Saturday, December 04, 2004

Understanding NCLB

I've just returned from the Education Writers Association (EWA) meeting on No Child Left Behind in Houston.

After listening to over 15 hours of presentations and Q&A's, one thing is for sure: NCLB is enormously complex and confusing. The 1,100 page law has so many quirks and caveats that it's hard for anybody -- even those who wrote it -- to fully understand its ramifications.

The bottom line is that nobody really knows how NCLB will play out over the coming years. I'm now sure that the law isn't as bad as I originally thought. But I'm equally sure that it has many serious, and potentially fatal, flaws. My goal is to point out the bad and the good and to be one voice among many pushing for improvement.

The EWA meeting ran two days, featured seven panels with a total of more than two dozen speakers on topics including English Language Learners and Special Education, "gaming the system," testing, teacher quality, and more.

I learned a lot. Most importantly, I learned that -- on several counts -- I've been way off base. I'll be reading over old posts over the next few days and making corrections. If you suspect anything I wrote was wrong, please point it out and I'll revisit it. There are many misconceptions about NCLB out there among supporters and critics alike. There is enough misunderstanding already. I don't want to add to it.

And one more thing for now, the EWA is an excellent organization. Check out their website and if you can afford to give, please do.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Jenny D's objections

I've added Jenny D. to the blogroll at right. She's blogging her dissertation, which in her words, might be "dull as dishwater." But it might be incredible, too. I'm really looking to forward to seeing how that works. I think it's great. But then, I've already said on these pages that I'm a dork and, well, maybe this just confirms it.

Be sure to check out her numerous posts about RFK's positions on standardized testing. Great food for thought.

Jenny wrote about a post of mine a little over a week ago. Why so long to respond? I already responded and the message got erased on the way to being published. For those of you using Blogger, always click the "Edit HTML" button, copy your text, then publish. That was the second long entry I've lost and it's a terribly disheartening experience. Two times was enough, not again.

So about that rebuttal. Jenny correctly pointed out that if I have a problem with a test, I should take it up with the state in which I live because the federal government leaves it to the states to pick the tests. But my objection in the original post was not only about the tests themselves, but also about the requirement (in NCLB) that testing take place every year. That is not up to the states anymore. Starting this year (or is it next?) every state must test each year from 3rd to 8th grades. That's mandated by the national law so my criticism is appropriately aimed at the national level.

She goes on to write,

...[S]chools with large populations of disadvantaged students do indeed face challenges to educate all students. But the law is equally punitive. Schools without such populations still have to show Adequate Yearly Progress,...

But the law is not equally punitive -- equally embarassing perhaps, but not punitive. The fact here is that only schools that require Title I funds from the federal government -- i.e., schools with large populations of disadvantaged students -- are subject to the punitive measures of NCLB.


The reason dates back to a 1987 Supreme Court decision that said that the federal government can require states to make decisions usually relegated to the states (e.g., education), if the only punishment is to withhold federal funds. In other words, states are given the right to opt out. Several states have threatened to opt out of No Child Left Behind (I've reported on Utah and Virginia), but none have seen it through. The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to poor schools has been a pretty powerful deterrent.

The federal government has nothing to hold over the heads of well-off schools, though, other than shame, which, admittedly, can be a very powerful motivator. The federal government requires the states to publish lists of failing schools. But it is only Title I schools that can lose federal funds.

NCLB is not equally punitive.

Abstaining from the truth

11 out of 13 federally funded abstinence only education programs have scientifically inaccurate information. That's the finding of an investigation commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman.

The report is astounding. Some of the abstinence only programs reported that condoms were only 70% effective is preventing HIV. But the Center for Disease Control (that liberal bastion of immorality) has found this: "Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing heterosexual sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Research on the effectiveness of latex condoms in preventing heterosexual transmission is both comprehensive and conclusive." Waxman's researchers point out that the abstinence only programs were citing a 1993 study for the 70% figure. That study has been thoroughly discredited.

Said one abstinence only advocate, "One thing is very clear for our children, abstaining from sex is the most effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, STDs and preventing pregnancy." True. The CDC does say that condoms are not 100% effective. So why not abstinence first instead of abstinence only? Why not tell (or encourage, or implore?) teens not to have sex-- tell them it's really for the best. Tell them why. But please, be accurate. At least don't lie. And let's face it, whether we like it or not, they have a choice. If they make what we believe -- myself included -- to be the wrong choice, at least they'll be able to protect themselves from STDs. What's wrong with that?

Waxman represented this viewpoint himself: "I have no objection talking about abstinence as a surefire way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. [But] I don't think we ought to lie to our children about science. Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts."

Agreed. For the full 22-page report, click here.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

When academically acceptable just isn't enough

Texas District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of hundreds of school districts that sued the State Board of Education and the Education Commissioner, among others. Remarkably, the school districts argued that the achievements required by accountability standards simply aren't enough! From the Judge's decision:

The Legislature has defined the objectives and mission of the public education system much more expansively than simply the provision of an "academically acceptable" education, as defined in the accountability system.

Nice. This is one of the biggest problems with any system that grades schools solely on standardized tests: there simply is no way to be sure that schools are providing, as required by the Texas Constitution, "a general diffusion of knowledge essential to the preservation and liberties and rights of the people." You especially cannot determine if that objective is being met if you only test for reading and math.

Judge Dietz ruled that the Texas Legislature must change the system of school finance by October 1, 2005 so that the school districts can fulfill its broader mission. Of course, there will be an appeal and the spineless Texas State Supreme Court will almost certainly overrule Judge Dietz and allow the unconscionable status quo to continue. Let's hope they find their spines.

In the meantime, the Judge's decision makes for some interesting reading (yes, I'm a dork). But really, the prose is actually readable. You can read it here. Of course, there's quite a bit of legalese, but if you can get through that, it really is very interesting. Bravo, Judge Dietz.

Oh, and don't forget the national ramifications here. After all, it was the so-called Texas Miracle that led to the beginnings of No Child Left Behind. So was the Texas Miracle so great that literally hundreds of Texas school districts (including Rod Paige's Houston ISD) filed suit against the State because the weren't fulfilling their mission? Hmmmm...

The true co$t of NCLB

Many schools don't have enough money to fix leaking roofs or pay for updated textbooks. Teachers still make squat compared to other professionals. But don't worry about the nation's test producing corporations. They're doing just fine, thank you.

According to an Education Week article, in order to keep up with the requirements of No Child Left Behind:

[T]he Government Accountability Office estimates that states will have to spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion in the next six years, depending on the types of tests used.

But wait, it gets worse when you factor in college entrance exams.

Eduventures, a Boston-based independent research firm, estimates that the pre-K-12 assessment market—including revenues from state tests, formative assessments used to inform teaching and learning on an ongoing basis, college-entrance exams and preparation for those exams, and catalog or off-the-shelf tests— totaled $1.81 billion in 2003. But that figure could jump as high as $2.29 billion by 2006, with the highest growth in state assessment programs.

I think we have to keep in mind that there is little, if any, credible research (can anyone show me some?) that testing improves learning. Testing isn't actually designed to improve learning, just measure it. Doesn't this seem like an excessive amount to spend on measurement, considering the financial state of most schools?

What happened to the "third R"?

Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic. The three R's. For most of the last century they have been the backbone of curriculum. But NCLB tests for only 2 of the 3 (reading and math) -- so what happened to writing?

An article in yesterday's USA Today tackles that question:

As high school seniors race to meet December college-application deadlines, most face the oft-required "personal statement" with understandable dread. Only a quarter of America's 12th-graders, the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress found, can write tolerable essays. Only about 2% create the kind of zesty prose that makes reading worthwhile.

... A recent survey of corporate America by the National Commission on Writing found clear prose is a résumé must. "In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in or it could be your ticket out," one human resources (HR) director notes. Yet, "people's writing skills are not where they need to be," another says. Cover letters sag with needless words, fuzzy logic and grammatical mistakes. Ask college admissions counselors about application essays, and they list the same sins.

With teachers forced to focus on reading and math to keep their schools off the failing list, writing -- like most other subjects -- is pushed further to the margins than it already was.

The article goes on to point out that a public school teacher sees at least 100 students per day. If a teacher takes just five minutes to focus on each student's prose, it would require an extra eight-hour day. It's easy to see why most teachers don't focus on writing.

The best writing class I ever took required each student to write a four-page paper each week and edit the papers of everyone else in the class. It saved the teacher the impossible task of grading nearly 100 pages per week while requiring each student to learn to recognize common writing mistakes -- in their own prose and in others'.

Programs like that could work in junior high and high schools, but if the mandatory tests don't cover writing, there will be little incentive to institute them any time soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

More children left behind

The LA Times points out an interesting trend. Many principals and teachers are focusing on "cusp students" in order to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Translation: Scant funds are targeted for students who barely failed the last round of tests to make sure they pass the next round which will help the school stay off the dreaded failing list; those students who failed miserably lose out on the extra help.

The name No Child Left Behind seems more Orwellian with each passing day.

From the article:

Teachers and principals say that in the face of the sanctions, they have no choice but to try to meet the federal standards. For many, that has meant poring over test data to identify the students approaching proficiency in hopes of raising their scores.

...Tony Delgado, principal at Van Nuys Middle School, said he is well aware of the importance of raising his cusp students so his school can make the grade. He said that in the weeks before the standardized tests, he, along with vice principals and counselors, plan to meet with them in small groups to review test-taking strategies.

"These key students — if they make the jump [to proficiency] — can really carry a school," Delgado said. "They're crucial to a school making its target."

It is impossible to determine how many schools are employing the strategy or to what extent they are, education experts said, although they expect it to become an increasingly common response to the law in coming years as schools scramble to meet its demands.

Christian Coalition helping to bring back the 50's

In the truth is stranger than fiction department, Alabama voted against an amendment "to erase segregation-era wording requiring separate schools for 'white and colored children' and to eliminate references to the poll taxes once imposed to disenfranchise blacks." So technically, Alabama has still not accepted Brown vs. Board 50 years later!

And who was out in front, leading the charge and fighting the good fight against the amendment? None other than the Christian Coalition -- the organization devoted to moral values. Here's the story from WaPo.

(And may I remind you, you can always get past those pesky login pages by visiting

Intelligent Design and Unintelligent People

So there's yet another case of religious Christians trying to get their faith written into science books. This is becoming a pandemic. And here's the simple and direct statement of opposition by a former school board member in southeastern Pennsylvania:

Having recently resigned from the Dover Area School Board after its vote to make intelligent design part of the science curriculum, I’ve been following the news pretty closely. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the matter:

I, personally, believe that the universe was intelligently designed. I believe in God; I believe he made us all.

Of course, I also believe in evolution, which some people seem to think precludes believing in God, but it doesn’t. Making a man out of a monkey is no less miraculous than making him out of dust.

But ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what my beliefs are because I can’t prove a single one of them and, therefore, they aren’t science. And I’m stunned that I have to explain this to people.

Well stated. I couldn't agree more. Your beliefs are just that: your beliefs. They may be sacred, they may be profound and deep and even true for all I know-- but that does not make them science. Period.

Teach your children about God and how you believe the world was created. Bring them to Sunday school and read the Bible every night. But please, leave the public schools out of it.

Update: Linda Valdez of the Arizona Republic wrote about the "intelligent design" efforts today. A highlight:

The attacks on evolution have evolved in an effort to survive the 1987 Supreme Court decision that ejected "creationism science" from Louisiana classrooms.

Now the movement is called "intelligent design," which means this great, big old world of ours is just so dang complex that it couldn't have happened by accident.

I'm with 'em that far.

I believe in a creator of the universe. But that's faith, not science. It doesn't need empirical evidence to prop it up, and it isn't what I expect science classes to teach my child. Her father and I teach her what we believe. Navajo parents teach their children what they believe. That parental right also exists for fundamentalist Christians, Buddhists, Wiccans, Jews, Sikhs, atheists, etc.

It is none of government's business.

Exactly. Intelligent design does not belong in public schools.

CA Supreme Court in San Diego schools

This strikes me as a very good idea:

On Dec. 7 and 8, the justices [of the California Supreme Court] will sit in session at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego. The event will be held in conjunction with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the USD School of Law.

... The session also is being billed as the largest collaborative public education event in the state court's history. That's because teams of lawyers and judges will be leading discussions of the cases at 15 local high schools and USD's law school.

The session also is part of a larger goal of Chief Justice Ronald George to make the court more accessible to residents.

I don't know if other state Supreme Courts do this, but they should. If government officials -- elected or otherwise -- came to schools more often, we would certainly have a more informed electorate.

It's one type of lesson to tell students about government; it's a whole different ballgame when they can actually see it in action.

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