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No Child Left Behind Not the Silent Killer, But...

Let me pile on to the eduwonk-Barone-Pondiscio debate. I'm no fan of the "NCLB: The Silent Killer" melodrama that blames the No Child Left Behind Act for all of our schools' problems, and there's obviously plenty of it to go around. This is what Charlie Barone and eduwonk reacted to yesterday when they pointed to a NYT article about college prep to argue that NCLB is not forcing schools to become drill and kill test-prep factories. (See eduwonk's post here.) Robert Pondiscio responded at Core Knowledge by providing an insider's view of currriculum narrowing and test prep. He concluded, "Dismiss it at your own peril."

I'm with Robert on this one. In my view, NCLB is creating very real problems by leading some schools to focus primarily on reading and math and to zero in on a small set of tested skills in these subjects at the expense of the full range of skills we want kids to have. I also think this response is too pervasive to ignore. While we can argue whether it "works" or not, it's happening.

The much blogged about Center on Education Policy Report (available here) released last summer found that 44% of districts had reduced time spent on social studies, science, arts and music, lunch and recess to fit in more time for reading and math. Comparing districts that had at least one school not making AYP with those who had none reveals starker contrasts: 51% of districts with at least one identified school decreased time in social studies, while 31% in districts with no identified schools did. (See Table 4 in the CEP report for more.) You can look at the numbers above in a glass half full way - it's not all schools, after all. To me, it's enough schools to cause concern. (It's also worth noting that district-based surveys probably understate how much narrowing there is in schools struggling with AYP.)

eduwonk and Barone are arguing that not all schools have responded to NCLB's incentives this way, so the problem isn't with NCLB. The underlying assumption is that good educators can resist these pressures. But eduwonk and Barone both support NCLB, I think, because they believe schools need incentives to improve. If you believe that incentives can have strong impacts on behavior, it doesn't make sense to argue that schools can (and should) just turn their backs on these incentives. Schools get no credit for teaching science and social studies, and schools that cut back on untested subjects and do lots of test prep are playing by NCLB's implicit rules.

There are a number of ways to address this issue that would seem acceptable to NCLB proponents - i.e. by "right sizing" the school day, as Paul Reville suggested, or testing all subjects, as the Center on Education Policy advised - but supporters of NCLB would do well to acknowledge and address the problem.

(Image credit: nataliedee.com)

Hey! What's the major point here? The NYTs article said nothing about NCLB. It did not attempt to document any connection between those schools and NCLB. Did any of the pro-NCLB bloggers bother to give evidence to support their case? Did anyone give evidence for characterizing opponents of NCLB as hysterical?

Look at the CEP study and the other studies of the last year, and you've got plenty of evidence that NCLB has not been cost effective. I argue that NCLB has often caused harm. But cherry-picking evidence and attacking opponets will do nothing for kids.

Give us an evidence-driven debate and I'm confident we'll repudiated NCLB. I'm not naive and I understand politics. But we are educators and we ought to be able to contribute informed judgements to the debate.


The solution proposed here -- that NCLB could be remedied by testing all subjects -- could be worse than the problem itself. How much of the school day and the school year do we really want to give over to tests -- and their almost inevitable companions -- test prep? Soon there will be nothing else left.

If a test is good and covers the content areas, then the best test prep will be to actually teach. What's sad is that the tests people are sweating over are in many cases dumbed down; i.e., the recent flap between the discordance between performance on state tests vs NAEP test. A battery of tests such as Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) which contain well thought out and challenging questions and cover all subjects might be a good way to go, but then scores might plummet. And then we'd have to take a closer look at curriculum vs edu-fads in teaching and no one wants that, not even Hillary.

As for the hoary cliches about "drill and kill", keep in mind that many of today's math books have done away with having students practice, including addition/subtraction and multiplication/division facts. Instead they are given "games" which are supposed to accomplish the same things, and the problems they are given frequently entail concepts they have not yet had or mastered, in an attempt to foster "critical thinking" but without having anything to think critically about. If the appropriate amount of explicit instruction and practice problems were given as part of a course in math, there would be no need for the truly damaging (and meaningless) drill and kill that occurs to prep for tests that in many cases ironically don't cover very much ground.
My article on "traditional math" and some of the issues about it is here for any interested.

Three cheers for DT's comment, "But we are educators and we ought to be able to contribute informed judgements to the debate." Too often, teachers are derided as part of "the establishment" when they protest to what is being done to them. There is no other profession where the people closest to the work are written off as too entrenched to provide input.

Leonie, thanks for bringing up this point, and there is growing evidence from North Carolina to suggest that you are right. Adding more tests is not my preferred solution - my point is that those invested in the accountability movement would do well to acknowledge the problem of losing untested subjects.

Barry, while over the long haul, "If a test is good and covers the content areas, then the best test prep will be to actually teach," teachers have been able to squeeze test score improvements (not learning improvements) out of kids from doing test prep. The best evidence of this comes from SAT prep courses. To be clear, this is not good practice - but it is not surprising that given pressure to increase test scores *this year*, teachers turn to test prep.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • eduwonkette: Three cheers for DT's comment, "But we are educators and read more
  • Barry Garelick: If a test is good and covers the content areas, read more
  • Leonie Haimson: The solution proposed here -- that NCLB could be remedied read more
  • John Thompson: Hey! What's the major point here? The NYTs article said read more




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