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Research Finds NCLB Dumbs Down Curriculum

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It's easy to collect anecdotes of teachers and parents saying instruction has been dumbed down since NCLB became law in 2002.

But now one professor is saying she has the research to prove those stories reflect what's actually happening in schools.

In a Q&A published by the University of Maryland, Associate Professor Linda Valli said that test-prep pressures have significantly changed teachers' instruction. They aren't spending as much time on higher-order thinking skills or assigning as many projects that require critical thinking, said Valli, who started tracking classroom instruction in 2000.

"Because of NCLB," Vallli says, "teachers are now called upon to produce very concrete outcomes for students that work against good teaching."

NCLB backers will have responses to this. In this book review, Kevin Carey of Education Sector argues that the rudimentary skills low-income students are being taught are probably better than the education they received before NCLB. And in It's Being Done, Karin Chenoweth suggests that not all schools serving low-income kids are teaching low-level skills.

But which message is resonating more? The one about dumbing down the curriculum for all? Or the one about increasing the rigor of the curriculum for the lowest achievers?

1 Comment

There is a profound paradox here that is widely overlooked. Are children in whom higher order thinking skills are developed unable to pass tests based on lower level recall skills? Or has that development for a few (before NCLB) occured at the expense of many others who got neither? What precisely is the connection between the testing system (imperfect though it may be) and classroom behavior?

As I live in a state that is now in its second round of accountability testing (having reformed to meet the standards of NCLB), I know that there has been considerable effort to include short answer, essay, etc. kinds of questions on state tests--in response to concerns about dumbing down, or narrowing, the curriculum. I also know that these questions are the among the least answered on the tests.

Certainly I have also observed the kinds of schools that Chenoweth describes. The staff in these schools are typically able to respond to questions about what problems/issues the school is working on and what exactly they are doing in response. They also have a pretty good idea when they are not doing anything to improve a particular area. They can respond in terms of strategies and data.

By contrast, I have seen schools where nobody is responsible, everyone feels bound and limited by either the principle, the superintendent, the parents, the state or NCLB. The problems are overwhelming, but everyone is working very hard--alone and unsupported for the most part--on all of them.

It would seem that there are some key elements that make a school vulnerable to the misapplication of strategies (test prep in place of sound education). One is a critical mass of personnel who do not have a personal stake in the building outcomes (they live in another community, see themselves as inherently different from the families in the community, or trying without support or results has resulted in a need to withdraw emotionally). Another is a lack of building or district leadership (or both) to engage staff and community in building an experience of success in making change and improvement.

The third that I am just thinking about, that they experience a high level of denial with regard to the varying abilities of teachers. Because they have long believed that "a teacher is a teacher is a teacher," despite choices that were made based on quality, such as ensuring solid instructors for the AP classes and any warm body for remediation, the expectation to produce scores across the board caught them unaware. As a result they shifted focus to a short-term strategy that looked likely to pump up results. This is sort of like trying to undo weeks of overeating by a couple of days starvation before a weigh-in. It's not likely to be effective--but when you have been living in denial that a day of reckoning to come, there are not too many options.

I think that makes as much sense as the test makes us dumb down the curriculum.

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