Saturday, February 26, 2005

Noddings speaks out

Stanford Professor Emeritus Nel Noddings laid out her argument for repeal of No Child Left Behind last week in Education Week. Since most of the conversations in the edusphere focus on changing the law, I think it's important to consider the case for eliminating it. Here are some of her arguments:

The high-stakes testing associated with the law seems to be demoralizing teachers, students, and administrators. We need more documentation on this but, in talking with people all over the country, I hear stories of sick and frightened children, dispirited teachers, and administrators disgusted with the strategies they must use to meet (or evade) AYP, the adequate-yearly-progress requirement. A good law does not demoralize good people.

This argument is an important one. Imagine a dedicated teacher, putting in extra hours to ready her students for the standardized tests. But many of her students came to her well below grade level. Perhaps she's a sixth grade teacher with several students reading at 3rd grade level. She gets them to 5th grade level in less than a year and it means nothing. Even if she accelerates their learning significantly they may still fail to reach the standard. And thus, she fails. Imagine that. Would you want to come back next year and work your ass off for low pay only to be called a failure again? I doubt it. And yet, in every conversation about the crises in education, teacher retention is at the top of the list. Can't we see that NCLB is exacerbating this problem?

The curriculum seems to be suffering. We need more evidence to state this as fact, but reports from many sources are suggestive. If the No Child Left Behind legislation was designed to provide better schooling, especially for poor and minority students, this result is deeply troubling. For it is the curriculum of these children that seems to have been gutted. Wealthier kids, in schools that don’t have to worry so much about test scores, may still enjoy arts, music, drama, projects, and critical conversation. But poor kids are spending far too much time bent over worksheets and test-prep materials.

And here's one of my major problems with NCLB. Whenever a state legislator or federal ed employee touts the latest "results," all they mean is the test scores. It doesn't tell us if the students can learn independently, think critically, play an instrument, speak a foreign language, speak in front of a group, write an essay, or follow a public policy debate like this one. What those improved "results" probably mean is that the students spent several months doing nothing but targeted test prep. Again, one of the biggest problems consistently talked about in education debates is dropout rates. Do you think kids are going to be more likely to want to stay in school if curricula are narrowly focused on test preparation?

Our poor and minority students are hurt again by the high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind. Disproportionately, they are the kids who are retained in grade, forced into summer school (for more test prep), beaten down by repeated failure, and deprived of a high school diploma. If we really wanted to help poor, inner-city kids, we would not try to do so by imposing a bad law on everyone. We would identify the problem and muster massive resources to solve it: provide money to renovate crumbling buildings, add clinics (especially dental and vision) to school campuses, provide day care for infants and small children, recruit the finest teachers with significantly higher pay, and even provide boarding facilities for homeless children and those caught in family emergencies. We would establish on-site research-and-development teams (in cooperation with universities) to experiment with, develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate promising practices. Understanding that schools and kids are not all alike, these would be long-term R&D projects serving particular schools—not research projects looking for “what works” universally. We could do these things if we had the will, and if we would stop wasting enormous sums on testing, compliance measures, and the host of activities associated with testing.

I'm not sure it's honest to suggest that the money spent on testing could build housing facilities and medical clinics for poor students, fix crumbling buildings, and increase teacher pay, but at any rate, those dollars would be better spent on those things than on tests. You want to really increase educational equity? You only get what you pay for.

The law seems to be a corrupting influence. Again, we need more documentation. But reports suggest that cheating has increased at every level, and administrators are busily seeking loopholes, using triage techniques, moving kids around and reclassifying them, playing with data—all to meet the letter of a law whose actual requirements cannot reasonably be met... If the No Child Left Behind Act is corrupting, we should get rid of it.

This is only going to get worse as legislators begin to target substantial raises to teachers whose students excel on the tests. They are ramping up the motivation for cheating. And cheating they will get.


Blogger Joe Thomas said...

Great post. If I ever get caught up today there is much I would like to add. NCLB is not aimed at fixing anything. It is intended to punish schools, create a sense of failure, and usher in the transition to vouchers.

You cannot "fix" NCLB, because the goal of NCLB is not success. If it was, you would achieve something for showing success. What do you get if your school achieves AYP? Nothing. There are only punishments in place. What happens if you do not show AYP? You lose funding. You cannot make a school better by reducing the funding.

NCLB reminds me of Fierce Creatures. Anyone seen it? John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Keving Klein. Klein plays both billionaire father and spoiled son. The father buys a zoo and demands a 28% return on investment. Why 28%? Because he said so :)

If the zoo cannot turn a 28% profit, he will chop it up and sell it all out, thus destroying the zoo.

The problem is, which the story really never addresses, is that zoos (like schools) are not supposed to run at a profit. The business model does not work in either place. It is not supposed to.

Schools, like zoos, are a different animal.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Instructivist said...

"...think critically..."

You can't pass a good, demanding test without thinking critically.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Dave Shearon said...

The AYP provisions were Ted Kennedy's contribution. Value-added (which would have recognized the contribution of your 6th-grade teacher taking students from 3rd to 5th grade level in just one year) was discussed but left out due to Kennedy's opposition. The thinking was that "those children" aren't being served and that MUST CHANGE NOW! AYP, like merit pay, is somewhat based on the assumption that the only reason some schools aren't doing as well as others is because the teachers just aren't trying. Of course, it is also based on the observation that, no matter how bad some schools are, the systems within which they are situated virtually never act to change them. AYP is a trigger for change. Good or bad, change.

7:55 PM  

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