Wednesday, October 3, 2007

No Child Left Behind II: Collateral Damage

Part 2 of 3 on NCLB. On Monday, I focused on what we gain through NCLB. What's clear is that the accountability systems most studied - Texas, North Carolina, and Chicago - have increased test scores. Whether these increases translate into meaningful improvements in the life chances of children is unknown. Nonetheless, for those who equate achievement with test scores, accountability systems are very successful.

But my theme this week is policy trade-offs; that is, all policies have costs and benefits. What's clear is that accountability systems in the past, as well as NCLB, have changed the business of school on a day-to-day basis, often in ways that belie the stated purposes of these policies - i.e., to improve the overall quality of education that students receive, with a focus on increasing opportunities for disadvantaged kids. Many have made these points more eloquently than I can, so see also Jim Horn's comprehensive posting about what is left behind, as well as Debbie Meier and Diane Ravitch's on-going exchange at "Bridging Differences." But to summarize, here's what we're losing:

1) "Hey Mom! What's a tundra?": What about non-tested subjects?

The Center for Education Policy reports that 44 percent of school districts in the country have made substantial cutbacks in social studies, science, art, and music lessons in elementary school.

2) "Hey Mom! What do you mean there's no Halloween parade?": The value of "pointless" kid stuff

Maybe I'm sentimental, but is it so bad to have Halloween parades and Valentine's Day parties and trips to watch penguins at the zoo? As an inducement, I've offered Madame Secretary a peek into this alternate future, where she can ride a My Little Pony for Halloween.

For just a couple of days a year, can we have no objectives on the board, no SWBAT (students will be able to), no Grant Wiggins backwards design, no authentic assessment, and no Do-Nows? I'm not suggesting we let the childrens run wild. And of course I understand why principals feel like schools don't have time to just muck around, even once in a while. But maybe a tiny bit would keep everyone sane, students and teachers alike.

3) What about non-tested competencies we care about?

Teaching kids to do well on a test is not the same thing as teaching them to be critical thinkers, good scientists, and creative mathematicians. Lest I be maligned as an ed school hugging-hippie-commie who should just go back to her drum circle, let me give a very concrete example. Teaching kids how to do science - how to design an experiment to test a hypothesis - is not the same thing as teaching them the details of photosynthesis for a multiple choice exam. Surely kids need basic skills, but I am not convinced by the temporal ordering demanded by NCLB - i.e. "first things first." Diane Ravitch says it better:

If youngsters, in large numbers, have not learned and cannot use the basic skills, they are not likely to be prepared to be thinking citizens of our democracy. Thinking citizens need the tools and the power of reading and math, and they need the skills and knowledge of science and history so as to contribute to our common project as a democracy.

4) What happened to the idea of deliberative discussion about the goals of education?

It's increasingly difficult to move forward a serious discussion of what schools are for. It's a foregone conclusion in many circles that schools are for increasing test scores, period. Again, Diane Ravitch provides a succinct explanation of this problem:

It is educators who are being pushed aside, as businessmen, lawyers, MBAs, and other organization men and women move in to rationalize education and run it like a business....The business leaders think that the problems of education are all managerial; they belittle the importance of curriculum and instruction. They don’t understand anything about the civic purpose of education. And right now, they have the upper hand.

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