December 8, 2006

Here we go again

The NYT has another editorial on why the achievement gap persists. It makes a decent point or two, but, as usual, gets too much wrong to be of any real analytical use.

It starts off bad in the very first sentence.

The No Child Left Behind education act, which requires the states to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students in exchange for federal aid, has been under heavy fire since it was passed five years ago.

Notwithstanding the loaded class-warfare language, this is not quite an accurate statement of the purpose behind NCLB. The purpose of NCLB (PDF), as defined in section 1001, is to:

ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by—

(3) closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers;

NCLB is intended to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education so they reach proficiency based on challenging state standards and assessments. One way they can do this is by closing the achievement gap between low and high performing children. As I pointed out in this post, under NCLB the achievement gap is measured by comparing the number of children who are proficient to the number of children who are not. If all children are proficient there can be no achievement gap. NCLB does not, however, contemplate that low- and high-performing children will perform equally. That's an impossibility, especially if the standards are challenging as contemplated by NCLB.

After the editorial states the NCLB critics' position, and failing to point out that said position lack any evidentiary basis, this economically naive statement is made:

Unless we improve schools — especially for minority children who will make up the work force of the future — we will fall behind our competitors abroad who are doing a better job of educating the next generation.

No we won't, dummy. One advantage of having one of the most economically free systems in the world (thanks to not following the unfailingly wrong advice of the editors of the NYT) is that there is no shortage of well-educated foreigners clamoring to come to the good ol' U.S. of A to work. We have the ability to brain drain the rest of the world and we've been doing so for a long time now. (Just check out the Nobel Prize winners in science; there are two types: Americans and non-Americans who now live in America.) The only losers will be the native-born Americans receiving the inferior education who can't compete with the foreigners immigrating to America who received a better education. America won't lose, but certain American's will.

It’s impossible to brand No Child Left Behind as a failure, because its agenda has never been carried out. The law was supposed to remake schools that serve poor and minority students by breaking with the age-old practice of staffing those schools with poorly trained and poorly educated teachers. States were supposed to provide students with highly qualified teachers in all core courses by the beginning of the current academic year. That didn't happen.

Here the Times is confusing the term "highly qualified teachers" with "highly effective teachers." Very few of the teachers which NCLB considers to be "highly qualified" are also "highly effective" with low-performing students. Highly qualified means that the teacher has a certain teaching credential; however, that teaching credential does not guarantee that the teacher knows how to or is capable of teaching low-performing children.

The country would be much further down the road toward complying with No Child Left Behind if the Department of Education had given the states clear direction and the technical assistance they needed. Instead, the department simply ignored the provision until recently and allowed states to behave as though the teacher quality problem did not exist. Thanks to this approach, the country must now start from scratch on what is far and away the most crucial provision of the law.

This assertion is based on the fallacy that all it takes to successfully teach low-performing students is "highly qualified" teacher. The only thing that seems to reliably work to educate low-performers is the use of a well-designed curriculum, a staff of teachers trained in how to effectively use that curriculum, and administrators committed to making sure that the curriculum is well implemented. NCLB is silent as to all three of these requirements. It is up to the states to find what works and to use it. So far, the states, not unexpectedly, have proven incapable of performing this task.

The Times' big conclusion is:

Given what’s at stake, the teacher quality provision of No Child Left Behind deserves to be at the very top of the list when Congress revisits the law.

We should be grateful that the Times is not in charge of setting the policies or running our public schools. Lately, they seem even incapable of putting out a decent newspaper.


Mark Montgomery said...

Did you see the commentary in the Nov. 29 edition of Education Week by Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder? It's called "'Proficiency for All' is an Oxymoron," and argues that it is impossible to think that all children will be "proficient" by 2014. For all to achieve proficiency would mean that proficiency has to be dumbed down to the point that EVERY child (including not only second language learners but kids with an IQ of 60) can become proficient. The article argues that the political goal denies human variability.

In case you haven't seen it (and I'll bet you have, actually), you should have a look.


arpad said...

I don't see what the problem is. This technique is already being used by several states to satisfy NCLB AYP requirements.

It's not at all difficult to grow to seven feet if you're not too fussy about the accuracy of your measuring instruments.

MassParent said...

arpad, most if not all states that are making AYP aren't doing it by improving student's performance as measured by national test standards.

Many schools, districts, and states that are making AYP are doing it because the bar hasn't risen to the level that those entities scored prior to NCLB. In many cases, it is easier to tell if a school will make AYP by looking at the formulas and at baseline scores than by looking at change in scores. And, in many of those cases, the bar eventually will rise beyond the level of the best schools in those states.

The NCLB score mandates do a reasonable job of broadly sorting schools and districts by their standardized test scores and identifying those schools as failing in annual increments roughly matching their baseline scores.

But we had practically all of that information in 2001, and the new revelations we get each year about failures tell us more about the formulas' timetables than about changes in schools.

Tracy W said...

So, massparent, you seem to be arguing that schools cannot improve their teaching, or at least should not be expected to.

Or are you just reporting that they are not improving their teaching, but think that they could, if they tried?

ShortWoman said...

I love how the Government definition of "highly qualified teacher" is predicated on classes taken, tests passed, and bits of paper obtained; unfortunately the layman thinks "highly qualified teacher" means "highly effective teacher." Thank you for coining that term.

As far as I am concerned, the elephant in the room with NCLB is that the only standard it requires for student performance is "better." I think we would all have less heartburn if it said "This is what a third grader must be able to to and that is what a 7th grader must be able to do." Requiring "better" implies that all schools are failing ab initio, and insures that all schools will be failing as they eventually reach the limits of what can be reasonably achieved. After all, if 99% of students in a given school pass the test, what can you do for an encore?