September 18, 2006
To members of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind
My name is Marion Brady, and I live in Cocoa, Florida. I’ve spent the last seventy-four years in education as a student, high school teacher, college professor, county-level administrator, publisher consultant, writer of journal articles, textbooks, professional books and newspaper columns, and visitor to classrooms across America and abroad.
You may or may not be surprised to hear me say that No Child Left Behind is an educational train wreck.
I’m no defender of pre-NCLB public education. When the legislation took shape, although the education train was still on the track, it was barely moving. What it had going for it was mostly potential. Thoughtful educators were pointing out that General Systems Theory as it had emerged from World War II, and research clarifying how the brain organizes information, could, together, move student intellectual performance to levels not previously thought possible. The train was creeping, but it was going in the right direction.
The unduly alarmist 1983 publication “A Nation At Risk” stopped it cold. Fearful leaders of business and industry pushed educators aside, took control of “reform” and, working through politicians, set the train in motion. Backwards. Really fast.
A wreck was inevitable. Picking through the present pileup as it settles into place, questions for those now in charge arise:
Question: Management experts say poor institutional performance almost always indicates a “system” problem. NCLB doesn’t blame poor performance on the system but on teachers and kids. Are the experts wrong?
Question: NCLB demands “standards and accountability” for school subjects. Wouldn’t it make more sense to key standards and accountability to ends rather than means, to kids’ ability to fuse and actually use what they’ve learned?
Question: Some researchers say that pre-natal and early childhood care, environmental contamination, parental attitudes, family income, language facility and many other factors affect student performance. In well-run NCLB schools, are these irrelevant?
Question: NCLB relies on market forces to shape schools up. Does this mean that learning is unnatural and won’t happen unless teachers and kids are threatened or bribed?
Question: NCLB is rapidly pushing “frills” out of the curriculum. Has research now established that art, music, physical activity and so on have nothing to do with scientific and mathematical reasoning ability?
Question: Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of kids are being held back because of poor reading and math skills. Is the ability to interpret symbols the only way the young learn, and therefore sufficient reason to flunk them?
Question: NCLB’s avowed aim is to “close the achievement gap.” The tools for measuring that gap are tests of symbol-manipulation skills. Don’t these skills track relative wealth and privilege, therefore tending to maintain the gap? And aren’t the tests incorrectly but nevertheless widely seen as indicators of intelligence, bringing into play gap-perpetuating self-fulfilling prophecies?
Question: NCLB goes a long way toward cutting local educators and school board members out of the decision-making loop. Does the history of top-down, centralized control suggest this change strategy works well?
Question: Education is supposed to teach kids to think for themselves, not just recall what they’ve been ordered to remember. Are the centerpieces of NCLB (corporately produced, machine-scored tests) able to judge the relative quality of complex thought processes? If so, why aren’t they already doing that?
Question: NCLB assumes the “core” curriculum (the mainstay of present schooling) is as appropriate today as it was when it was adopted in 1892. Is it?
Question: If there are problems with the traditional, same-thing-for-everybody curriculum, don’t “raising the bar” and “rigor” just make them worse?
Question: Will manipulating the curriculum to “maintain America’s competitive position in world trade” be more likely to ensure America’s future well-being than helping kids love learning because it lets them pursue their interests and talents wherever they lead?
Question: Frantic to avoid the test-triggered “failing” label, most schools use myriad strategies to “game” the system. For example, knowing the worst kids will never make the cut on high-stakes tests, and the best will do so without help, the “marginal middle” gets most of the attention. Is it possible to track and counter all the ingenious strategies emerging in response to naive policies?
Question: Many educators (maybe most) now assume that NCLB is a clever strategy less concerned with closing the achievement gap than with undermining confidence in public education and laying the groundwork for privatizing the institution. Are they wrong? And if they are, how can their cynicism be countered and morale restored?
How matters stand
There’s an old rural joke the punch-line of which is “You can’t get there from here.” It’s applicable. At the deepest level, what ails the nation’s schools and universities is the failure to recognize and capitalize on the seamless, systemic, mutually supportive nature of knowledge. Until that problem is addressed, even the best institutions will continue to waste student potential at a prodigious rate.
A brief list of specific problems with the present approach to the general education curriculum may help underline its unacceptability. From about the fourth grade on through the university, students have imposed on them a regimen which has no clear, overarching aim, directs information at them at intellectually unmanageable, fire-hose velocities, ignores the brain’s need for order and organization, has no criteria for determining the relative importance of what’s taught, relates only tangentially to real-world experience, disregards fields of study of critical importance, has no built-in self-renewing capability, overworks short-term memory at the expense of higher-order thought processes, is little concerned with moral and ethical issues, doesn’t move smoothly through ever-higher levels of intellectual complexity, penalizes rather than capitalizes on student differences, doesn’t encourage novel, creative thought, ignores the basic process by means of which knowledge expands, vastly underestimates student intellectual potential, and, of course, ignores the holistic, systemic nature of reality and the seamless way humans perceive it.
Yes, of course today’s specialized studies are essential. But sense making (surely the main point of schooling) requires a grasp of the whole as well as the parts. A simple metaphor may help: Assembling a jig-saw puzzle, it’s the picture on the lid of the box which makes sense of the individual pieces (and identifies the missing ones). Western-style education has no “picture on the lid of the box.” Indeed, it sends kids the false but powerful message that the subjects they’re studying aren’t supposed to fit together, much less be parts of a comprehensive, coherent, integrated structure of knowledge.
Coming to grips with the fundamental nature of knowledge and the brain’s way of coping with vast amounts of random information was where education was headed back in the 1980s when today’s “reformers” took over. Many of those reformers believed then, and still believe, that educating is a relatively simple matter of “distributing information.” They believed then, and still believe, that what teachers and kids need is mostly good old-fashioned boot camp-style discipline. They believed then, and still believe, that those who disagree with them are whiners, incompetents opposed to standards and being held accountable, and resisting change by hiding behind tenure, unions, and other self-serving defenses.
American education’s bureaucracies within bureaucracies within bureaucracies are extremely resistant to change and, absent external permission and pressure, will resist it mightily. But the naive, reactionary, conventional-wisdom-driven approach of NCLB is a disaster. It isn’t just failing, it’s making a bad situation far worse, taking schools back to the 19th century educational world of Charles Dickens’ “Mr. Gradgrind.” And left in place, its simplistic conceptions of standards and accountability will keep them there. Permanently.
Incidentally, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see an intent to replace fifty state K-12 NCLB-generated fiascos with one national NCLB-generated fiasco, then move on to attack America’s colleges and universities with some version of the same.
If America’s future well-being is more important than dumping an economic theory on education to see what happens, I have some suggestions. I’m no change expert, but here’s one of many possible alternatives to the continued micro-managing of America’s classrooms from Washington:
1. Call for another national conference like the one that kicked off the present thrust of reform. Invite the usual power players, but this time, include some respected, straight-talking educators (yes, there are some) and actually listen to what they have to say. Keep the conference in session until there’s consensus on the overarching aim of education. (From inside or outside the conference, I’ll be campaigning for “helping kids make more sense of experience,” with something like “cultivating a life-long love of learning” as runner up. And yes, these aims are hard-nosed enough to allow progress to be measured.)
2. Simultaneously, back off high-handed, punitive actions against the States, and tell them to do the same internally. Recall that it wasn’t threats and bribes that motivated the teachers you most respected. Indeed, those would likely have driven them out of the profession.
3. Treat the States as R&D labs, (a much more legitimate application of market forces) supporting and rewarding those having the most success pursuing the agreed-upon overarching aim.
4. Simultaneously, to avoid trauma while #3 is being operationalized, continue handing out federal money, but do so on some simple (perhaps per-pupil) basis.
Given the bipartisan political capital invested in NCLB, given the necessity for saving Congressional face, given the educational naivete of its advocates and defenders, given the kind of money now changing hands, given the culture’s near-religious faith in the ability of market forces to cure all ills, given the sincere belief of many that NCLB is “99.9% pure,” that it just needs a bit of touching up, significant change seems unlikely.
However, futile though protest may be, let those in the future who look back on this era in disbelief, know that at least some professional educators resisted. Sure, what we had before NCLB was incredibly messy. Sure, it needed major, major attention. But that messiness at least allowed sufficient autonomy for patches of greatness to emerge, stimulated creativity and productivity envied by much of the world, brought America far and away more international prizes and recognition than any other society, and attracted here education officials from other countries looking for reasons why their sometime-higher test scores didn't translate into patents and Pulitzers.
What we had was a foundation upon which to build. There’s not much left of it. “Human history,” said H.G. Wells, is “a race between education and catastrophe.” No Child Left Behind makes catastrophe a sure thing.
4285 North Indian River Drive
Cocoa, Florida 32927
Cc: All media willing to pay attention