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An Unlikely Pair Finds Common Ground on NCLB

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You wouldn't expect Charles Murray and Richard Rothstein to agree on anything.

Murray, a co-author of The Bell Curve, is a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—the Bush administration's think tank of choice for foreign policy. Rothstein, a tilting-at-windmills researcher who has tried to debunk many assumptions behind current school reforms, is a liberal that works for the Economic Policy Institute—the labor movement's think tank of choice.

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But Murray, on your left, and Rothstein, on your right, agree on one thing: NCLB is bad policy.

NCLB is a "a monumental mess," Murray writes in a new essay for The New Criterion. NCLB is a "failed" law, Rothstein wrote in The American Prospect in December.

Murray on NCLB's goal of universal proficiency: "The notion of making all children proficient in math and reading is ridiculous." Rothstein wrote a 2007 paper entitled "'Proficiency for All'—An Oxymoron."

Murray in The New Criterion: NCLB, like all policies spawning from what he calls education romanticism, "asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top. It short-changes all of them."

Rothstein in the 2007 paper: "The conceptual basis of NCLB is deeply flawed; no goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution."

Murray and Rothstein wouldn't agree on how to fix federal policy. But they—and others across the political spectrum—believe its time to start over.

Hat tip: I discovered Murray's essay through Checker Finn's critique of it in this week's Gadfly.

UPDATE: Eduwonk says this debate over determinism is "the next hot thing!"

Jay Greene e-mailed me to say he fact-checked Murray and Rothstein in the Fall 2007 issue of Education Next. "The net effect of their arguments is to provide aid and comfort to those who would resign themselves to the educational status quo and explain away the school system’s shortcomings," he wrote in a story headlined "The Odd Couple." Who is Oscar and who is Felix?

4 Comments

On the issue of self-esteem. I wonder if Murry dismisses the extensive research of Albert Bandura's self-efficacy.
The point being, an individual may have the cognitive ability to perform the task, but do they have the confidence to carry it out demonstrating their profficiency?
Politically correct or not, I took from Murry's paper that intelligence is inherited. I can accept that.

Hmmm... two white, male members of the privileged class, one conservative, one liberal, agree on one thing: poor minority kids can't learn. Shocking. More shocking still, the conservative says, "That's okay, they will make great employees at McDonald's" while the liberal says, "Those poor, mentally deficient lower orders of society, we should give them social services to alleviate their suffering."

Where is the person that says that your income or your race is not a metric of your intelligence or your potential? What about the person who believes that poor student outcomes are a reflection on us as adults rather than on the abilities of the children we are responsible for educating?

Could we also add Marty Nemko's article on the overrated Bachelor's degree to the mix? Murray and Rothstein speak to the difficulties of getting the average (and below average) student through high school and into college, while Nemko addresses the problems of getting them out and into productive occupations. (Who will be my electrician, my plummer? Who will fix my car? Do my yardwork?) Numerous studies predict that many future jobs will be in the service industry - does that require college? I've worked in both the K-12 and college world and am fully convinced that we do a diservice to young adults by forcing them into the college mindset. If there is any truth to the bell curve, then the largest part should represent the grade of C - the average. That would be a 2.0 on most scales. The majority of students would have an "average" gradepoint. A student with a 2.0 average is not looked upon as "college material" by most schools. Perhaps our K12 schools should just make sure that the "average student" can graduate with good life skills. The above average can go on to college. It could save us all from a great deal of suffering - intellectually and financially.

I don't know that college is the answer for all students either. I say this because my husband has achieved a much higher paid profession through military training. I had parents who pushed for college, I went, and I make a third of my spouse and owe on college loans. As for NCLB. I think it was used more a political pon for election. In reality it just doesn't make sense. State testing is holding students back left and right in upper grades. The problem is they do not have the basic foundation to move on even if they repeat 4th, 5th, or 8th grade again. After a child has been held back once, it starts to take a toll on their self esteem. It seems like we could motivate our students to achieve through a reward system instead of a failure one.

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