Dont Just Get Rid Of NCLB Get Rid Of The Thinking That Created It

Jeff Bryant

Now that the mandate to run our nation’s schools according to No Child Left Behind has utterly collapsed, and many of the best minds are suggesting that we move on, there is still a prevailing contingency seeking to not just prop up but expand many of the tenants of the failed policy.

Our political leadership in Washington DC continues to be obsessed with the intricacies of the accountability measures imposed by NCLB. Rich people continue to exhort educators to adopt business practices which are in great part what helped bring about NCLB. And state after state across the country continues to divert precious dollars from early childhood education, art and music teachers, and foreign language and advanced placement programs to teacher incentive and evaluation systems mandated by NCLB.

In just the latest absurdity of how lawmakers continue to use NCLB-inspired thinking to “leverage the system” by exerting more pressures on teachers, the state of Idaho has decided to tie teachers’ pay to how often parents show up for student conferences and school events. Like teachers really have some control over this?

So despite the clear failure of NCLB as effective public policy, why does the philosophy behind that policy still have such a strong grip at our leadership levels? To answer that question, it’s useful to explore the thinking of a certain breed of economists who inspired NCLB to begin with.

These economists are particularly fond of retelling the story that they believe to be proof positive of how the world should work:

A Tale Of Convicts And Ships

Back in the 1700s, the British government was grappling with a booming crime rate brought on by an economic collapse and a dearth of employment opportunities. So to stem the mounting number of convicted criminals, the ruling classes determined to start sending them to Australia, a recently acquired colony that had relatively large tracts of unoccupied land — particularly after the native populations had been mostly exterminated — and a growing need for cheap labor to build a new infrastructure.

A significant problem the government encountered, however, was that huge percentages of the convicts — as much as a third — died while being transported on the ships due to starvation, disease, and little to no medical care. What to do?

Well, according to the hindsight of these modern-day economists, the “solution” was a problem of getting the “metrics” right — the metric, in this case, being the number of prisoners — the body count, if you will — that needed to be tracked during the journey. The problem wasn’t the number of bodies that got on the ships — the “input — it was the number of bodies that got off — the “output.” And when the government simply shifted from paying the ship captains for the number of bodies stacked into their vessels — the “input” — to paying the ship captains for the “output” of live human beings when the boats docked in Australia, then voila, the problem was solved.

In other words, to these economists, all matters humanity are simply resolved by tracking the given metrics in the system and determining the best place to “incentivize” the people involved in the given system. And their base conclusion is that only by appealing to people’s self interest — in this case the ship captain’s paycheck — could you get the desired output from the system — never mind whether the system you’re dealing with is a moral abomination.

One has to assume that, given the improved body count achieved in the transport of convicts, that these economists would be fine if this “solution” had gone on in perpetuity. Of course it didn’t, and an “economic model” had nothing to do with its end. Instead, two things ended this moral repugnance: 1) anger from the growing number of free settlers in Australia at seeing their wages being kept artificially low due to a veritable slave trade, and 2) the outrage of citizens in England who insisted that criminal sentencing be governed by “a just measure in pain” for the crimes people commit.

When An Economic Problem Is Really A Moral One

What do English convicts and ship captains from over 200 years ago have to do with education policy today? Just as those 18th century English government officials believed that the main imperative in the business of deporting convicts was reducing the gap between the number of bodies boarding the ships and the number offloaded alive at journey’s end, the most well-meaning officials behind NCLB backed the policy as a means to close the gap between the education attainment of underserved children and their better-off peers. And just as those English lawmakers of years ago chose to focus on a metric that would perpetuate rather than end the unfairness and injustice of the system, American policy makers have chosen an equally inadequate metric — test scores — to gauge “success.”

Despite the demise of NCLB, scores on standardized tests continue to be the be-all and end-all of education policy despite the great harm this is doing to school children and classroom teachers.

Because testing is mandatory at the federal level in just two subjects — math and English language arts — school children are being harmed by a narrowing of the curriculum to these subjects only. Our policy leaders respond to this problem by proclaiming that the best solution is to just have “more tests” in “more subjects.” In the meantime, more and more subjects, such as science, fall off the curriculum, and the original problem — the disparity and inequality of learning opportunities available to all school children — actually gets worse.

So much belief is being invested into the power of test scores to improve education that most classroom teachers now face a new “landscape” in which their pay level and indeed the very existence of their job will depend on how well school children perform on standardized tests, even though advocates for these systems admit that they are less than “perfect.” “Some people are concerned that not every ‘i’ is dotted,” a proponent for test-based teacher evaluation recently observed, dismissing any notion that evaluations that could end up in terminating a good teacher’s job would need to be “fine tuned.” This prompted at least one classroom teacher to wonder, “So what if we fire Mr. Chips and Mr. Holland but keep Cameron Diaz? Their lives are just an ‘i’ to be dotted, right?”

Even as a practical matter, the belief system that spawned NCLB and the similar enterprises — such as Race to the Top — that have followed it, have little to show in terms of real progress. As the veteran educator Deborah Meier recently observed:

But after more than two decades of these New Reforms—more and more testing, higher stakes, charters, and mayoral control—we do know some things for sure:
(a) Test scores have not risen, and the test-score gap hasn’t narrowed.
(b) We have moved further away from building a profession that retains and uses its experienced teachers well.
(c) We are witnessing unimaginable hours spent on test-prepping and a narrowing of the rest of the curriculum while cheating is being ignored and teachers are being demoralized. Hardly trivial side effects.
And we know that our immediate bleak economic future will exacerbate all these trends.

But of course this isn’t just a “practical matter.” Those 18th century English officials overseeing the convict ships sailing to Australia failed at ending the exploitation of incarcerated citizens not because they had the metrics wrong but because they had their values wrong. They could “incent” all they wanted to different ways to improve the body count, but that did nothing to end the overall inhumanity. Only when people asserted the values of fairness and justice did the madness end.

Today, similar ways of thinking in our education policies — evident in NCLB and other proposals — have done virtually nothing to advance fairness for our school children and have ratcheted up, in fact, an unjust way of treating teachers. Time to declare, “Enough!”

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