NCLB Dies Zombie Education Reforms Live On

Jeff Bryant

With the collapse of the No Child Left Behind policy that has driven American education policy for at least the past decade, one would think that our nation’s leaders would pause to consider the faulty thinking that brought this erroneous policy to life to begin with.

And don’t doubt for a minute that NCLB is indeed a failed policy.

As edublogger Anthony Cody writes, “In spite of a decade of No Child Left Behind, growth in student achievement remains essentially flat.”

Quoting Lisa Guisbond of FairTest, Cody notes that academic growth, as measured by this month’s release of the Main National Assessment of Education Progress, often used as a yardstick by government officials and policy wonks, “was more rapid before and flattened after NCLB took effect.” And “black-white achievement gaps remain large, at 25 points, and have not budged, despite the hope that NCLB’s bright light would expose these gaps and motivate targeted, successful responses to close them.”

Another NAEP yardstick — the longer term assessment of students age 9, 13, and 17, going back 40 years — shows that the greatest narrowing of the achievement gap occurred in the 1970s and 80s, long before any “reform” movement preceding NCLB started dominating education policy.

So Cody correctly concludes, “NCLB, perhaps the least popular law ever to blight our schools, has been a dramatic failure by its own chosen indicators.”

But never quick to reflect on failure, our political leaders in Washington, DC are responding like all the king’s men after Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall.

Instead of starting over with fresh thinking and taking a consensus view — through perhaps something like an Education Summit that includes educators, parents and students — Education Secretary Arne Duncan is busy jury-rigging a system for waiving the restrictions that NCLB imposed while at the same time pushing for NCLB-inspired “reform” measures featured in Race to the Top and other policies.

In fact, the ruined remains of NCLB — RTTT, School Improvement Grants, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) grants — have become the de facto policy guiding American public education, and they perpetuate failed notions of education “reform” which, like zombies refusing to die, continue to menace our schools and our children.

Chief among the education reform undead is the pernicious notion of basing teacher evaluations on student scores on standardized tests.

Writing this week in The New York Times reporter Michael Winerip brings us up close and personal to just such a new teacher evaluation system in Tennessee. See if this makes sense to you:

The new rules, enacted at the start of the school year, require Mr. Shelton [the school principal] to do as many observations for his strongest teachers — four a year — as for his weakest. “It’s an insult to my best teachers,” he said, “but it’s also a terrible waste of time.”
Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers — kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers — the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules. Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.

This evaluation system is the brainchild of reform policies pushed onto states by the RTTT grant competition.

Tennessee, along with eight other states and the District of Columbia, were awarded billions in federal funds on the basis, partially, of agreeing to implement new systems that tie teacher evaluations in a significant way to student scores on standardized tests. Because Tennessee was among just two states (the other being Delaware) to win the first round of RTTT grant awards, the state is being viewed by many as a model for other states to follow.

In fact, Florida is in the process of rolling out a system similar to Tennessee’s with the same absurd consequences to teachers. Again, the evaluation is based on a formula that tries to determine a teacher’s effect on a student’s standardized test performance, and again “thousands” of teachers who don’t teach a subject assessed by the Florida state exam will get a “score” that has nothing to do with the subject or the students they happen to teach.

North Carolina and New York, also RTTT winners, are gearing up to implement similar evaluation systems. And even states that are not RTTT winners, such as Wisconsin, have jumped on the bandwagon to use evaluation systems that are designed, not to see how students are actually doing on acquiring subject area content, but to see if teachers and principals are able to raise test scores.

As one of the quotes from the Winerip article points out, the immediate consequences of these new evaluation policies “put everyone under stress, are divisive, and suck the joy out of schools.” But the impacts go way beyond that. In a powerfully written document that also came out this week, principals from schools in Long Island, New York enumerate to their state legislators the multiple problems with this approach to education reform.

It’s bad enough that these new evaluation models do not produce reliable measurements — like “using a meter stick to weigh a person,” the principals explain — but far more important are the damages that these new evaluations will likely have to children.

When “test scores take front and center,” the principals state, the curriculum will narrow to “test preparation and skill and drill teaching, and “enrichment activities in the arts, music, civics and other non-tested areas will diminish.” More struggling students will likely get placed in lower-level classes without standardized assessments. Schools will likely become “more reluctant to challenge students upward” for fear that it will push test scores lower. Teachers will more likely try to “avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or students suffering from emotional issues.” And teachers will become less collaborative as they focus more only how well their students are doing on tests rather than on how well the entire school meets the needs of all its students.

Furthermore, from a financial standpoint, creating and implementing these new evaluation systems is taking huge sums of money away from direct services to students at a time when school budgets are being slashed to the bone in just about every state.

In New York, at the same time when state legislators passed $1.3 billion in education cuts, the state’s new teacher evaluation system is redirecting more tax dollars from schools to, in the words of the Long Island principals, “testing companies, trainers, and outside vendors.”

While it’s true that some states have gotten federal money — through RTTT and other grants — to help offset the costs of implementing these evaluation systems, the long term costs go way beyond the amount of the federal funds. Florida, for instance, got $700 million in its RTTT award but will spend more than $1 billion, over the next two years alone, to develop and implement the testing and evaluation apparatus.

California recently calculated that it would cost the state $3.5 billion to implement teacher evaluations and other RTTT-inspired requirements for obtaining a waiver to No Child Left Behind mandates still in force.

California wisely turned Secretary Duncan’s waiver offer down, but 42 other states have applied for the waivers.

Certainly, there’s got to be an alternative to this madness. But efforts to reauthorize federal legislation governing education have generally stalled and most who are currently involved in the negotiation do little more than trade talking points about “accountability” and “achievement,” but until these terms become disassociated with “test scores” the conversation will not change.

There have been many voices from outside DC offering useful and constructive advice to lawmakers, but these inputs are being quickly dismissed.

In the meantime, there’s wide agreement among the Serious People that NCLB has become untenable. So now, after the consequences of NCLB waivers roll out across the country, get ready for the next Very Serious Discussion on education policy: What to do about the untenable waivers.

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