January 5, 2007

Is NCLB worth celebrating

Mike Petrelli asks Is No Child Left Behind's birthday worth celebrating? And, then gives us five reasons why he thinks it should be:

First, that virtually all children (even those living in poverty) have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18--and that it's the education system's job to make sure they do. Second, that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure-i.e., accountability-in order to improve; good intentions aren't enough. Third, that good education is synonymous with good teaching. This requires good teachers, which every child deserves, but which today's education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede. Fourth, that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits, from creating healthy competitive pressures to allowing educators to customize their programs instead of trying to be all things to all people. And fifth, that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.

I'm on board with points one through four. Point five is more dubious. The constitution didn't give the Feds a role in education and the fact that they took it doesn't mean we need them to stay in it. They're failed at raising educational outcomes so far and all they really do is take tax dollars from state citizens and redistribute them. States could easily do this on their own.

But, Petrelli has left off at least one crucial element. If he really thinks it's possible to achieve point one (that virtually all children ... have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math), something that never has been accomplished anywhere at any time in history, it's going to take a lot more than "good teachers" (point 3).

Good teaching alone won't do the trick. There's plenty of good teachers in "good" suburban schools full of higher performers that would fail miserably if asked to teach a school full of low performers. The missing ingredient is what and how these good teachers are going to teach -- the curriculum. With the wrong curriculum, and most curricula is incapable of teaching low performers, good teachers aren't going to be any more effective with low performers than average teachers, which is to say, not at all. Ed schools don't train teachers how to make effective lesson plans and this is not a skill that is learned easily in the field. More importantly, the is scant evidence to the contrary. So, when Petrelli nailed his five treatises to the door, he's still relying on magic to make them come true because these five things alone aren't going to do the trick. Never have and never will.

What we really need is four things to teach the heretofore uneducable:

  1. a great curriculum (there are a few)
  2. a properly trained teaching core to teach the curriculum (we have the teachers, but they are by and large not adequately trained)
  3. an accountability system to make sure what needs to get done gets done (NCLB provides the framework)
  4. sufficient funding (which we already have)

Did I miss anything?


Anonymous said...

I like that you point out that across-the-board literacy has "never has been accomplished anywhere at any time in history." It's not because it CAN'T be done, I'm sure, but 100% does seem statistically improbable to me still.

It is confounding to me that I am not entirely opposed to NCLB, or to Petrelli's "5 theses," but I remain skeptical about things like equating good teaching and good education. I have never thought they were the same thing, though the one does help the other. But in his defense, Petrelli might be coming from the angle that for teaching to be good, it necessarily includes a worthy curriculum.

I am not as convinced about #4 either. I like not having to be everything to everyone, but I don't think that choice is likely to lead to specialization that way.

Instructivist said...

Regarding the four things to teach the heretofore uneducable:

I agree with your four points. However, teacher training needs further elaboration. The training provided by ed schools mainly concerns teaching methods and ignores subject matter expertise. Moreover, the methods are of the constructivist kind, i.e. noninstruction. What is needed is a joining of subject matter and methods stressing expository instruction.

I would add a fifth point when it comes to teaching the disadvantaged. From my observations and teaching in classrooms in which the disadvantaged predominate, it has become clear to me that the heterogeneous, full-inclusion class model so dear to egalitarian educationists does not work. The severely behavior-disordered usually form a critical mass that makes meaningful teaching impossible. It's an injustice to those students who want to learn. The severelly behavior-disordered non-students need to be segregated. The egalitarian dogma needs to be challenged. I also advocate pull-out programs that provide intense academic involvement to small groups.

Anonymous said...

Due to the strength of state laws that define an education, and federal anti-discrimination laws (Section 504 and the ADA, to be specific), Washington really could at this point pull out of elementary and secondary education altogether, with (at least on the books) the same rights to an education applying to all children -- but we know this will never happen in our lifetimes.

But, it certainly would be interesting to see how all the states would scramble to do without the federal dollars. In the end, do we doubt that they would somehow find a way to manage if push came to shove?