What's Wrong with NCLB? False Premises and Harmful Effects

While NCLB's goals are laudable -- bringing all public school students to academic proficiency and closing the achievement gaps -- how it seeks to achieve them is fatally flawed.
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Now that President Obama has put reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/ No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on the front burner and it is widely recognized that NCLB is failing to achieve its goals, the critical question is how should it be restructured.

As Senators Michael Enzi (Wyo.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), senior Republican members of the Senate's education committee, recently recognized, for Congress to develop appropriate remedies for NCLB, it must first understand NCLB's deficiencies. [Education Daily, Feb. 4, 2011, p.1]

This common-sense observation leads to profound consequences. Because the current law rests on false premises and has serious harmful effects, it cannot simply be "fixed" -- it needs to be overhauled.

While NCLB's goals are laudable -- bringing all public school students to academic proficiency and closing the achievement gaps between poor and minority children and others -- how it seeks to achieve them is fatally flawed. NCLB's problems extend to both what it does and what it does not do.

NCLB's critical underlying problem is its fundamental "theory of change," i.e., "tests and sanctions": Test students at the front end, sanction schools when students fail to sufficiently raise test scores at the back end, and essentially jump over the middle -- the harder part -- explaining what changes schools should make to substantially improve student learning, and then helping them do so.

I believe that NCLB's "tests and sanctions" theory of change is built on several implicit premises:

1) Public schools know how to dramatically improve student learning, but they must be pressured to try harder; publishing the results of required annual tests and the embarrassment of being labeled as failures for not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) "proficiency" targets, will induce schools to make any necessary changes in teaching and learning.

2) Insofar as tests and embarrassment may not be sufficient to generate the needed changes, a series of mandatory, escalating sanctions over multiple years, including transfers and tutoring, replacing curriculum or selected staff, or other "corrective actions" and ultimately, major changes in governance, including converting to a "charter school," "private management" or a state takeover, will substantially improve the schools.

3) Each sanctioned school's deficiencies are predominantly unique, rather than a result of historical structures, policies and social conditions typically applicable to schools serving high concentrations of poor and minority children nationwide.

4) States have the skilled and knowledgeable human resources to effectively assist schools and districts transform their low-achieving schools and, where necessary, lead the transformation themselves.

5) NCLB's tests and sanctions accountability system will enable most public schools to bring virtually 100 percent of their students to academic proficiency by 2014, regardless of their concentrations of students by poverty, race, English speaking ability or disability.

These premises are false. NCLB's approach to "school reform" is not only fundamentally misconceived and ineffective, but has led to significant harms.

Contrary to the first premise, most sanctioned schools do not currently have the capacity, including the knowledge and skills, to make the systemic changes necessary to dramatically improve instruction and the level of student learning. Pressuring them to raise test scores generally does not induce the necessary changes in expectations, beliefs and practices. Harmfully, the threat of embarrassment and sanctions widely generates "teaching to the test," "narrowing the curriculum," and various manipulations to lower standards and raise test scores to try to avoid or postpone schools' being sanctioned. Moreover, the NCLB accountability scheme has led to destructive labeling of an increasingly large percentage of schools as failing, damagingly undermining the morale and self-confidence of teachers, school leaders, parents and community members.

Second, mandated, piecemeal, escalating sanctions have not significantly improved low-achieving schools overall. This strategy is not only unduly rigid, but misunderstands what it takes to turn around a chronically low-achieving school: as with other complex organizations, this requires not a pre-sequenced, rigid, mechanistic process, but skilled leadership and a multi-faceted, concurrent and responsive process of organic change.

Charter schools and private management are no more effective overall than traditional public schools, if that. Moreover, they undermine our democracy by giving up local public control and public funding -- to private individuals -- of America's key public institution for educating our youth.

Third, by treating each school's deficiencies as predominantly unique, NCLB has led the public to overlook that America has historically had a two-track public school system that has disproportionately assigned poor and minority students to non-academic tracks. Simply superimposing a new requirement that such students learn much more academically, as NCLB has done, does nothing to equip their teachers and staff to dramatically raise their historically lower level of curriculum and teaching, nor to help the students' families provide the necessary academic support at home. Moreover, it harmfully encourages a narrow emphasis on blaming and removing individual "bad" teachers and staff, rather than focusing chiefly on the much greater need to improve systemic staff preparation, training, collaboration and support, so as to significantly improve what goes on in classrooms generally.

Fourth, states do not now have nearly the human capacity to provide essential technical assistance and support for all schools failing AYP, let alone to turn them around by themselves.

Finally, during NCLB, there has been virtually no increase in the percentage of students at "proficiency" in reading as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and only a modest increase in math. It is projected that about 85 percent of schools would fail AYP by the 2014 deadline.

NCLB is based on false premises and produces harmful effects. ESEA needs to be profoundly redirected.

My subsequent blogs will discuss how a reauthorized ESEA should be overhauled to accomplish its goals.

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