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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Time to Change the No Child Left Behind Law

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was originally proposed by the administration of George W. Bush immediately after he took office. The bill, shepherded through the Senate by co-author Senator Ted Kennedy, received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and passed in 2001. You would think any law that attracts the support of polar-opposite politicians must be a good idea. Not only that, the federal government has committed enormous amounts of money to make it work. Since enactment, Congress increased federal funding of education from $42.2 billion in 2001 to $54.4 billion in 2007. Funding tied to NCLB received a 40.4% increase from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $24.4 billion.

The law had worthy goals, requiring the states to: 1) set specific academic standards by grade level, and 2) provide accountability testing to assure the standards are being met by all students. The 100% student compliance requirement lies at the heart of the problem. The Obama administration ardently supports NCLB, as expressed by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius in the July 25th issue of Time magazine. She said, “U.S. competitiveness depends on ensuring that all children can reach their full potential. Our reform agenda will help us reach that goal.” Now, after 10 years of this grand — and very expensive — experiment in government intervention in education, it is clear that the goal is unrealistic for all children.

Moreover, the premise that this goal is needed for U. S. competitiveness is wrong. Just the opposite is true. How is promoting mediocrity of value to the nation’s welfare? For a  country to dominate economically and militarily it must nurture its most talented people, not hold them back with educational goals aimed at the lowest common denominator. NCLB has no requirements for gifted and talented students. The emphasis on assuring success of the least able students  causes many states to reduce their programs for superior students. NCLB forces schools to devote so much time, money, and energy to underperforming students that they neglect gifted and talented students. School systems are doomed to fail when they become devoted to children who are hostile to learning, can’t speak English, who are mentally disabled, or come from families who are not interested in the education of their children. And we have plenty of failed schools in the U.S. to prove the point.

The major reason NCLB does not work is that it has caused the states to lower achievement goals, water down curriculum, and motivate teachers to "teach to the test."  Students are sentenced to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. And we wonder so many students,  good and bad, don’t like school. Learning should be fun.

Because it is a major logistical problem to hand-grade so many tests, the tests are typically in multiple-choice format, the least reliable measure of what a student knows. Students with real  potential are not challenged. Although accountability is supposed to be the watchword, the least accountable are the underperforming students. Many of them could care less. If they fail to measure up, it is the teacher and the school that suffer the consequences. Social promotion is still the common practice.

Schools are sorely tempted to “game” the system, especially by lowering standards and focusing ever more on teaching to the test. Some teachers are so tempted, as recently witnessed in the Atlanta schools, that they help students cheat or actually change the student answer sheets to get the over-all grades up.

A big source of the problem is reading. Although the funding for reading quadrupled from $286 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion today, there is little evidence of improvement. Every teacher I encounter in professional development workshops says they have many kids who are 2-3 grade levels below expected reading standard. Many teachers say none of their students are at grade level.

Another problem is that NCLB diverts attention away from practices that might be much more effective. Local school board flexibility and control are restricted. Little attention is given to thinking of new ways of structure use of time during the school day and school year. Curriculum innovations are discouraged in favor of using only accepted practices (which obviously don’t seem to work very well). NCLB provides no guidance or incentive for teaching students how to learn as opposed to what to learn. There is no incentive for students to be creative. Indeed, they are often discriminated against for thinking “outside the box” of high-stakes tests.

I think our system of education at all levels has been corrupted by the move away from academic merit. The mentality of progressives that everyone should have equal outcomes is well meaning but destructive. All a liberal society should owe its citizens is equal opportunity. Of course, progressives may argue that students with a bad attitude, or who don’t speak English, or who can’t read, or who are mentally disabled do not have equal opportunity because of their limitations.  And trying to fix that is what has gotten U.S. education into uncorrectable trouble.

Many advocacy groups are mobilizing to get NCLB changed or scrapped.  Unfortunately, most of these groups still endorse the goal of closing the gap between achievers and underachievers, which will only perpetuate the weakness of public education.

Law makers can’t agree on how to reform education. Maybe it is time to get the federal government out of regulating education. It certain does not have a winning track record nor a  compelling plan to get education right. We don’t need more spending on education.  Over-all, the U.S. will spend $0.9 trillion this year on education. It has been going up every year. We need to stop mis-spending so much on policies that don’t work.

It is also a good idea for the federal government to stop dictating how schooling should be done. Every state has incentive enough for its citizens to become as educated as possible. They don’t need a one-size-fits-all dictate from Washington.


1. U.S. Department of Education. "Press Releases", 2006-02-06. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More Bad News About U.S. Students

Recently released national geography test scores add to the growing list of surveys showing the ignorance of U.S. students. This survey from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed for example that only a third of U.S. students know how to determine distance on a map or that the American Southwest has water-shortage problems. Less than a half of 8th graders know that Islam originated in Saudi Arabia.
On the latest national exam, the percentage of students scoring as “proficient” or higher was only 23% of fourth graders, 30% of eighth graders, and 21% of twelfth graders. When the scores were compared with those on the test when last given in 2001, there was no improvement in either eighth or twelfth graders.

The only good news is that some mild improvement occurred with lowest-scoring students. This is a dubious achievement of the “No Child Left Behind Law” which otherwise stated should be called the “No Child Pushed Forward.” In other words, the obsessive focus on the poorest students is punishing students with more promise. Of course, this is totally congruent with our current political climate of pushing for equal outcomes and  punishing success.
Similar dismal results have been reported in recent surveys of performance in history and civics. And student mastery of science and math is notoriously unimpressive. The education professionals don’t seem to understand the cause. I’ll tell you the cause: students don’t know how to learn. That is the one skill that schools studiously seem to avoid. They are so focused on teaching to these high-stakes tests that little attention is devoted to anything else, particularly learning skills.  
Students these days do almost everything wrong when it comes to learning. They can’t pay attention, they multitask like crazy, their mind is abuzz with everything other than school, and they don’t know how to study or memorize.
And only a handful has been willing to spend a meager $2.49 on my e-book which could change their life. I am about to decide they won’t buy the book because it has to be read. In general, students hate to read. I give many professional development workshops to teachers and at every single one teachers complain about so many of their students being at least two grades below the expected reading grade level. Some teachers say none of their students are at grade level.
So, guess what: I am starting to make the book an audio book. We’ll see what their excuse is now. I am not sanguine about the  possibilities. Teachers tell me the real problem in education is that too many students don’t want to learn anything. They just want to be entertained.
More and more of these poorly prepared students are going to college. You have to be my age to know just how markedly the quality of college students has deteriorated since 1950. I used to love to teach. It’s not fun any more.

The e-book, by the way, is available in all formats from The title is Better Grades. Less Effort.