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The Legacy of NCLB: Can We Force Schools to Improve?

When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I participated in a press conference prior to the Save Our Schools March, which I had helped organize. A gentleman who had asked several critical questions spoke with me afterwards. He tried to help me understand why tough federal mandates were needed to improve schools. He told me "You know there are school districts all over the country that have been stuck for decades, where there is corruption. We have got to have some way to force them to improve."

This is the mentality that brought us No Child Left Behind. This is why some liberals, like the late Ted Kennedy and California Congressman George Miller, bought into the law. They abhor the inferior education many of our students have received, and they are determined to use the powers they have to make a difference.

Unfortunately, there is a fundamental problem with the levers of power they have chosen to use. They have decided that test scores will be the measure of success, and demanded that schools improve or lose federal funding. After a decade of applying this pressure at the District and school-wide level, we are seeing it pushed ever downward, so that in many states individual teacher evaluations and pay are determined in part by test scores.

The machinery of government education "reform" seems to be a never-ending search for coercive levers that can be applied to force or entice people to do what they would otherwise not choose to do.
The result has been to make many of our most challenging schools intellectual wastelands, where the vibrant questioning and discussion that might shape creative responses to the ever-changing conditions we face has been replaced by a relentless pursuit of improved test scores.

I met another education activist in Washington, who has taken a different approach. Diane Ravitch has been involved with school reform for many years, and was one of those pushing improvements based on standards and tests as Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration. Dr. Ravitch is exceptional in that she has reappraised her own stance, and come to a completely different perspective.

This week she wrote a post entitled NCLB, End it, Don't Mend it. She showed just how much she has learned. She writes:


When, if ever, will policymakers realize that they should find ways to
support teachers, not to demoralize them? I just don't see how it is
possible to "improve" schools without the active engagement of the
people who do the daily work of schooling. There is just so much
top-down beating-up that can go on before teachers and principals rise
up in protest, especially when so many at the top are not educators.

In the past few weeks, I have done interviews with two education leaders in Oakland, Dr. Anna Richert, and Dr. Catherine Lewis. These women are on the ground in our schools, showing us how teachers improve their practice through Teacher Action Research and Lesson Study. They are engaged in thoughtful inquiry, where the critical questions are determined by the teachers themselves. This sort of collaboration has been shown by research to correlate highly with increased teacher retention and better student outcomes. Yet a report that came out last fall reported that while 88% of teachers engage in some form of professional development, the percentage of teachers engaged in "cooperative efforts" like Lesson Study or collaborative teacher research had dropped by half, from 34% to 16%. I can tell you why. In the high pressure environment created by NCLB, every minute of teacher time must be devoted to figuring out how to increase test scores. Professional development is often turned over to consultants who tell administrators they will help teachers "target instruction," or "plan backwards" starting with key items that will count most on the tests.

The type of deep teacher-driven professional development described by Drs Richert and Lewis has, with some notable exceptions, been pushed aside in most schools to make room for trainings that promise to increase test scores. If you were an administrator whose job depended on bumping scores upward every year would you take a chance on allowing your teachers to define the questions they wish to focus on in their professional growth?

So long as No Child Left Behind, or its direct descendants now being considered, have the goal of "forcing" everyone to improve, through an ever more powerful series of coercive levers, our schools will be locked in dysfunction. If we turn this model upside down, and look at the teachers in our schools as the ones with the real power, then we get a very different scenario. Then we could raise the bar on what is expected of teachers, who are now merely expected to be technically proficient deliverers of curriculum. We should challenge them to investigate, collaborate, create and lead their schools forward. Diane Ravitch has managed to figure this out. Can our Congressional representatives?

What do you think? Can government policy succeed at forcing schools to improve? Might we have better luck if we gave teachers a bit more responsibility for their work?

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