Today’s article in the Huffington Post, No Child Left Behind Anniversary: Education Law's Promise Falls Short After 10 Years got me thinking about a saying of a deceased family friend named Oscar, a carpenter by trade and a philosopher by nature. He had a saying that became – and remains – an adage in our family: “I’ve cut this board three times and it’s still too short!” At the literal level, it expresses the absurdity of repeating an unsuccessful action and being surprised that the results never work. On the deeper level, it warns against taking action without taking the time to know what you are doing.
It strikes me that Oscar’s adage is aptly applied to NCLB, which demanded testing kids to prove that they are meeting standards, without really knowing the nature of the phenomenon it’s supposed to capture or whether the data the testing does capture is useful for the achieving stated goals of the NCLB program. What is it that those numbers mean? As a school superintendent, I used to stare at the pages of my district test results showing that one school had made one school made AYP and another had not at one particular grade level and ask ”So what? What does it mean?” Some reports would tell me that our special education students did not make AYP. Duh. That’s why these students receive special education services. When students are achieving at grade level and making grade level progress, we move them out of special education, as federal law requires. However, the bureaucrats just do not get it. Thus, ten years after the implementation of NCLB, with the deadline for goal achievement just two years away, we hear, in effect, the frustrated refrain “We’ve tested these kids three times and their still not meeting standards!”
Understanding Oscar’s adage as a warning against taking action without really knowing what you are doing, it seems that not knowing what you are doing is exactly the problem with NCLB. The law encompassed some grand ideas: every child will learn, the playing field will be leveled, education will lead the country to economic success and prosperity for all. In the process of translating the grand idea into the real world of policy and then into practice, the government’s chosen vehicle for implementation – high stakes testing - just hasn’t worked. It was developed through the power play of politics, and business interests, with a distain for education and educators, a demand for simple answers to complex problems, undercapitalization, and the isolation of the problems of education from the larger problems of society. Thus, ten years out from implementation, the government is wondering why schools are not going to meet the standards set for 2014; wondering why, after all the testing, the kids still are not meeting standards.
Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration introduced a A Blueprint for Reform, which purports to fix the failures of NCLB through what it calls greater flexibility, more rewards for teachers and principals, rewarding excellence and promoting innovation. It all sounds great. Yet once again, the vehicle used to “fix” NCLB is not a thoughtful pause for reflection on the complex nature of the task schools face in a rapidly changing society, but a “Race to the Top”. A race suggests winners and losers. A top has to have a bottom. In the Blueprint, competition is the hallmark of access to new funding. And, of course, schools will still be required to test. The Blueprint talks about finding better ways to test, but there is not any consideration of the nature of the phenomenon it is we are supposed to be testing and how it relates not only to classroom instruction but to other variables in children’s lives. I’m having difficulty seeing any substantive differences between the Blueprint and the old NCLB – some new window dressing, perhaps, but not a substantive change in underlying values.
Schools are faced with preparing children to live in a world that we can barely imagine; a world in which knowledge must continually be created to solve problems that do not currently exist. Can we build schools prepared to handle such a challenge by running a race? It remains to be seen whether the race will produce the creative approaches to the dynamic and complex educational problems we face. The Blueprint is presented as a fix to all that is wrong with the NCLB in its original form. I worry that a race is cutting the same board over and over again. Perhaps bureaucrats and politicians can afford another ten years of politics, business interests, a demand for simple answers to complex problems, undercapitalization, and the isolation of the problems of education from the larger problems of society. What about the millions of children who will pass through the education system over the next ten years? They cannot wait. What is needed is thoughtful analysis, research that captures rich context as well as cold statistics, adequate funding, and the understanding that the problems of schools cannot be isolated from other social communities.
My prediction is that another ten years of racing to cut the same board over and over will produce the same refrain: “We’ve tested these kids three times and they’re still not meeting standards!”