VIII. Leaving NCLB Behind

Barack Obama’s campaign mantra of educational change hasn’t gotten rid of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This is very unfortunate because NCLB’s focus on high stakes testing has caused distortions in the nation’s public schools. The Chicago Tribune’s study of the impact NCLB was having on public schools in Illinois found that some school districts had lengthened the school day to allow more time on preparing students on how to take a test; some school districts dropped courses being taught to focus more time on test-taking; one school district even developed a new course on how to take a test; and one school district gave gifts of stereos, TV sets and other electronic gadgets to those who had done well on standardized tests.

The epitome of trying to game the system came in July 2011, when a big story broke that over 70 teachers and principals in the Atlanta, Georgia school system were found to have been changing or permitting the changing of students’ scores on a standardized test designed to measure student proficiency. The chief administrator of the school system was reported to have received large bonuses due to a dramatic improvement in students’ test scores.

The keystone of NCLB is Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), through which goals are raised annually, with the target of all school districts reaching 100 percent proficiency in 2014. Within the past year there was a story about the very small percentage of Florida public schools achieving AYP. When I picked up the July 23, 2011 Albuquerque Journal, the lead headline read, “87% of N.M.’s Schools Get Failing Grades.” Across the state, 13 percent of schools made AYP but only four percent in the Albuquerque Public Schools. This lead story was a big surprise to me, since only a few months earlier the Albuquerque Journal ran a story showing that most schools met state proficiency standards. The NCLB standards are so hard to meet that at least some states are developing their own proficiency standards. The new secretary of education in New Mexico plans to introduce an A – F grading system for the schools themselves.

A major premise of NCLB is that students in a failing school are supposed to be able to transfer to a school making AYP; however, so many schools are failing that there is often not a nearby school which is making AYP.

Diane Ravitch, who writes extensively on education issues, has a harsh view of NCLB. She says it has encouraged cheating and gaming the system — as the Atlanta, Georgia situation illustrates in spades — also, the Chicago Tribune survey described above also found that teachers were giving their students pre-test problems closely structured to the problems which they would see on the NCLB test — also, NCLB has caused some states, such as New Mexico, to lower their testing standards.

Ravitch also charges that many schools suspend instruction before a standardized proficiency test is given. In mathematics she claims that the rate of improvement was greater before NCLB was passed into law.

President Obama has not tried to end NCLB but he has proposed major changes in a reauthorization proposal introduced in March 2011. Among the changes Obama has proposed are: 1) to eliminate the provision by which students in failing schools can transfer to a school meeting AYP standards.; 2) states would have more authority to set standards; 3) measurements of educational progress would be expanded beyond just reading and math proficiency; 4) teacher evaluation tests would be strengthened; and 5) $3 billion would be added to fund new initiatives. Included within the new educational structure would be Obama’s pet project: the Race to the Top.

Race to the Top doesn’t give financially strapped schools any money unless they remove caps on the number of charter schools, force teachers’ unions to allow the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation and adopt the new national teaching standards. Race to the Top actually helps a small minority of schools who can qualify.

The Obama proposal to change NCLB has some good features but it contains a fundamental flaw: it doesn’t end high stakes testing. Besides the negative consequences of high stakes testing already explored, putting so much emphasis on testing elevates developing a subset of skills over broadening the educational development of the child; also, high stakes testing channels teachers into “teaching to the test,” because their very careers may be jeopardized by poor test results of their students.

President Obama is a great fan of charter schools. The proposed FY 2011 Education Department budget had $490 million to promote school choice, the vast majority of which would go to charter schools. It wasn’t that long ago that charter schools were thought to be the educational wave of the future, but the shine is off the apple. A September 2010 report described charter schools as floundering in Ohio, Arizona and California. A University of Chicago study found that, in general, charter schools did not bring about the improvements they were created to bring. The same study found that charter schools also did poorly in addressing the non-academic needs of the children. A Stanford University study found that only 17 percent of charter schools matched or outperformed matched public schools.

As for integration, charter schools are generally far more segregated by race than are public schools. The Civil Rights Project released a study in January 2010 which found that 70 percent of black students were enrolled in charter schools that are 90 to 100 percent nonwhite.

One percentage that should give President Obama a headache as the Democratic party leader is that only about five percent of charter school teachers are union members and that percentage would be even smaller if it weren’t for an umbrella charter organization in Los Angeles, whose teachers are unionized.

Teachers’ unions are among the Democratic Party’s most consistent and enthusiastic voting blocs. Obama’s educational priorities and his very public meeting with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a strong foe of unionized teachers, will likely bring Democratic candidates woe at the ballot box in the future.

There is an unwitting disconnect between ideology and reality among those who want U.S. students to do better on standardized tests but also despise unionized teachers. As a general measure, public school students from states with a heavily unionized teaching force do better on comparable standardized tests than do students from right-to-work states.

When compared to students from industrialized nations with heavily unionized teacher faculties — such as Germany, Finland and Canada — U.S. students do much more poorly on the same standardized tests. Changing to a three-part grouping in which foreign students with unionized teachers would be compared, first to U.S. students with unionized teachers, and then to students from right-to-work states, would show the extent to which right-to-work states drag down the U.S. educational proficiency showing.

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