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Charlie Barone and I Agree!

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An event so rare that it deserves its own blog post: Charlie points to a Washington Post article on NCLB and students with disabilities. The article argues that NCLB has forced schools to focus on disabled students because their scores are separately disaggregated and only a small fraction of students can be exempted. Before NCLB, too many state accountability systems had gaping loopholes that allowed these students to be ignored (for more, see here).

Of course, this brings us back to the NCLB incentives debate. If we credit the structure of the law when students with disabilities receive more attention, shouldn't we look at the structure of the law when schools emphasize tested subjects? These are questions better answered by someone with a completed AERA paper...
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OK--so, point conceded, NCLB made schools spend more time on reading and math. Since nobody expanded the school day or year, something else had to go. Now, the key question is: what is the "right" amount of time to spend, per day, per week or per school year on math, reading, science, music, art, gym, recess, or anything? And at what grade level? If we gave all subjects equal access to the testing incentive, would we return to 42 minutes for each? Was it 42 minutes for each before NCLB? At all grade levels? Should gym classes be allowed extra time because of the time it takes to dress and shower? Should lunch get 42 minutes because everything else does? Should remediation always mean extra time? Should it be a longer day, Saturday school, summer school? When we write "extra time" on a student's IEP as an accommodation, where is the time coming from?

Some of these are silly questions, I agree. But this is the level of dialogue that seems to come out of the NCLB makes me do bad things arguments (it also makes teachers drill students on right answers in a multiple choice environment and encourages teachers to cheat). It is very hard to support the corollary that all was well pre-NCLB: that teachers were all providing the "right amount" of time to all students in all areas, and generally teachers made good decisions to support the needs of all students. Without some standard of measure (which might be annual tests, or not), it is all merely conjecture.

I would conjecture, therefore, that teachers who have fallen back on test preparation have done so because they weren't doing a demonstrably good job of teaching prior to the transparency provided by the tests. Not to say that they didn't care profoundly about their students, or education--just that they weren't able to perform at a high level in all areas--for a variety of reasons. I would also conjecture that a certain divide developed between the schools that saw the writing on the wall and approached improvement thoughtfully and those that tried to "wait out" the requirements--believing that "this, too, shall pass."

What we have seen, if anything, from the experience of NCLB, is that schools can be impacted by outside forces in ways that may be predictable, but only insofar as all forces (inside and out) can be accounted for. Where accountabiliy has had to compete with deeply held beliefs about the inferior abilities of students, progress has been limited and perversions rampant. Where resources are truly inadequate, despite the alleged boost of Title I dollars despair is the result.

Social Science is not quite physics, I think (not really knowing enough about phyics to say). As we play around with models to arrive at our goal (which is what? adequate education for all? an educated electorate? a workforce stratified by different levels of access to the benefits of education?) we are working in a very messy laboratory. When we achieve unintended results, we have to look at interactions as well as actions. Bringing students with disabilities into the mainstream of expectations has increased their exposure to education and their resulting achievement. This would support a supposition that keeping them closeted was not supportive. Setting standard expectations for mathematics has increased the amount of time devoted to it--if the problem is solved (and it doesn't seem to be) then the problem was that a lack of time resource was devoted to it. If it causes problems in other areas (reduced time), perhaps we need to find ways to solve them. At this point, I don't think we know enough to do either. More time may have provided a bit of a boost--but not a solution. Perhaps we need to look elsewhere--curriculum, training, methodology, etc.

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