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Finn Says Five Myths Sidetrack NCLB Debate

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"Troublemaker" Checker Finn, at right, believes that NCLB's reauthorization is stalled because of five fallacies. He says it's a myth that the law is underfunded, and he questions whether it has led to teaching to the test. "If the test is an honest measure of a solid curriculum," he writes in Sunday's Washington Post, "then teaching kids the skills and knowledge they need to pass it is honorable work."

Whether you agree with him on those points, I'd be interested to hear reaction to his succinct summary of the problems with the law's standards.

Compromises needed to pass NCLB left the law laid-back about standards yet fussy about what states and districts should do when those standards aren't met. The upshot: low expectations on one hand and too much micromanagement on the other.

Take a minute to read all five myths . The piece is short enough to be a blog entry. In the future, we'll all be bloggers.


4 Comments

David,

I can't believe how much I'm agreeing with Finn. He's not even wrong, or at least completely wrong, on the question of whether NCLB is a unfunded mandate. Were it not for the panic which the law produced, lower poverty schools could have done a lot of good with the extra money without giving in to the "Testing Culture." Even in 2001, we should have seen the potential for the law to address the achievement gap that was hidden in lower poverty schools. And what were the Feds going to do to suburban schools? Shut them down?

NCLB was supposed to help high poverty schools, however, and by setting impossible goals it set them up for failure. Just think about the logistics, not to mention the costs, of getting students to and from Crane High School in Chicago in the middle of their gang violence, or the comparable dynamic which happens every day in Philly, or the work imposed on the Detroit school where the teacher was recently beaten. High poverty neighborhood secondary schools are struggling to just keep it together for the school year. Of course, given the pressures of NCLB, the central offices just imposed test prep and relied on statistical games to survive. Until they give high poverty schools the capacity to create safe and orderly environments, recruit and retain high-quality teachers, and provide a nurturing enviorment for our poorest and most traumatized kids, NCLB must be considered an unfunded mandate.

On the other hand, could urban districts have done a much better job in investing their money in creating a learning environment? Of course. We teachers have been telling that to our administrators for years. That's one reason why I agree with Finn that we need more noncertified teachers. Too many traditional teachers have been socialized into this system where endless amounts of disrespect are dumped on us. Recruit more career-changers, and maybe they will help us develop some more professional backbone. Invest more resources in creating teaching capacity, and maybe society will demnad that conditions be created where teachers are allowed to teach.

Finn makes some points however he makes a glaring mistake under "myth 2" when he asks what states are doing w the ten grand per student per year. Yet the link that he provides on that ten grand takes you to an info site which specifically states that the average per pupil expenditure per year is $5492, which is more in line w what I've always read elswhere.

Whether NCLB is really an un/under-funded mandate depends on whether you see the "mandate" as "develop standards and test all students in grades 3-8" or as "make sure all students, in all subgroups, are proficient by 2014." Federal funds are clearly significant enough to states to justify the costs of participating. But Federal funds aren't enough to make more than minor changes in the instructional programs at most schools (e.g. perhaps classroom aides, bit of small group tutoring, or a few support classes, but not significantly lower class sizes, or intensive one-on-one tutoring).

And my take on the law is that its underlying philosophy is that the problems in education are due almost entirely to lack of focus and effort on the part of educators -- that you don't need additional teachers, or additional time in school, or better pre-kindergarten programs to close the achievement gap -- you just need teachers in struggling schools who will work harder/smarter, and that the sanctions the law provides will be enough to bring about the needed change in motivation. This may explain why the law is so disliked by the educators who work most closely with students.

However, I think the unwillingness of states and/or districts to opt out of the laws requirements, even when many of them are seen as counterproductive, is fairly clear evidence of the overall underfunding of education. Federal funding is only a small fraction of most districts' budgets, it's still money they can't walk away from without hurting their students -- though I think more districts are beginning to wonder if the hidden costs of compliance may soon outweigh the benefits of the funding.

But I should add that I think the point you highlighted is absolutely on he mark. NCLB's unwillingness to take a stand on what should be taught, or what "proficiency" means, but its sureness that it knows just what needs to be done when students don't meet these unspecified benchmarks is one of the stranger aspects of the law.

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