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Do We Have the Capacity to Achieve NCLB's 100/2014 Goal?

The reason schools and districts are not making AYP is not that NCLB’s “100/2014” lacks realism – the nation is just too far from that goal for it to have any practical relevance to arguments about progress on the ground today. Moreover, the “existence theorem” has been proved. We can find examples of success in schools located in wealthy suburbs with small minorities of historically disadvantaged student groups and schools dominated by those groups in economically deprived urban centers.

A lack of political will is a more plausible explanation, but a partial explanation. After seven years of implementing NCLB, it’s reasonable to argue, and maybe self-evident, that schools in need of improvement, corrective action and restructuring lack the capacity to change.

Many (certainly not all) of the schools that have made AYP despite their challenges, while comparable schools have failed, have benefited by working with for and nonprofit organizations in the business of improving schools. This at least suggests that failing teachers, principals, schools lack some mix of the diagnostics, training, techniques and materials required; especially to help disadvantaged and historically neglected student groups.

At some very fundamental level of practicality and morality, public education's lack of capability is a reason to abandon 100/2014. If the nation cannot address the capacity gap, we can hardly punish schools that miss AYP because they lack the means to do better. If the supply of products, services and programs cannot address disparities in the technology of teaching and learning, we can hardly blame schools. To hold educators accountable for results - especially with the historically neglected subgroups that are the focus on NCLB, we have to be able to show some capacity to meet the needs of these students at scale.

This is a truth governors and state legislators understand. It’s one thing to support high standards and accountability if the capacity exists to raise student performance. Even in the face of institutional opposition to change, a political leader might be prepared to take on the challenge – if he or she is convinced improvement is technically feasible. It’s quite another to continue the political battle for school reform if standards and accountabilty legislation identifies and punishes failure, but there is no practical way to improve performance.

After seven years of NCLB implementation, I think governors and state legislators who once saw the advantage of blaming the feds for pressures on public education's adult stakeholders to change, have become at least discouraged by the meager evidence of national capacity. Any observer of the reading, math, privatization, charter, voucher or other "education wars" at least knows that overall the evaluations suggests that the new ideas are about as likely to improve student and school performance as the old. And when politicians measure the political pain caused by NCLB today against the promise of improved performance tomorrow, continued supported for the law has become an unattractive proposition.

Today's political context was not forordained. When the 2014 goal was set in 2001, it was not unlike 1961 when President Kennedy set the goal of placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade. No one knew exactly how to achieve either, but research suggested it was possible, and there was reason to believe that if we engaged the private sector, government policy could take us there.

We got to the moon by breaking the challenge into manageable parts and tackling each in sequence: suborbital flight with one man; orbital flights with one, two and three men; docking maneuvers and spacewalks; a trip around the moon; and then a landing and return.

In NCLB we simply set the goal and left the solution to schools and private providers. I love markets, but they need guidance and direction from government.

The challenge of school capacity breaks down to four parts, and government has a role to play in each:

• We don’t know exactly how some schools make AYP - with or without school improvement programs, while others don't.

• To the extent that we do know, we haven’t learned how to scale the solution(s) well.

• To the extent that we have learned to offer the solution(s) to new schools, we haven’t given the new solutions’ providers much of a chance to compete in a market that has favored brand over results.

• To the extent that we have favored what works, it hasn't been enough to attract the investment required to actually serve schools.

None of these problems is an absolute bar. The solution to each is a matter of government policy, call it "industrial policy."

And call that the subject of future edbizbuzz postings.

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