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Since the first appearance of the No Child Left Behind Education Act, I've been struck once again by the ability of high-sounding rhetoric to mask underlying beliefs that may be anything but sound. With its accompanying emphasis on standards, testing, and 'scientifically-based' practices, NCLB has produced an unending litany of praise and vilification. The issue is complex, so bear with me as I approach it from a variety of angles. Let's look first at the stated goals of the Act.
The following quote is from the overview to the Act:
“Democrats and Republicans united under the President's leadership to declare that success in schools will be measured by whether every child is learning.” (Emphasis is in the original.)1
Although the term “learning” is undefined, I think it would be difficult to argue that public schools, by their own definition, are places where people go to learn. Therefore, when taxpayers are underwriting public education, they have a right to demand accountability—to expect that “every child is learning.”
According to No Child Left Behind, the “measurement” of this learning is done through testing.
“An accountable education system involves several critical steps: States create their own standards for what a child should know and learn for all grades. ... With standards in place, states must test every student's progress toward those standards by using tests that are aligned with the standards. Beginning in the 2002-03 school year, schools must administer tests in each of three grade spans: grades 3-5, grades 6-9, and grades 10-12 in all schools. Beginning in the 2005-06 school year, tests must be administered every year in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading. ...”2
The overview goes on to say that results of these tests must be separated by group to address the achievement gap of students who are “economically disadvantaged, from racial or ethnic minority groups, have disabilities, or have limited English proficiency.” It is this aspect of public school accountability that contributes the most to the name—No Child Left Behind.
Another major provision of the NCLB Act is the funding of only those practices that “work”—practices supported by scientific research.
“Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government will invest in educational practices that work—that research evidence has shown to be effective in improving student performance.”
“To say that an instructional practice or program is research-based, we must have carefully obtained, reliable evidence that the program or practice works. For example, an evaluation might measure a group of children who are learning how to read using different methods, and then compare the results to see which method is most successful.”3
Again, the rhetoric sounds inherently reasonable. What sane person would propose using methods that don't “work”?
Now that we have the overview, let's stop and analyze the presuppositions that underlie the program. What are presuppositions? The word presuppose comes from the Latin words meaning “to put under.” Presuppositions are unconscious assumptions that must be accepted as true for a statement to make sense. They are the unexamined foundation “under” the belief statement.
For example, if a person says, “John is a good father”, and you accept that statement, you are presupposing that the following statements are also true.
If all of those statements are true, then the listener can accept the original statement as true—at least to the extent that they trust the speaker's judgment. In reality, when people state a belief, the listener often unconsciously accepts all of the required presuppositions as true. In this way, our language communicates much more than the words themselves. This makes conversation much simpler and produces a high degree of cognitive economy.
Unfortunately, it can also lead to errors in judgment. (For a more complete discussion of presuppositions and their role in education, see Chapter six in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.)
The NCLB Act is filled with presuppositions that have apparently been unconsciously accepted by the majority of people involved in public education. Why else would experienced educators focus their concern, not on the fundamental requirements of the plan, but on the lack of adequate funding to implement those demands? The presuppositions of NCLB include the following:
These are but a few of the “built-in” presuppositions in the NCLB Act. Let's take them one at a time to see if we can legitimately accept them as true.
Many people (at least in the Western world) would probably agree that all humans who are not prevented by some physiological or psychological condition should attain “literacy”—that is, they should know how to read, write, and perform basic mathematical operations that enable them to function effectively in the world. To this fundamental list, we might also add a number of the basic “thinking skills”—effective problem solving, decision-making, communicating, observation, and predicting. (There are undoubtedly cultures around the world that would define literacy in a very different way, but for the sake of this analysis, I will limit the definition to this perception.) I'm reasonably certain that many of you have other skills or knowledge that you would add to a list of “basic literacy.”
Beyond that, there is the question of what it means to be “educated”—to be “culturally literate.” What is the responsibility of schools in that regard? It is interesting that in June of 2002, a panel of the Appellate Division of New York State's Supreme Court ruled that, in terms of spending on public schools, the state “is obliged to provide no more than a middle-school level education, and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs.” Clearly, there remains disagreement about the purpose of schools—or at least how much tax-supported schools are required to accomplish.
Whatever you believe to be the purpose of schools, and however the lists of “essential knowledge and skills” are constructed, I doubt that any individual would come up with a list that approximates the more than 4000 skills and “concepts” listed in state and national standards and benchmarks. (For more on this, click here.) The claim is made that these standards and benchmarks define what ALL students should know and be able to do. Yet what standards writers tend to include in such lists are those things that have played an important part in their own lives—that have served them well in their own development—that have contributed to their “success”—as they define it.
A scientifically oriented person might insist that “everyone should understand” Newton's Laws or natural selection. An historically oriented person might see the Code of Hammurabi or “The political, social, and cultural consequences of population movements and militarization in Eurasia in the second millennium BCE” (from the California World History standards) as essential knowledge. I once heard a school board member, who happened to also be a professor of mathematics at a prestigious university, insist that “…even carpenters need to know trigonometry.”
The question that is rarely asked before adding something to this list of “essential” knowledge and skills is “Why is it essential?” The word essential means “containing the essence of something”—the intrinsic, inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things. What is the essence of science, of mathematics, of history? What are the pervasive principles that a practitioner in each of these disciplines uses to understand and effectively operate in that world? I would suggest that, whatever they are, they are much different from the present endless lists of isolated facts that lend themselves to measurement on multiple-choice tests.
What is the essence of historical understanding? Isn't it more essential for students to know how to unpack the volumes of information available on a subject; to recognize that historical accounts are colored by the perspectives of those who wrote them; to identify patterns and relationships and develop a “sense” of the times, than to memorize isolated bits of meat picked from the rich stew of human history? This is not to suggest that facts are unimportant. However, when the acquisition of facts separated from context and from the thinking processes that spawned them becomes the primary purpose of instruction—when it usurps time spent engaging in higher cognitive functions such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation—is it truly “essential” education?
The proliferation of benchmarks provides grist for the test mill. Originally, the developers of standards were concerned that teachers would interpret broad standards in different ways. So they provided benchmarks as guidelines for what might be taught. But as might have been anticipated, rather than develop their own curricular guidelines, many school districts have simply accepted the benchmarks as required content. Recently, an English teacher in Florida reported that every teacher in her school must “cover” one benchmark per week! The benchmarks have become the curriculum!
Many of the endless lists that comprise our benchmarks are composed of “answers” to easily posed questions. To provide the hard data that will supposedly “prove” the effectiveness of schools, proponents argue that we must have “objective” standards against which to compare every student. How else will we know that teachers are doing their job? None of this wishy-washy stuff like analysis or interpretation of meaning...
The presupposition that there exists a universally agreed upon list of skills and knowledge that every person must possess is, I suggest, seriously flawed. Not only do the “experts” charged with developing such lists disagree, but the lists presently used for testing largely reflect the values of one segment of society—those who deem themselves “educated” and “successful” and have the social position to back up their authority. They assume that this definition of success is shared by all—or that if it isn't, it should be! (It is interesting to note that, in those states where the standards documents begin with an explanation of why they exist, “success” is largely defined as a function of the type of job a student will be able to get. However, when asked to define “success”, people are rarely that specific and are more likely to identify “self-satisfaction” or the achievement of other personal goals as the important factors.)
There is a significant distinction between giving every student the opportunity to become whatever he or she chooses—providing them with the tools and resources they might need even before they recognize that need—and imposing one's own values on what is “essential.” Because we don't really know what students will need to know later in life, it seems clear that what is “essential” is that they learn how to learn on their own, and how to use information effectively.
There would probably be much more agreement if those who decided what children “must know and be able to do” would focus on cognitive processes and skills rather than specific facts. Yes, those processes and skills do appear in the introduction to various sections of standards documents. But often, they are little more than a handy title for a collection of facts. What gets tested gets taught—and what gets tested are, in large measure, specific facts, not higher level thinking.
Despite those who provide an abundance of evidence to the contrary, the general public continues to accept the premise of educational standards with little or no thought. The “noble cause” rhetoric blinds people to the unwarranted claim that standards result in higher expectations and equal opportunity for all students. (The article on Standards and Expectations examines the issue of the influence of standards on expectations.)
If there are still arguments about “what” everyone should know and be able to do, how can we assume that there is agreement about “when”—at what age—those disputed achievements shall have been accomplished? It is regrettable that so many people still apparently perceive the mean, median, or mode of a Bell Curve as a measure of “normalcy.” Ironically, they then set that point as the 'minimum' that is acceptable and demand that all students “clear the bar” at that minimum. But be careful what you ask for! If that does actually happen—if everyone passes the test—these same people then “raise the bar” again, claiming that the first one must have been set too low because everyone cleared it. They revert back to the belief that there must be a Bell Curve distribution, while maintaining that no one should be “left behind.” (People unclear on the concept!)
The word “standards” implies a baseline achievement. Doesn't that suggest that to actually “pass” a test of “standards,” one would have to get 100%? Hmmmm.
This presupposition is related to the previous one. However, there is a significant difference between claiming that there are identifiable “things” that everyone of a given age should know or be able to do, and the claim that all “normal” people of a given age are capable of knowing or doing them.
How would parents respond if schools failed every 12-year-old who couldn't bench press 100 pounds or jump over a 5-foot-high bar? I have to think parents would raise a cry, citing the argument that not all students are possessed of the same physical characteristics and that such a demand in unreasonable. Is it fair to expect an 80 pound, small boned female to possess the same physical strength and/or muscle development as a 130 pound male of the same age? And the cry would be even louder if such demands were placed on students who arrive at school undernourished to begin with.
Why then, is an even greater cry not forthcoming when policy makers make similar demands in the mental arena? Cognitive differences in students of the same age are arguably much greater than physical differences. The number of neurons responsible for mental processing are powers of ten greater than the number of genes responsible for the body's makeup. Further, genes are relatively stable during a person's life, while neurons constantly change in response to experience. No two students have had the same experiences.
Once again, high-sounding rhetoric is used to still the dissent. People are discouraged from questioning the presupposition that all students can learn at the same level and in the same amount of time by being accused of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Is it bigotry to suggest that not all people have the same physical strength, build, or muscle development at a given age? Is there some physical “standard” to which all people should aspire in that regard—some ideal form or appearance? We accept and understand that people's physical characteristics are dependent on many factors, such as genetics, environment, diet, not to mention personal choice. In fact, we are surprised when two people look alike.
Why then is it bigotry to suggest that not all people will have the same mental development at a given age? That mental development—the sum total of what a person knows, the skills a person possesses, and the cognitive processes a person uses to manipulate information—is also dependent on genetics, environment, diet, not to mention available experience and personal choice.
There is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating that lack of good nutrition and/or exposure to mental stimuli early in life limits, or at the very least, delays learning capacity. Research also suggests that those initial conditions can be reversed. But that task must be precede any more complex learning tasks. For reasons often out of their control, or the control of the teachers in whose classes they participate, some students are simply not ready to clear the “average” bar in the early grades. And if they are rushed into traditional learning before their brains/minds are ready for it, they will continue to “fall behind.”
Saying that not all people can learn the same things at the same age and in the same amount of time is not equivalent to saying that some people are inherently 'dumber' than others. It is not the same as holding some students to lower expectations. (Again, refer to the article on Standards and Expectations.) I would suggest that it is the enforced comparisons of students with some mythical (and often culturally biased) “norm” that constitutes bigotry. It is the pressure placed on schools and teachers for ever-higher standardized test scores that inhibits teachers from focusing on and developing the strengths of individual students.
Given doubts about whether there is an “objective” list of what everyone should know or be able to do, and whether that learning can be assigned by age, the next presupposition—that schools are responsible for “teaching” such a list to students assigned to grades by age—is also necessarily called into question.
The last three presuppositions listed earlier in this article refer to testing as an appropriate and/or accurate measure of student learning or school effectiveness. Again, given the question of what knowledge and skills are “essential” and whether there is an age at which everyone should have achieved those goals, the presuppositions about standardized tests being appropriate and/or accurate are suspect at best.
This is not to say that testing—measurement—isn't useful. Testing is a useful tool when used to help shape the educational program for individual students. It can help teachers identify individual strengths to be nurtured and weaknesses to be addressed. But when testing focuses on comparing groups of students to some mythical norm, of what value is it to individual student progress? Indeed, where is attention to such individual progress even addressed?
How can a plan that places such emphasis on “scientifically-based” practices base so many of its own premises on claims that research on individual differences has seriously called into question? Where is the “carefully obtained, reliable evidence that the program or practice works”? That “standards for what a child should know and learn for all grades” can even exist given the variability of the human mind? That standardized testing in its present form contributes to the effectiveness of educational programs?
Why shouldn't the practices—the claims of policy makers who devised this method of so-called accountability—be subject to the same scientific scrutiny they demand of programs used to teach students? In fact, I suggest that policy with such wide-ranging influence over the educational scene should be held to an even higher burden of proof.
Listen carefully to the rhetoric—to the unconscious presuppositions and beliefs embedded in educational policy statements. Decide for yourself whether these presuppositions—the foundations on which the policy rests—are sound. Insist on evidence. Demand that the policy makers be held accountable to the same “standards” to which they hold others.
In one sense, the NCLB Act, with its high-sounding rhetoric and promise of millions of dollars for education, is like dangling a juicy chicken in front of a well-trained, but starving, bird dog. Does the dog obey the owner's commands to “stay” or heed its own need to survive? It is the well-trained and caring teachers who are most resistant to federal mandates that they know from experience are ill-considered and potentially detrimental to student learning. Yet if they do not help their schools achieve compliance with federal demands, thus bringing in more dollars, their own jobs may be on the line.
They are the ones who recognize that high expectations do not mean the same expectations for all. They are the ones who believe that education is about the development of the individual in addition to the transmittal of a body of knowledge. One need only read their frustrated comments on discussion boards to understand that they recognize the flawed bases of the NCLB Act. Yet if they have the courage to speak out against its provisions, they are branded as lazy or unwilling to do what it takes to improve the education of the young. When a policy must be enforced through name-calling and threats to label schools as “failing” because they cannot achieve an irrational task, the credibility of the policy itself must be called into question.
It's fine to criticize what others are trying to do, but without a viable proposal to replace it, it is empty criticism. At issue here is the presupposition that the present use of standards and testing is the only—or at least the best—method of insuring accountability in schools.
I would like to offer at least one alternative—one that could not only go a long way to assess the effectiveness of an educational program, but enable the focus of that program to shift back to the development of individual students rather than norms, bell curves, and the generation of group data.
As a parent, would you rather know that your child ranked in the 56th percentile of all students of the same age in the country—or that your child demonstrated two years growth in a subject area during the previous school year? Which piece of data would tell you the most about the possible effectiveness of the program in which your child was enrolled? (A caveat—there are many reasons why such progress might occur. The effectiveness of teaching and progress in learning is far from a simple cause-effect relationship.)
In the overview of the NCLB Act, we saw the statement that “Democrats and Republicans united under the President's leadership to declare that success in schools will be measured by whether every child is learning.” There is nothing in that statement to suggest that every child must be learning the same thing at the same age and at the same rate.
What if we compared the progress that each student has made, not to what other students have done in the same time period, but to how much that particular student has grown since the last measurement. As a parent, I want to know what the school program is doing for my child. How is the school helping my child develop and grow? How is it addressing the enhancement of my child's strengths and strengthening those areas in which my child is weak? What are the teacher's expectations for my child? Do those expectations encourage my child to work hard and achieve everything of which he or she is capable?
But what of the other children, you ask? If the progress—the growth and development—of each child were being assessed on a regular basis, wouldn't that tell us something about accountability? Certainly, accountability must include the overall progress of every student in the school—must insure that every student is demonstrating appropriately challenging and ongoing progress. But it is illogical to demand that this progress be identical in content and rate for every student.
In late 2002, Education Week published an article on “value-added assessment.”4
“Rather than simply rank schools on raw test scores, such analyses focus on the progress by individual students over time.” The article stated that one 700-student school using this type of assessment “outperformed all other middle schools statewide with similar percentages of poor and minority students in the gains students made in mathematics averaged over three years.” According to the article, “Some contend that such information provides a fairer way to judge schools, based on how much schools “add value” to a student's knowledge and skills. The data also can help pinpoint a school's strengths and weaknesses, right down to the improvements in individual teachers' classrooms.”
Doesn't comparing this year's 4th graders with their own scores in 3rd grade offer more useful information than comparing their average score to the average score of last year's 4th graders? The only thing I find incredible is that an article for the Fordham Foundation called this approach “revolutionary.” What is so revolutionary about assessing the extent to which each student benefits from his or her schooling? Isn't that what the preface to NCLB demands? “...success in schools will be measured by whether every child is learning.”
Those schools that have adopted value-added assessment now have some insight into the effectiveness of individual teachers. This is not to say that a student's progress during a given year is solely due to the teacher. But like it or not, a teacher's effectiveness is often reflected by test scores. At issue, of course, is what, specifically, teachers are responsible for teaching, and whether the tests being used are valid indicators of what is being taught. Hopefully, schools will decide that imparting collections of pre-chewed and pre-digested facts are only a small part of what they are accountable for.
This type of assessment has its critics. Some base their arguments on uncertainty and unfairness of tests. Opponents to this approach argue that teachers don't have time to work with each child individually and to create unique growth plans. But they have been proven wrong in a growing number of school districts that have altered traditional beliefs about the meaning of testing, teaching, and learning. Outstanding teachers already teach students rather than subjects. There will always be those who are threatened by a new approach—a break from tradition. But in this case, isn't it worth the time and effort to work the bugs out of a program with the potential to give us tremendous insight into the learning of each child?
There is undoubtedly a level of academic achievement that constitutes literacy and that all students should strive to attain. But the age at which they attain that level, particularly when they don't begin with the same resources, must not be a primary factor in assessing the effectiveness of schools. At issue is whether each student is making steady progress toward, and beyond, that level. IF we are to focus on individual progress, we must first assess whether the traditional grade level approach to schooling will support our goals. Yes, it is efficient...but are we trading efficiency for effectiveness? Are we holding fast to a traditional practice well beyond the point where research has shown that practice to be flawed?
Several years ago, a Chicago inner-city principal was fired because the students in his school had not scored sufficiently high on year-end mandated tests. The school board refused to consider that nearly every child in the school had exhibited two years of improvement during one school year. Even without individualizing tests, there was a clear measure of individual progress, but in the end, that progress lost out to the numbers game.
Theorists have admitted that a teacher's training, qualifications, and experience are not the only factors in effective teaching. They've also admitted that they aren't sure why some teachers are effective and others are not. However, studies of teachers identified as outstanding by their schools, their peers, and their students have demonstrated that the only common trait they share is a humanistic teaching style. They care deeply about and hold the highest expectations for every student—though not the same expectations for all.5
That said, it does not necessarily follow that a teacher with a humanistic teaching style must therefore be effective. Effective teaching "dispositions" (the term used by NCATE) are a “necessary” condition, but not necessarily a sufficient condition. While value-added assessment will not answer the question of what makes a teacher effective, it will help to identify those teachers who are more or less effective—across a variety of students—at least in a given context. My own belief is that the “key” to teacher effectiveness will not be found until educators examine, and include in their inventory, the beliefs and other thinking processes of more or less effective teachers. But value-added assessment is a valuable beginning.
Change that requires questioning hallowed assumptions and practices is perhaps what frightens many educators the most. The security that goes with knowing exactly what a “class” will be doing at any moment of the day; exactly what questions students might ask and exactly what answers the teacher will give; exactly what points students might raise in discussions and exactly what answers they must produce on homework—and tests—could very well disappear. But in its place would be a true focus on what each student brings to the table and how that can be enhanced and strengthened. Is it easy? Hardly. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it worth it? What do you think?
1 The full overview can be found at http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/next/overview/index.html./p>
2 The full text may be found at http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/next/overview/overview.html
3 More on research-based practices at http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/next/faqs/doing.html.
4 See http://www.edweek.com/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=12value.h22&keywords=value%20added%20assessment for the complete story. Registration required.
5 Yero, J. L. (2002) Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education, Hamilton, MT: MindFlight Publishing, pp 202-205