October 16, 2007

Schools Were Broken Long Before NCLB

Karin Chenoweth turns in a good Op-ed in the WaPo:

A very odd notion is circulating these days that the No Child Left Behind law has forced schools to become boring, dull places where children do endless worksheets and are discouraged from thinking for themselves. This argument holds that under "No Child," students are forced to simply regurgitate what teachers tell them, which -- because of flawed standardized tests -- is often confusing and sometimes demonstrably false. Get rid of the tests, or at least pay less attention to their results, critics say, and schools can return to their pre-NCLB excellence.

I keep wondering: Don't the people making this and similar arguments know that long before No Child Left Behind, far too many classrooms were boring, dull places where children were forced to do endless worksheets, discouraged from independent thinking and subjected to teachers providing confusing and sometimes demonstrably false information?

Exactly. When was this golden age of education?

We had standardized tests long before NCLB. While rummaging through some old boxes recently I found this:

The scores from the standardized test I took in the beginning of ninth grade -- 27 years ago. I remember taking a test like this almost every year I was in school starting in third grade. For me, NCLB would have been business as usual. If anything, NCLB would have offered a reprieve from the science and social studies portion of the exam.

Notice how the science and social studies scores are the lowest scores. Perhaps they were narrowing the curriculum even back then. My recollection is that those subjects were taught poorly. It wasn't until late in high school and college that those subjects were taught properly.

If I had to pick one word to describe my K-8 experience it would be: bored. If I had two words, I'd pick: bored silly. NCLB didn't cause boredom, schools were already boring. They weren't boring because of dull teacher presentations; they were boring because not much was being taught and not much was expected of us. Chenoweth experienced the same thing:

My elementary school teachers had been able to control their classrooms, but they didn't teach a whole lot of history, science, art or music. In introducing a unit on batteries, for instance, my fifth-grade teacher said: "I don't like science either, but we are supposed to cover this." She never bothered finding out whether we learned anything about batteries -- tedious "covering" was enough.

NCLB didn't cause these problems. Schools were already doing all the stuff that the NLCB critics are blaming on NCLB today. History and Geography had already been replaced with the banal social studies. Science had already degenerated into a series of scripted hands on experiments tied together by a parade of disjointed terminology that failed to build on previously taught material that would lie inert soon after it was taught. NCLB merely called attention to the problem. That's a good thing.

I don't think that NCLB is going to cause most schools to improve. Being labeled a failure may sting a bit, but solace can always be found in blaming the students and their parents for the failure. The meme nowadays seems to be blame everything but the schools: dumb kids, uncaring parents, helicopter parents, not enough funding, too many tests, blah, blah, blah.

Schools have had nearly seven years to clean up their act. Seven years is sufficient time for even the worst elementary schools to clean up their act. Elementary schools are the easiest to clean up. There are lots of intervention programs out there with a good research base and evidence of success. Yet, NAEP results show little improvement, except at the very bottom. What's the hold up? If you can't do it in seven years, you're not going to be able to do it in twenty either. And, until the elementary schools improve, the middle and high schools are going to continue to be remediation mills. How can you teach a kid eighth grade content when he hasn't learned fourth grade content yet?

Pity. I think that NCLB is the public education system's last hope to maintain their monopoly on education. In 2014, when most schools have failed to improve even when we've lowered the standards considerably, parents and taxpayers are going to grow increasingly reluctant to continue funding such a failed enterprise. people are going to be looking for ways out of the system as they realize that the public funding of education doesn't have to be done through failed 19th century institutions.

NCLB is a warning, educators should take heed.


Unknown said...

I remember taking the Iowa basics in 1st grade, and we're the same age. I may even have results somewhere. My only memorable lesson in elementary school was in 6th grade, when we were required to make something with batteries. That and the day my 2nd grade teacher threw a desk at the chalkboard in anger and broke it.

In 8th grade, I learned how to BS my way to an "A" on a written report. School was dull, and yet we don't seem to be a huge generation of jobless, skill-less people. Somehow, despite the most routine schooling, we find our niche and thrive.

Anonymous said...

Oh my! The horrors of the weekly vocabulary list! Monday - write five times each. Tuesday - alphabetize. Wednesday - use each in a sentence. And so on. Dull. But I remember each and every one of my elementary school teachers and how great they were...using methods now derided as "chalk and talk", "rote learning", etc., etc. (NOTE: I'm but a few years younger.)

ms-teacher said...

I have no problem with testing for proficiency as I do think we need show some measure of growth from one year to the next. My complaint is that many school district, mine included, are not doing just one yearly test because the stakes are have become so high. We have a District test every quarter along with the CAT-6 in April/May. This is in addition to the regular tests we give to our students to check their progression in our own classrooms.

I also remember having testing done throughout my schooling (I believe, Ken, we are probably around the same age), but I do not recall being routinely tested to the degree that students are being tested today.

Anonymous said...


Why can't the problems with schools be multifaceted? I happen to agree with a lot of what you say about education's bad ideas about instruction and especially with content, and I have no problem with testing. Indeed, as an AP teacher, I literally cannot wait for the test results in the summer to find out how my kids did, and by extension, how well I did teaching. (Our state tests, however, do not provide that 1:1 connection with teaching, which is a rather long and complicated side story.) And I am a persistent fighter for traditional pedagogy, and I relish my role as a heterodox young teacher who does "chalk and talk" with pride and believes "fact" is not a dirty word. So I am in much accord with you on what goes on IN schools...

But that doesn't mean that the outside factors don't matter. How can we look at the tremendous breakdown in family structure over the last several decades and pretend that social pathologies--welfare dependency, broken homes, children having children--don't have an impact upon education? If we're talking about avoiding blame, perhaps it's a two-way street: yes, schools use these as convenient ways to wish away their failures, but so too does a society that wants to pretend that a more permissive culture, however liberating, doesn't also have costs. Humans require some order and stability to their lives to achieve: if this weren't so, making Iraq into a democracy would have been the cakewalk that so many thought it was going to be. So too it is with education: those with a disordered home life are then disordered in their large social lives, including schools, and while schools can have an impact, I am not sure that anyone really wants to advocate the notion that large scale institutions (public OR private) are effective to transmit that which parents traditionally instill. Schools function best when they have a laser-like focus on education, but in the modern era schools are more like Wal-Marts of social services, where education is just one aspect of what they do as they try to tackle social problems that educational institutions were never designed nor intended for.

Again, I agree with a LOT of what you say. But I wish there was more acknowledgment on your part (and other bloggers, too) that these other, outside issues aren't always just excuses, and that they have a real and demonstrable impact. I hear people voice beliefs that if we merely cleaned up instruction, all the problems would go away. Well, some of them would. But the Iraqis voted, yet they don't really have democracy. We're not really ever going to fix the schools until both external(culture) and internal (curriculum and instruction) problems are taken care of. This is why vouchers do not scare me as a teacher. I am happy to send the private schools my more difficult students: if they can do a better job with them, so be it. But somehow, in the aggregate, I don't think they can do a better job once everyone is free to attend wherever they wish precisely because those external issues will still be there. Private schools do better now because anyone who is there, rich or poor, has CHOSEN to be there, and that automatically differentiates them as having greater parental investment. But take that advantage away, and those schools will deal with the same problems all the public schools do.

KDeRosa said...

Cranky, I do try to acknowledge that outside factors make the job of educating more difficult. However, I part company with many educommentators in that I do not think we can improve those factors, nor do I think that improving them will lead to better education outcomes.

The "poor" parents' job is to get their kids to school on a regular basis. Failing this, there are (typically unenforced) truancy laws to apply pressure. There are many programs that are funded to provide for nutritional and medical needs of the "poor." And, schools should be doing a much better job at controlling the behavior within the school.

To succeed in educating these kids, schools will have to learn how to teach all the things that schools serving middle class kids have always taken for granted. This requires innovation and the public school monopolies are not up to the task and never were. Monopolies don't innovate well.

Anonymous said...

Does social studies on standardized tests correlate to what's taught in Catholic school? E.g. "Columbus feared falling off a flat earth, but nonetheless found innocent natives to victimize" versus "Through the advocacy of a Catholic priest, Columbus was able to acquire financing despite the Council of Salamanca which felt the diameter of the Earth too great for his plans to succeed."

Joanne Jacobs said...

Pre-NCLB (and before state accountability systems), those test results didn't matter to anyone but the parent.

Regarding nyc math teacher's comments: I amused myself by trying to use all the spelling words in a single sentence, but my teacher made me write individual sentences. I wrote: "Cucumber is a spelling word. Vigorous is a spelling word." And so on. She vetoed this as well.

Regarding cranky's comments: According to Rand, family factors affecting education have improved for this generation of children. That's primarily because mothers are much better educated than in the past. Family income is up significantly as well.

Of course, the kid raised by the poor single mother who's a high school drop-out is even farther behind the norm.

Anonymous said...


Family factors for whom? Aggregate figures matter little when they hide group differences. The fact the the well-off white women of yesteryear are now the college-educated well-off white women does little to address problems at the margins. That just skews the results and lets us pretend that there are developments over the past few decades which are not conducive to successful parenting or successful schooling. Seriously, would anyone make the claim that we could increase the illegitimacy rate and not suffer for it in schools? The illegitimacy rate between 1940 and 1989 went from 7 percent to 42 percent. Gee, think that might make a difference? Oh yeah, I forgot: the American family is better than ever!

The real education gap in this country is between those students who have a stable home life and those who don't. Schools can't fix that, and nobody wants to legislate morality, and even if they did, nobody knows how you COULD do it if you wanted to. But "broken schools" are a convenient scapegoat for what has been a very complex and profound transformation in the family structure of the United States in the last several decades. These transformations happen to have been very large amongst the very groups that NCLB purports to target.

If you go to a education blog like Kitchen Table Math, you'll find that the children of those parents are going to succeed no matter what. Lousy teachers and curricula won't stop them. On the other hand, kids who don't come from homes like that are in fact more dependent upon instruction, but the teacher quality needed to even remotely close the gap between them is very high. The work to do that is near-heroic, and therein lies the problem: No reform effort based upon there being an endless supply of selfless saints and willing martyrs is going to work. As Tyler Cowen noted on Marginal Revolution not too long ago, popular education movies based upon real life heroic teachers are, to him, depressing, because they imply that it takes an extraordinary individual to make a difference in those cases, and heroes are essentially by definition rare and exceptional. Maybe Direct Instruction would allow non-heroes to teach to all, because we need something that would allow the most average of teachers to be effective. But I am always skeptical about all educational research because human beings have a nasty tendency to not always do what models (even well-researched ones) say they should. (Witness the mortgage market today.)

Anonymous said...

And I while I mean the above to be pessimistic in tone, I am not a fatalist about education. Reducing bad fads and trendy nonsense, and driving out educational ideas that are absolutely known to be bad, will make a difference. And I give credit to NCLB--the accountability factor definitely makes schools better, something I know from experience. But none of these are going to work miracles, and people need to keep a Burkean perspective on the limits of public policy to do so.

Tracy W said...

Maybe Direct Instruction would allow non-heroes to teach to all, because we need something that would allow the most average of teachers to be effective. But I am always skeptical about all educational research because human beings have a nasty tendency to not always do what models (even well-researched ones) say they should.

Direct Instruction is not a model. It is a curriculum. The developer is well-aware that human beings have a tendency to not always do what the models say they should, therefore Direct Instruction involves continual monitoring of what is actually happening in the class-room.

The research behind Direct Instruction is that it was implemented in actual, live, schools during Project Followthrough and the outcomes monitored. It's not a model.

(Witness the mortgage market today.)

There's a continual cycling problem in financial markets that people earn lots of money for a few years by taking on risks, then the risks catch up with them and they blow-up, they learn caution but meanwhile the next generation comes along and the arrogant ones in that generation don't believe the old guys' cautions, so they take on risks and make lots of money for a few years. (The non-arrogant ones in the next generation do something else less risky with their lives, like wrestling crocodiles.)

CrypticLife said...


I used to do the same thing with spelling words (combining multiple spelling words in one sentence). I don't think I tried to get all of them in, because I sensed more than 4 or 5 would be rejected.

Some spelling words they give kids are just odd. My second-grader got "prom", and wrote "Who knows what the word prom means?" To illustrate his point, over the sentence he wrote "Not me". It does make checking his work fun.