When Lessons From Education Reform Go Unlearned

Jeff Bryant

One good thing you can say about 2011 is that it is a year in which lots of wrong-headed undertakings finally came to their ignominious conclusions — including, among others, the Iraq War, the Gadhafi regime, the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.

Also among the train-wrecks is undoubtedly our failed national education policy, No Child Left Behind.

Maybe our country has learned some valuable lessons from the fallout of some of the events of 2011. Perhaps we’ve learned that ground wars in the Middle East are a dead-end, that people will eventually rebel and overthrow repressive governments, that presidential elections have yet to descend to the levels of reality TV, and that many of our most popular celebrities are long past their shelf life.

So what have we learned from the failure of NCLB?

Yes, NCLB Was a Failure
First, not everyone agrees that NCLB was a failure. Just last week, as reported in the education trade newspaper Education Week, the conservative Fordham Institute issued a study claiming that NCLB should be credited for having boosted math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress — especially in the state of Texas, an early adopter of “accountability”. The study concludes that the problem with America’s public schools is not that NCLB has been a failure, but that it was only good enough to provide a temporary “shock” to our educational system, and another one is sorely needed.

The study’s author, Mark Schneider, likens NCLB to the meteor strike that may have wiped out the dinosaurs and cleared the ecosystem for the rise of mammals — no, I am not making this up — and contends that the doctrine created a positive new “equilibrium.” What’s necessary now, he contends, is for “another meteor” to “come crashing into the school ecosystem.”

The expected results for this apocalyptic wish? Another “uptick in math scores” — if we’re “lucky.” And what if we’re not . . . ?

Hyperbole aside (please), this effort to cherry pick data in order to draw a grand conclusion about the state of America’s public schools wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t overlook an overwhelming context of other information.

NCLB In Context
The “overwhelming context” is that although NCLB may — or may not have (correlation is not causation) — helped produce higher scores in math, there’s very good reason to conclude that any “uptick” in math scores was likely at the expense of teaching a great many other subjects.

A recent national survey of 1,001 public school teachers found that an overwhelming majority — two-thirds — said that study of art, science, and social studies was “getting crowded out of the school day.” From an article in Education Week about the survey:

Nearly all of the teachers who see time for English and math pushing other subjects aside say the main reason is state tests. In fact, 60 percent say their school is devoting more time in recent years to test-taking skills. And, the extra time for English and math is not simply for struggling students, but affects all students, conclude 77 percent of respondents.

Furthermore, now that nearly half of the public schools in America have been deemed “failing,” according to NCLB standards, even though everyone agrees the standards for failing are “defective,” most states are jumping through all kinds of hoops in order to get around what is still the law of the land. What results, of course, is time, energy, and resources going toward anything but the crucial matter at hand: real teaching and learning.

It’s The Data, Stupid
The premise of NCLB was that by tracking “the data” produced by standardized tests, we could set our students free of “failed” schools. Instead, it’s “the data” that appear to be failing us. In recent days, two articles from major news outlets illustrate the failure all too well.

First, Michael Winerip from The New York Times recounts the “scientific” exactitude of tracking school performance in New York over the past decade. Mocking the “finely calibrated” academic standards used by the state, Winerip traced the bizarre ups and downs of education assessments, in which student scores meander from “dismal” to “record levels,” back to “ridiculously inflated,” then to “statistically significant declines,” without any particular rhyme or reason. And all the while edu-crats and politicians assure the public, over and over, that everything is “going in the right direction.”

Then, over at Huffington Post, Joy Resmovits points us to a new study by policy analysts at Mathematica that blasts NCLB’s reliance on “raw test data” as being “extremely misleading.”

The analysts at Mathematica reasoned that NCLB’s reliance on test data made it a flawed policy from the get-go because you can’t “compare this year’s fifth graders with last year’s,” and you can’t use the results of a test “to measure short-term impacts of policies or schools,” because you’re measuring different groups of students. So differences in scores between two cohorts — say, fourth graders one year and fourth graders the next year — are more indicative of the differences in the students themselves as opposed to the quality of schooling they’ve experienced. And the results from these year-to-year snapshots that NCLB relied on generally led to “false impressions of growth or loss.”

Nevertheless in 2012, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top — a competition that has states vie for federal funds by promising to implement reforms championed by the Education Department — will, in fact, extend NCLB’s obsession with “year-to-year snapshots.” By requiring that teacher evaluation be in part measured by the scores students get on exams, the intent of NCLB remains unwaivering.

The Coming Data-Based “Dropout Crisis”
As long as this illusion of “scientific precision” continues to guide education policy, we’ll keep chasing after these flawed “impressions of growth or loss.” In fact, quite likely the first of these data-based chimeras to pop-up on the radar in 2012 will be a new “crisis” over dropout rates. Again, the crisis will be based on “the data,” and again, “the data” will be completely misleading.

As US News and World Report revealed last week, “the official national graduation rates will likely dip between 5 percent and 10 percent next year.” How do we know this?

Because “new federal rules that mandate states to report [high school] graduation rates uniformly will go into effect for the class of 2012,” most states will have to change the way they report graduation rates. For many of these states, it will mean lower graduation totals at the end of each year, even if the same percentage of high schoolers still earn diplomas.

The report explains: “Under current federal laws, states are allowed to lump in students who complete special education programs, night school, the GED, and virtual high school programs along with those who earn a traditional high school diploma.” But after removing these students from federal allowances, graduation rates will definitely fall.

“That doesn’t mean schools are doing anything differently or are graduating fewer students than in past years,” the report observes. But nevertheless, whether you agree with the new federal mandates or not, “the data” will show a “dropout crisis.”

Caution Signs In Order
This is not to say that data can’t be an important element for guiding public policy. But there are currently too many gung-ho data devotees exhorting us onward when we desperately need some caution signs.

Few, for instance, have considered what it could mean to have these warehouses of our children’s academic information potentially in the hands of profiteers. Need a mailing list of “failing students” anyone?

This week, the blog NYC Public School Parents connected the dots among reports from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to reveal that student data from New York are being outsourced to a corporation run by Bill Gates and operated by a business owned by Rupert Murdoch.

A chilling excerpt from the documents obtained by the blogger makes it all too clear what the commercial intentions are for this project:

In addition to making instructional data more manageable and useful, this open-license technology, provisionally called the Shared Learning Infrastructure (SLI), will also support a large market for vendors of learning materials and application developers.

“In other words, companies will be making more money off student’s test scores,” the blogger concludes.

Back To School?
Whether you agree or not that the current data obsession guiding education policy is more about making schools better or making money, the lesson from 2011 is that, either way, there are few benefits to our nation’s children and youth.

What NCLB represented more than anything was a really bad way of thinking about public policy. Established on the notion that something as complex as a school system, overseeing something as ill-defined as “learning,” can be evaluated and governed by specific and isolated “data outputs,” NCLB was doomed to failure from the start.

But even as NCLB lays in ruins, there’s every indication that lessons have not been learned and we’re continuing down the same policy rat hole as before.

Every good teacher knows that one of the most valuable things you can impart to students is the ability to learn from mistakes. If they’re right, we have a whole lot of policy leaders who need to go back to school.

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