculed as a thoughtless local response to good legislation, but the pressure to comply is great, and when there are no funds available to mount professional development, or changes in the size and organization of schools, or other means to foster attentive and cognitively rich instruction, then districts—in the context of a high-stakes, underresourced environment—will resort to all sorts of draconian and, ultimately, counterproductive solutions.

This concern about the nature of a school's response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those students at the center of most reform efforts: poor children, immigrants, students from nondominant racial and ethnic groups. You can prep kids for a certain kind of test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education. The end result is the replication of a troubling pattern in American schooling: poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a lower-tier education, while students in more affluent districts get a robust course of study.

Now, assessment is integral to learning. Good teachers give a wide variety of tests and assignments, make judgments about student work, and probe students' thinking when their answers miss the mark. Standardized tests can well be part of this constellation of assessment, but should not overwhelm it. It's important to remember how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give-and-take of the classroom. That's one reason why there is a debate among testing specialists as to whether a test score—which is, finally, a statistical abstraction—is really an accurate measure of learning. Yet the scores on standardized tests have become the gold standard of excellence.

Advocates of NCLB argue that to raise questions about testing is—as former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings put it—to water down accountability, find loopholes, avoid it. True enough, wily school officials might well hide behind the complexities of testing. Let's be clear: accountability is central to any public institution. But simplified, single-shot accountability mechanisms will yield simplified compliance, and therefore they need to be scrutinized.

NCLB has been driven by a masterful rhetoric that casts dissent from its agenda as "the soft bigotry of low expectations." There can be "no excuses" for the low performance of poor, immigrant, and racial and ethnic minority kids, as measured by the tests NCLB supports. I appreciate this "no excuses" stance. Our schools have an unacceptable record with the populations targeted by NCLB, and the way we perceive the ability and potential of these populations, what we expect of them intellectually, is a key element in their achievement. But it is one element, a necessary but not sufficient condition. What is troubling on a public policy level is the way NCLB rhetoric of "no excuses" shifts attention from economic and social conditions that affect academic achievement. Poverty is a case in point.

What NCLB has exactly right is the assertion that children's cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But it is likewise naive or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child's life in school. Yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, and, as any teacher who follows her students' lives will tell you, their achievement can be derailed by one bad break.

Not too long ago, I was sitting with a veteran teacher from the rural South. We were flipping through her school's yearbook from a decade before. The school has a reputation for doing well by its students, most of whom come from low-income families. And there page by page were bright faces, testaments to high hopes, young people in plays, on the basketball court, the lists of awards for academics or athletics, the full smile of the student picked for "all-around achievement." Some of these students were successful, finished school, went on to college, an occupational program, or a military career. But some had to quit when parents were laid off or crippled by illness, and they, in turn, got caught in a cycle of low-level jobs. Some girls got pregnant and dropped out. Some boys were lost to the streets. Two were shot. The teacher closed her eyes as she told of seeing one of the boys in the bus station, disheveled and strung out. The rhetoric of "no excuses"—though it has a legitimate point to make—can deflect our attention from the plain, brutal reality of so many young people's lives.

It seems difficult for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. We tend either to lighten effects of economic disruption with appeals to self-help and hard work, or we see only blight and generalize it to intellectual capacity. In an earlier book, I appealed for a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage and promise, that enables one to be mindful of the barriers to achievement and still nurture the possible.

I think that one indication of the value of a piece of social policy is the public conversations it sparks, the issues it gets us to ponder. Civil rights legislation, for example, gave rise to a moral debate in the nation, a self-examination of our history and first principles. NCLB does raise important questions about equity and expectation, and this is a major contribution to a democratic discourse about schooling. But unless a testing program is part of a larger effort that includes other student compensatory and professional development efforts and social programs aimed at vulnerable populations, we get, a focus on scores, rankings, and an elaborate technology of calibration and compliance. More sustained consideration of equality of opportunity, of the meaning of public schooling, of the nature of learning in a free society—this all gets lost in the machinery of testing.

While the machinery is as powerful as ever, there are signs that we as a country are beginning to seek some fuller language of schooling. Young people get narrowly defined in the current environment, and the purpose of education gets narrowed as well. Dissatisfaction with this situation is emerging from a number of points along the ideological spectrum. Though he supports NCLB-style accountability models, conservative cultural critic David Brooks also chafes at the way current educational policy "treats students as skill-acquiring cogs in an economic wheel." My hope is that as we debate the merits and flaws of programs like NCLB, we will begin to develop more fitting ways to talk about children and the schools that shape their lives.

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is a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He’s the author of several books, including The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.