The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts."....  ....C.S. Lewis.

Commentary of the Day - November 10, 2007: Some Will Be Left Behind.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the street signs that mark the way are all ironic slogans.  Herbert Hoover, for example, meant well when he reassured the nation that prosperity was just around the corner.  Neville Chamberlain had the world's best interests at heart when he promised peace in our time.  They were both decent men, they were both wrong, and they've paid for their misjudgments by becoming punch lines in the margins of twentieth century history.

Today schools are laboring under a twenty-first century punch line slogan of their own, No Child Left Behind.  While President Bush characteristically gets the prize for being most stubborn in defense of his bankrupt education law, it's only fair to remember that it isn't just his law.  It's a federal law, and it didn’t get to be one without the support of notables on both sides of the political aisle.

It's also only fair to concede that most of NCLB's sponsors were moved by good intentions.  Yes, conservatives hoped it would foster more school choice, and liberals expected it would channel more federal money into education.  But apart from their particular partisan concerns, both sides were responding to the inescapable reality that too many American students are learning too little, and that our national academic decline will inevitably beget a decline in both our standard of living and our standing in the world.

It doesn't take a jeweler's eye to find the flaws that led to our undoing.  Since the 1970s we've stripped our schools of discipline and academic content in the name of self-esteem and social development.  While education experts undermined classrooms with unsound theories and bogus bandwagon miracles, society at large welcomed an age where hard work and perseverance are scorned and self-absorption basks in the spotlight.  A spirit of entitlement plagues our land and our schools.  We guarantee success and outlaw failure.  Our new higher standards are empty rhetoric, our mission statements are platitudes, and our endeavors are fatally compromised.

Into this debacle rode No Child Left Behind.  And into the gaping national breech the law placed teachers like me.

No Child Left Behind.  That's quite a promise to put in someone else's mouth.  Especially when the promise is a federal law specifically requiring that every American child be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  That's every American child.  Or else.

Or else what?

Imagine a federal law requiring doctors to make all Americans healthy.

Not that schools are doing everything right.  They definitely aren't.  The trouble is NCLB simply replaced one set of bankrupt follies with another.  That’s the way public education works.  We ricochet between extremes.

No Child Left Behind is right that we need an honest reckoning of where American students stand academically and how they got there.  We need to acknowledge the causal role three decades of comfy, content-light, "student centered" education theories have played in the disaster.  Unfortunately, NCLB's mandates compel schools to divert substantial resources, money, and time from teaching to testing.  Those tests have taught us less about student achievement than they have about the unreliability of modern testing itself.

According to a senior RAND analyst, NCLB's assessment regime doesn't identify "good schools" and "bad schools," just "lucky and unlucky schools."  A Brookings Institution study found that "fifty to eighty percent of the improvement in a school’s average test scores from one year to the next was temporary" and "caused by fluctuations that had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning or productivity."  Congress's General Accountability Office described data "comparisons between states" as "meaningless."

A September 2007 Thomas B. Fordham Institute report found NCLB's assessment system "slipshod" and characterized by "standards that are discrepant state to state, subject to subject, and grade to grade."  For example, third graders scoring at the sixth percentile on Colorado's state reading test are rated proficient.  In South Carolina the third grade proficiency cut-off is the sixtieth percentile.

Significant discrepancies exist within individual states as well.  In most states "eighth grade tests are sharply harder to pass" than "those in earlier grades."  Compared to a national norm, Vermont third graders scoring at the thirty-third percentile are counted proficient in reading.  Vermont eighth graders have to score at the forty-eighth percentile to qualify for the same proficiency rating.  This floating standard is equivalent to calling an eighty an A in third grade and a B in eighth grade, and then wondering why fewer eighth graders are getting A's.

As Congress wrangles over renewing NCLB, legislators are tinkering with its most problematic provisions.  Some propose postponing the 2014 universal proficiency deadline, as if postponement will somehow make universal proficiency less impossible.  In his search for allies among the critics who've panned the law as too narrow in its focus, President Bush has begun talking about "every child" performing "at grade level, or above," as if a law that couldn't bring every child up to grade level will somehow now bring them all that high and higher.

No federal law will solve our problem.  First, unlike national defense, the federal government owns no special expertise in public education.  All it brings is another level of bureaucracy and a greater distance from classroom realities.  Second, the root of our troubles lies in a generation of failed education reforms and our endemic national self-indulgence.

But if we do renew the law, as we most likely will, let's at least change the name to "Some Will Be Left Behind."  For starters, it's the truth.  Some children, and adults, simply can't, or won't, perform academically.  It's absurd and futile to hold schools accountable for abilities, initiative, or supportive home lives that some students don't have.  Proposed changes to NCLB, including a requirement that states prepare eighty percent of their graduates for college, continue to ignore the reality that eighty percent of Americans will be prepared for college only if we water down what college needs to be.

Renaming the law would deliver a valuable reminder.  No one will be willing to sweat if success is guaranteed without it.  It's in our national interest to care for the infirm and to ensure for all Americans, regardless of race or class, the opportunity to improve through diligent effort.  School can help provide that opportunity.  We need to teach our students that while effort doesn't guarantee success, indolent complacency almost always leads to failure.  We need to warn them that without hard work and responsibility, they will be left behind.

Sadly, they're not the only ones who need to learn that lesson.

2007 Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments: Once again Poor Elijah is on target.  No Child Left Behind is a slogan that has a nice ring to it, but it doesn't reflect reality.


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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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