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There Won't Be Blood

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A wise woman once advised that name-calling is a poor substitute for a good argument. In my view, it is the feeble tool of last resort for desperate men who cannot win arguments on their own merits. It has no rightful place in policy debates.

Let me wrap up this debate over NCLB's unintended consequences by recapping my central argument:

1) By mandating an escalating series of sanctions for schools that fail to demonstrate adequate yearly progress in reading and mathematics, NCLB has created incentives for schools to focus on reading and math, rather than other subjects. As our fearless leader once noted, “What gets measured, gets done.”

2) NCLB does not mandate that educators focus on reading and math to the detriment of other subjects. But NCLB is a policy predicated on the idea that incentives can fundamentally change behavior. We should *expect* teachers to respond to NCLB's powerful incentives.

3) It therefore is not surprising that there is a growing body of evidence, both systematic and anecdotal, that many schools are devoting more instructional time to reading and math and less time on other school subjects, such as social studies, science, and the arts. This is particularly evident in schools most at risk of missing AYP.

4) If our national goals for public schools are to prepare young people to be competent, well-rounded and productive adults, we must assess how effective public policies such as NCLB are in achieving these goals.

There are a variety of revisions to NCLB that might be considered to enhance its ability to meet a broad set of goals for public education. Robert Pondiscio put it nicely when he wrote, "If the cure is worse than the disease, then find a better cure." We could, for example, create incentives for teaching additional subjects. Or we could seek to build the capacity of schools to teach subjects such as social studies and science more effectively alongside reading and math. But NCLB does neither of these.

Where do we go from here? We can continue to stand on the mountain and hand down outraged edicts to educators. But sternly lecturing our nation’s teachers will do little to change their behavior. If our goal is to ensure that children in all schools have access to a broad and deep education, we fail them by adopting this approach.

Bottom line: it's reckless public policy to ignore the evidence that NCLB’s incentives have resulted in more attention to reading and math, and less attention to other school subjects.
6 Comments

The goal then, is to treat reading and math as tools necessary to access the curricula that matter--like science, social studies, and the arts--much like a computer and the internet is used as a tool.

Reading and math in isolation sucks.

I can say for certain that our district's interpretation of NCLB requirements is that students in Program Improvement schools who test below proficient in reading or math have to be offered additional minutes of instruction in those subjects. Some of this is done by adding extra minutes to the school day, but that gets expensive, so its also done by cutting other subjects, including science.

Schools are working on integrating other subjects into the math and reading support classes, but they worry that if they stray to much from the math or reading focus the class will be found to be "non-compliant."


I have not seen a better-crafted synopsis of this issue, Eduwonkette, in all of Ed Policy World. Hence, I have concluded that you must, in fact, be a woman. Ha.

Your point about schools and teachers logically responding to powerful incentives is right-on. Pass a sweeping law, look for the unintended consequences. And then, if you don't like what you see, amend.

"4) If our national goals for public schools are to prepare young people to be competent, well-rounded and productive adults, we must assess how effective public policies such as NCLB are in achieving these goals."

On the other hand, I fail to believe that NCLB is what has caused our public school system to forget the goals of public schooling.

I was administering a mock English exam at the high school where I work in a poor, rural community of one of the poorest and most illiterate states in our nation, and I came to revelation. On the wall a "Study Skills" poster promoting good skills in preparation for exams hung. It reminded students to review days before an exam, promoted studying with a buddy, and encouraged kids to take good notes and keep up with the organization of notes, etc. And I couldn't help but be appalled that all of those skills are skills that I as a high school teacher I am EXPECTED to CREATE/ENFORCE for my students, because they are incapable of doing it themselves. As 15-19 year-olds they have the least amount of personal responsibility I have ever seen.

And who is to blame? Society, of course. And, sure, maybe NCLB. But I think it's beyond what the system has created. I think it's the system itself. If we don't ensure that children must be able to recognize letters and numbers before they enter school (so many of our kids can't), then we're not living up to what we believe: that public schools are here to create competent, RESPONSIBLE, CAPABLE, and productive young adults.

Bottom line: enough of the hand-holding and enough pointing fingers at NCLB. NCLB was created within a system that is traveling way off course. Let's get people in there to set it straight.

"4) If our national goals for public schools are to prepare young people to be competent, well-rounded and productive adults, we must assess how effective public policies such as NCLB are in achieving these goals."

On the other hand, I fail to believe that NCLB is what has caused our public school system to forget the goals of public schooling.

I was administering a mock English exam at the high school where I work in a poor, rural community of one of the poorest and most illiterate states in our nation, and I came to revelation. On the wall a "Study Skills" poster promoting good skills in preparation for exams hung. It reminded students to review days before an exam, promoted studying with a buddy, and encouraged kids to take good notes and keep up with the organization of notes, etc. And I couldn't help but be appalled that all of those skills are skills that I as a high school teacher I am EXPECTED to CREATE/ENFORCE for my students, because they are incapable of doing it themselves. As 15-19 year-olds they have the least amount of personal responsibility I have ever seen.

And who is to blame? Society, of course. And, sure, maybe NCLB. But I think it's beyond what the system has created. I think it's the system itself. If we don't ensure that children must be able to recognize letters and numbers before they enter school (so many of our kids can't), then we're not living up to what we believe: that public schools are here to create competent, RESPONSIBLE, CAPABLE, and productive young adults.

Bottom line: enough of the hand-holding and enough pointing fingers at NCLB. NCLB was created within a system that is traveling way off course. Let's get people in there to set it straight.

Alexandra, I'm with you--I think. NCLB did not bring about the penny-wise and pound-foolish thinking that is driving bad decisions, even if those decisions are aimed at "getting around" NCLB. But I do think that we have to be careful in blaming "society" as well, at least to the extent to which we see it as some entitity that exists outside of schools.

Now, I'm really old (somewhere between Barack and Hillary, old enough to remember not blaming "society" but "the establishment"), but I recall not only Study Skills posters--but a whole required class in how to take notes, read a book (SQ3R and all that) and so forth. I don't know that it did me any good--first, I thought it was stupid, and second, it was too far removed from any class content that I actually considered to be important. Integrating it into a class that actually had a heavy reading component might have been a better approach.

So, I don't find your classroom poster appalling, as much as misguided. As a parent I have seen points at which my kids could really have benefitted from some "handholding" as they learned/did not learn "study skills" (some might prefer to call it "scaffolding"). I struggled with my feeling of failure when the project that I supervised over many evenings and weekend got an "F" because it wasn't handed in, wasn't handed in on time, etc. I recall being particularly livid when a project too big to hide in a locker sat in the back of a homeroom, in full view, until past the drop-dead last turn-in date for any credit. Would it have been too much for an adult to ask "whats up with that?"

I try to steer away from intergenerational comparisons of such ambiguous things as "personal responsibility." It comes down to comparing my insides to somebody else's outside--and I recall being judged as inferior to the generation that came before me. But there are things that the adults must do to raise responsible young people--and teachers/schools are included on the list of adults who must be involved. One, they must exhibit responsibility themselves. That means that teachers have to be willing to take on school reform when they determine that their system is "off course." Two, we have to be willing to share responsibility with students as they mature. That means providing arenas for involved and responsible decision-making. There are probably four or five problems right now that could best be solved with the involvement of students (loitering in the halls, dress code violations, cafeteria chaos, incomplete or late homework). Odds are the adults are so tired of them they don't even see them anymore (some would call this "denial"). It might take all year for a group of students to research the problem, define a solution, achieve buy-in, implement and evaluate. But what an experience it would be. What a way to build a more responsible society!

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