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NCLB Fails its Big Test: The Achievement Gap Unchanged


This week some educational bombshells have exploded, and we need to take some time to examine their implications.

But first, a bit of my own history, to provide some context for my perspective. I chose to teach in Oakland because I had experienced the civil rights movement as a child. In 1968, as a fifth grader in Berkeley, I was reassigned to a South Berkeley school that had been predominantly African American in the city’s voluntary desegregation program. My parents were deeply committed to social justice, and I emerged from high school active in the civil rights struggles of that era – fighting the Bakke decision that undermined affirmative action.

When I got my teaching credential in 1987, I knew I wanted to teach science where I was needed, and went to Oakland. The concept that education is a civil right is not new to me, or to many teachers of my generation, who entered the profession for that very reason.

When I first encountered No Child Left Behind, I was worried. I did not believe annual standardized tests were the best way to measure student learning, and I feared the law would actually deprive those who performed poorly of the best teaching possible – that which is creative and responsive to their interests and aspirations. My fears were borne out. I saw the school where I worked, which had a wonderful staff and diverse student population, hammered year after year because we could not manage to get all six subgroups to rise simultaneously.

But the law gathered some important defenders – especially in the civil rights community. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) both joined with Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller and President George W. Bush to promote the law. They believed that the law would force schools to improve, and that provisions that highlighted the performance of racial and economic subgroups would finally close the achievement gap between whites and disadvantaged minorities.

This week we got some shattering news.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a series of tests that provides us with our most accurate barometer of student performance, revealed that the achievement gap has not, in fact, been narrowed under the last eight years of NCLB. The New York Times article noted that:

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s.

This week from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA came another blow. A report was released which concludes that NCLB has done more harm than good. Their description states:

The report finds that NCLB is failing on three fronts. First, there is little evidence that high stakes accountability under NCLB works. It has not improved student achievement and the sanctions have had limited effects in producing real improvement. The law also is not very good at accurately identifying schools needing improvement and far outstrips the ability of states to intervene effectively in the schools it sanctions. Third, the law has failed to connect in a meaningful way to the educators who must implement it -- they do not see the accountability goals as realistic and consider the sanctions to be misguided and counterproductive for improving schools.

The most important finding is the damage the NCLB is doing to our educational system. Under NCLB, the system "works" when education systems operate within only a basic skills framework and with low test rigor. The cost to our nation is revealed in an educational system stuck in low-level intellectual work.

While President Obama has pledged that reform of NCLB will move us away from an emphasis on standardized tests, Secretary Duncan has joined the chorus calling for national standards and investment in vast data systems. This makes me think national tests and even a national curriculum might not be too far behind. I fear that these reforms do not move us away from standardized tests. They may make those tests more efficient and pervasive.

It is instructive that it was the real structural changes of the 1970s and 80s – the school desegregation and affirmative action programs I participated in as a fifth grader, and defended as an activist in my teens and twenties – that had significant effects on the achievement gap. There was a democratic ideal, the concept that when children learned together we would learn to work together, and that this would help build a stronger society. Over the past decade, however, even as we have implemented NCLB, our schools have become MORE segregated.

The authors of the Civil Rights Project report provide a powerful prescription for change in their conclusion.

Schools cannot be improved against the better judgment, and without the enthusiastic participation, of those charged with making the improvements. While this commitment cannot be coerced through sanctions, it can be motivated through guidance and mild and positive pressure that mobilize internal ideals and standards of competence and care. For educators, such standards need to be developed through professional socialization in teacher-preparation programs and sustained by way of good instructional supervision, learning communities at school sites, professional networks – and the soft power of accountability systems that are redesigned to inspire educators. Accountability systems inspire educators when they connect to broader educational values and give the stronger teachers enough flexibility to model best practices. Soft accountability is powerfully augmented when parents are mobilized to support their children‘s achievement and press for high-quality schools. We submit that after about fifteen years of state and federal sanctions-driven accountability that has yielded relatively little, it is time to try a new approach. The hard work of broader-based movements, nourished by government and civic action, will have to replace legal-administrative enforcement and mandates as the centerpiece of such an equity agenda.
So what do you think? Has NCLB done more harm than good? What approach should we take to tackle the unmet challenge of closing the achievement gap?


Oh boy, this is a huge topic. First of all, Deborah Meier has spoken very eloquently on the topic already in her excellent "Many Children Left Behind." To get an even longer view on the matter - to get a sense of where NCLB stands on an extremely long national power war over education, how very much it is 'deja vu all over again,' there is, for starters, the excellent "Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform," by Diane Ravitch.

As far as your question goes, the short answer in my opinion is: Hell yes, NCLB has done WAY more harm than good. In fact, I can't think of much good it HAS done. The problems with NLCB are legion and far too long to list here, but as a middle/high school teacher (both Special Ed and English) who is hit particularly hard by it, I would say the worst of the problems are: 1) NCLB hurts most the very people it purports most to help, low achieving students, by focusing on what they don't know in the most dreary, joyless way (all English/Math all the time). My students have had choir and Spanish taken away from them so that they can pass the test. and 2) The test itself is meaningless, not only metaphysically (why should these subjects and only these be 'important'? and tested in this way?) but also statistically and scientifically, The tests are invalid. They do not test what they are designed to test. They are standardized but the 'line' - below which you fail - is taken arbitrarily each year by each state, largely for politcal reasons.

I could go on and on. But utimately I firmly believe that NCLB is achieving what it IS designed for: as a tool to use in order to destroy the public school system. IF it quacks like a duck...Also, I deeply resent that the same politicians who enforce NCLB will not allow their own children to be impacted by it (look at Mr. Obama and Mr Duncan, both of whom send their children to private (Mr. Duncan himself went to the Lab SChool and then to Harvard, never being personally touched by the government in his own education).

I realize I"m covering too much ground here. IT's a huge issue, as I've said. But the answer to the second part -what approach should we take to tackled the achievement gap - is very complex,far more than the quick NCLB, 'rigor,' and 'accountability' sound bites, and include: social systems that are equitable and fair (inner city environments are toxic), family values that value education, equitable school environments, oh, and so many other solutions too numerous to mention here.

I've just started my own post on the difference between public perception and what really so often goes on behind closed doors within our schools, and I'm interested in anyone's opinion on this, and any solutions anyone has. Thanks!

The question has been posed here in varying forms every several weeks or so since its inception. I am not certain that much progress has been made beyond the "get rid of it" party line. However, as there is some new data surfacing, I will respond again. I don't know for certain what the Civil Rights Projects refers to when they speak of the "soft power of accountability systems redesigned to inspire educators." Even such data systems as value add--which responded to educators concerns that absolute scores were not adequately capturing their contribution to children who "start out behind"--are now greeted with suspicion as possible pre-cursers to pay for (student) performance schemes.

I see a real reluctance on the part of educators (or teachers) to accept responsibility for anything beyond showing up regularly and following the rules (when watched). Not that many do not do far more, only that the willingness to be held accountable for more is so actively fought.

I believe Anthony's early experience of wanting to equalize opportunity. What I see happening--pre NCLB--is the dawning of just how difficult that is, and the impossibility of individuals to carry out such lofty ideals. Youthful ideals come crashing into the walls of reality without adequately seeing or being prepared for understanding the structure that hold such walls in place. The problem is not (only) that individuals are poorly motivated or haven't been exposed to the things that they might aspire to. If it were, a million fairy tales of young and inspiring teachers lighting the way might have come true.

Among the new data and new analysis of new and old data is "Parsing the Achievement Gap II" recently published by ETS. They examine racial and SES gaps in three areas related to educational achievement. One is schools. One is home school connection. One is "before and beyond school" or a variety of community/health/environmental/family conditions linked to educational achievement. Despite the beliefs and protestations of many educators opposed to NCLB, a number of these (though not all) have improved. Parent participation; talking and reading to children, frequent school changes and television watching are key areas of improvement, although only parent involvement represented a narrowing racial gap. Rigor of high school content has also improved (although measures here are less than perfect and rely on course-taking patterns that may or may not reflect actual similarity of content), closing the white-black gap.

However, there are some very important areas in which there has been no change, or deterioration resulting in widening gaps. These have to do with teacher experience and preparation, teacher absence and teacher turnover. Low income minority students are still far more likely to have teachers without adequate preparation in their discipline, or with limited experience--and only two state have completed plans to rectify this situation--as required. Such students are far more likely to experience a teacher leaving before the end of the school year. Furthermore, they are more likely to experience school changes--30-40% of which are due to reasons other than changing residence (overcrowding, class size reductions, discipline, climate, etc).

While schools serving low-income and minority students have--according to DC Lambert (and many others)--responded to the need to improve test scores by "focusing on what they don't know in the most dreary, joyless way (all English/Math all the time)," with inadequate results, so much that could be done remains overlooked. Schools are not seeking ways to improve the preparation of teachers in meaningful ways, or to reduce absence or turnover, and they are particularly reluctant to broach the topic of who teaches where and why.

I am intrigued by the suggestion that "accountability is powerfully augmented when parents are mobilized to support their children‘s achievement and press for high-quality schools." I am intrigued because NCLB calls for such mobilization. In fact one of the most overlooked (could it be because there are no sanctions?) requirements of NCLB is the requirement to notify parents of the reasons for any failure to meet AYP and to involve them in the planning process for improvement. Now certainly, there are ways aplenty to merely go through the motions on this one (ask any parent who has slogged through the IEP process with an unwilling school)--but for the most part, I don't see much evidence that schools are even going through the motions. Could it be that they are absolutely aware of the power of being held accountable by the "soft" requirement to confront the parents of their students with progress in easily understood comparative data? It is certainly far easier to tell one parent that their child isn't doing too well than it is to acknowledge that maybe 75% of the rest of the kids aren't doing so well either. To face such a group without plan for doing something different might not be a very good idea. And to come back a year later and have little to show, well that might be very disappointing.

Yes, NCLB calls for greater participation by parents, and calls for a great many other things as well, but simply calling for things does not get them done, especially when they must be done by people you are simultaneously alienating.

I think you echo the most powerful point made by the Civil Rights Project. Taking on the achievement gap is not something that can be tackled by an individual. Truth be told, it is more than even individual schools can handle -- and more than our schools collectively can handle, because there are some primary social conditions at work that society has to decide we want to shift. Do we truly expect children living in poverty, unsure of their next meal, to achieve at the same levels as those living in privilege? More and more research has been appearing describing the toll poverty takes on the cognitive ability of children. These are not excuses. These are very real conditions that must be addressed if our children are to succeed.

Issues of teacher turnover and absences are directly related to the stresses of teaching under difficult conditions, without a clear sense of hope. If we are going to address these issues, teachers need broader support in their mission from society. We need to feel the schools are not the only institutions working to bridge the achievement gap, and that our students have the concrete support they need (food, health care, secure shelter) to relax and focus on learning. Unfortunately our current economic crisis is intensifying these stresses.

NCLB has told teachers to quit whining about these conditions and get the job done. If that approach worked, we would see some closing of the achievement gap by now. Ironically, defenders of NCLB often claim that "shining a spotlight" on test scores will cause change. Unfortunately the spotlight now shows this simplistic approach is not working.

Teachers are capable of taking on more responsibility for student learning. But we must believe that the means of measuring learning are valid, and that our responsibility corresponds to things we actually control. NCLB has been arbitrary and punitive, exactly the characteristics that would cause people to resist accountability. As the Civil Rights Project points out, for NCLB to be effective, teachers must embrace its mission with enthusiasm. Teachers can tackle the challenges at their schools, through many of the processes I have written about -- professional learning communities, lesson study projects, collaborative research groups -- all of which focus attention on student learning and build teacher capacity. I think it is possible, especially under the inspirational guidance of our new president, to mobilize teachers for this challenge. But we need a fresh start. NCLB has produced eight years of stalemate.


I have logged a lot of years in social service/public health kinds of work. Within these disciplines, it is very common to acknowledge the educational limitations of people living in poverty. The difference that I see in education--coming particularly from teachers--is to believe that until THAT problem is solved (somewhere out there), nothing more can be done to improve education conditions. I have watched (and aided) in such efforts as developing programs of "health educators" to compensate for the limited literacy of patients. I have worked as a social worker in a role that included filling in the gaps so that patients could follow a health care plan--had housing, wasn't getting beaten up on, returned to school, had a means of filling a prescription. I have worked to organize neighborhood people to meet with politicians or bureaucrats who controlled the purse strings that affected their lives and their access to jobs, food, housing, etc.

Schools don't do these things--unless there is an actual school levy--then they try to get to know some parents. Just as teachers feel alienated by a feeling that they have been excluded from the process of developing requirements that they take on the gaps in educational outcomes and report these to parents--so they have worked to alienate parents. Parents are part of that inferior culture "out there" that must be changed if children are ever to be "rescued" and become the students that teachers would prefer to teach. This is not a path to success by any measure--organizational, developmental, psychological.

But, make no mistake. Teachers are among the most organized workers in the US. They have chosen to focus their organizing around hours in the day, who and how an administrator may address them, ways to prevent observation and evaluation of teachers, how much copy paper they can be allotted (apparently in my district they believe it should be unlimited), and lots and lots of complex ways to ensure that nobody has any authority to tell them anything. I cannot believe that organizations capable of creating master contracts comprising hundreds of pages cannot manage planning and conversations between elementary and middle schools that provide meaningful feedback on what students know/don't know by the time they have moved from one school to the other (and what to do about it).

I cannot believe that a high school does not have already available someone who understands how to formulate a hypothesis about what problems are and test it. That same high school should have someone available who can write a coherent goal statement. Someone there should understand whether such a goal (or benchmark) is in fact measureable. Someone there might even be expected to understand enough about the workings of democracy to be able to organize a few meetings, or other means of communication, to gather meaningful teacher, parent, student input into planned solutions.

The biggest problem might be that this would work. They might all have to commit to doing something differently, to working together, instead of blaming the principal, the school board, the students, the parents, the community and, oh yes, NCLB.

According to you, teachers are unwilling to even try to improve education until problems of poverty are fixed, and see parents as hindrances to our work. I raise issues of poverty not to assert that nothing can be done, but simply to point out that schools cannot bear this burden alone -- which is what NCLB has essentially expected. Furthermore, I do not believe your characterization of teachers matches my experience with my colleagues at the middle school where I taught for eighteen years, nor is it what I see in the overwhelming majority of teachers with whom I work now. I am sorry that has been part of your experience. I do not deny that there are incompetent teachers -- I worked for two years as a peer review coach, and saw this firsthand. But I think we make a big mistake when we expect that people will only change when forced to do so. Coercion is actually the weakest form of leadership, not the strongest.

Teachers did not enter the profession for the supposedly short hours. Most of us entered to make a difference in the lives of children. Most of those who leave do so because they do not feel effective. We need to create more powerful support and collaboration at sites so teachers can learn from one another, and improve together. And most importantly, we need a model of education reform that does not seek to drive change through punishment and castigation, but instead through inspiration and celebration of success.

Margo, I sympathize with your concerns as a fellow parent (I'm a single mom of five children), and as a former executive member of a school board in Michigan. However, as as teacher, I must say rather bluntly that your perceptions are simply not based on reality. I'm not quite sure what scientifically valid data you based your conclusions on, in fact, other than assertions and stereotypes. (Echoing pundits is not scientifically valid.) I must say I simply don't know teachers who are afraid of 'accountabiity'--I mean, please, accountability is at the core of our jobs. We are accountable EVERY DAY from countless people, not least our own students, but we're accountable to parents, administrators, the community. I've taught classes while bleeding internally because I've had to get the kids ready for an exam; I've taught classes when my son was recovering from a suicide attempt, because the kids had to learn. For teachers, the show must always go on. Those mythical 'lazy' teachers who don't work unless they're whipped--I literally know of none. Ok, maybe such slackers exist, but I would argue at far smaller proportions than the vast majority of other jobs. You can't be a slacker and be a teacher. You are constantly constantly held to the microscope. We are nothing if not accountable.

It is not fear of accountability that makes teachers loathe NCLB. It is that NCLB is in fact hte antithesis of accountability while pretending to be its champion. It is a highly invalid test the can never be used as a tool to help the child in any case, since its results (providing they are accurate, which they are not) come too late for the teacher to use in order to help.

Here's what I see. I see 'reforms' from the top down that hold teachers in the utmost contempt and with the highest suspicion. Your language betrays your contempt; you speak of teachers as though we were some mythical lazy low-level auto workers who have to be whipped into shape or we take eighty coffee breaks a day (apologies to auto workers!). The vast majority of teachers I know work about 60-70 hours a week. We do for the children and of course because we need a job. At a certain point, many of us decide that much as we love the job, it is simply not worth the disrespect and humiliation experienced daily (from administrators mostly, with the board's blessing).

Where does this perception of teachers as lazy stupid people who must be held in suspicion, come from? Mr. Obama openly talks of 'good' teachers and 'bad' teachers. This is ludicrous. Would we ever talk of any other career in this childish, simplistic manner? Good doctors and bad doctors. Good senators and bad senators. Good mommies and bad mommies.

What I see is a nation increasingly fixated on blaming our teachers for all ills while at the same time praising them for no success. No power, all responsibility. Is it any wonder teachers are fleeing the profession?

Why does this happen? My own theory, after reading about the last 100 years of education in the US., is that it's a massive power grab that the 'top' is increasingly winning. Teachers are a very convenient punching bag, because we have relatively very little power (and not coincidentally,the majority of us are women). Unions are increasingly arms of the board (in our district, they are promised a highly paid position after they are union president--provided they're good boys and girls.) It is directly in our pundits' interest to 'blame the teacher' --why else would they have a job? If Arne Duncan got to his post and said, "Our teachers are doing a heckuva job. Way to go!" then why would he be there? This attitude trickles down, eventually reaching school principals, who turn to parents and offer teachers up for sacrifice at the drop of a hat, so that they can keep their job, or be promoted.

You have no idea the degree of crookedness and corruption that goes on behind the scenes. Administrators and the like have been very successful making teachers into strawmen.

As for poorer districts, it is a very very large societal problem that is the root cause here. Throwing more money at such schools or scolding more teachers will do nothing. Ah, but it sounds good! ANd it get s alot of people in power. And it publishes books. So there you go.

This space is too short for me to go on. But the net problem as I see it is that teachers have no voice. We have been silent and kept silent for too long while politicians, pundits and academics all with the media's collusion have jostled into place.

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