02 April 2005


A lot of smart folks are puzzled by why education people seem to all be upset about No Child Left Behind. Matthew Yglasias, for example.
A progressive fellow explained to me yesterday that the real reason he doesn't like No Child Left Behind is that it's a long-term stealth plan to destroy the public school system and he's just baffled as to why some liberals don't see it that way. I'm a bit baffled as to why he sees it his way. From where I sit, NCLB is by no means the Be All And End All of federal education policy, but it was a step in the right direction. But its critics, whether earnestly motivated by this fear of public school apocalypse or just by teacher's union self-interest, have taken up the habit of launching some pretty nonsensical attacks on the law.
His friend shouldn't be baffled: the problem is subtle. I'm at the point where if someone who knows more than I do about a subject tells me that the Bush administration is doing something that is phenomenally bad policy, I don't need to ask for a detailed explanation any more --- it's so consistent with the things I do understand well, that I can spare myself the research and trust that the Bush administration is screwing things up.

But if my faith in Bush administration malice and ineptitude isn't enough for you, I have the Mineapolis/St. Paul City Pages giving a good description of what's wrong with NCLB.

And if you're too lazy to read that, I'll just walk through the highlights with you ...

Any school receiving federal Title I money (ostensibly earmarked to improve the performance of disadvantaged students) faces increasingly harsh sanctions if its test scores fail to meet state-defined standards for making adequate yearly progress.
The trick is in how the standards for adequate yearly progress (AYP) are measured.
Under NCLB, students taking the assessment tests are broken down into eight different subgroups such as white, Hispanic, eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and special education. Each subgroup, as well as the school's student body as a whole, is measured according to its proficiency and participation rate on the tests. This enables teachers and administrators to better understand which students are most in need of extra assistance --- and penalizes schools for not having already provided it.

Large schools that have at least 20 students in each subgroup (at least 40 for special education) can literally have their test results parsed out and measured in 37 different ways. If just one of the subgroups fails to meet just one of the standards (which include a two-thirds rate of proficiency and a 95 percent rate of participation by each subgroup on both math and reading assessments), then the school will be listed as having failed to meet AYP performance goals.

So even very good schools are likely to end up on the bad list, because it's statistically inevitable that some subgroup will perform poorly. Soon we'll have the govenment telling us that the public schools just can't perform well. Those lousy public schools! They can't get anything right!

Oh, and it gets better.

The required proficiency rates for math and reading will inexorably climb over the next decade until, in 2014, we arrive at the theoretical endgame, where the only options are failure and perfection.

That's right: Every student in every subgroup must be proficient on every assessment in order for schools and districts to be in compliance with NCLB.

It's Lake Wobegon: all the children have to be above average.

So what happens when a school doesn't meet its AYP target?

After two years of AYP failure, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another public school in the district and bear the cost of transportation. After three years, the school must also offer low-income students tutorial services through a public or private agency approved by the state.
Astute readers have probably already correctly guessed that these are unfunded mandates.
After four years, the school district must take corrective actions such as removing personnel or changing the curriculum in the school.
If this were only going to happen to bad schools, it might make sense. But recall that this is going to happen to just about every school, eventually, because of the absurd AYP targets. So the schools will be in churn and turmoil.
And after five years, the district is obliged to blow up, or "restructure," the school by replacing most or all of its staff or by turning over operations, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, "to either the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness."
Ahem. So the state is going to be running all of these schools. How? And how is that going to help?

Or private companies could ride to the rescue, I see. Yeah, that makes sense. The testing in NCLB will have shown that the public schools aren't just performing. Why, private enterprise will look pretty good. And if so, why not just use existing private schools? You could just have a system of vouchers for choosing the one you want ...

Whoops. So much for supporting the public schools.


TheWayOfTheGun said...

As lousy as GWB is at doing the Nation's business, he's astonishingly good at electoral politics. One lesson we can take from the George Bush playbook is that it never hurts to state the obvious.

Just as critics of the insane Iraq war run the risk of being mislabeled as unpatriotic, opponents of No Child Left Behind are easily mislabeled as unconcerned with education, the plight of our nation's children, etc. A speaker on NPR a while back addressed this quite well by saying "I support the goals of No Child Left Behind. I just don't think the specific policies serve to further those goals."

Yeah, that ought to be bloody obvious, but with so much FUD being flung about in politics these days, such points are worth emphasizing.

Cobb said...

Yes. It will explode. With any luck it will dry up like a raisin in the sun.

All I see is a hard multiculturalist mandate. The group that slips will get the blame, and that will be the beginning of the explosion.