Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Time to pressure Rep. George Miller : revoke NCLB

Noted education commentator and author Diane Ravitch was in my part of the state, the San Francisco Bay Area, last week, urging Bay Area residents to launch a protest campaign to pressure our own Rep. George Miller to stop defending the No Child Left Behind law — which is based on (as Ravitch says) "measure and punish."

Miller co-sponsored the original law, but I asked her Ravitch there's any reason to pressure him at this point. She explained that he can control reauthorization of the law, and that Nancy Pelosi and the House Education Committee do what he wants. Miller’s district is in the East Bay, and he has offices in Richmond, Concord and Vallejo. Contact info at the end of this post.

I'm posting a string of quotes from Ravitch — both from her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" and from commentaries by her and interviews with her — to clarify why No Child Left Behind should be viewed as harming schools and even as a threat to the future of public education.

As 2014 draws nearer, growing numbers of schools across the nation are approaching an abyss. Because NCLB requires states to promise that they will reach an impossible goal, the states have adopted timetables agreeing to do what they can't do, no matter how hard teachers and principals try. Most have stretched out the timetable — putting off the biggest gains for the future — to stave off their inevitable failure. The school officials who wrote the timetables in the early years of implementation must have hoped or expected that they would be retired and gone long before 2014 arrived. With every passing year that brought the target date closer, more and more public schools failed to make AYP and were labeled as "failing." Even though some states lowered the cut scores (or passing marks) on their tests to make it easier for schools to meet their target, many still failed to make AYP toward 100 percent proficiency for every subgroup. And in states that maintained high standards and did not lower the cut scores, even more schools fell behind.
One of the unintended consequences of NCLB was the shrinkage of time available to teach anything other than reading and math. Other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed in many schools. Reading and mathematics were the only subjects that counted in calculating a school's adequate yearly progress, and even in these subjects, instruction gave way to intensive test preparation. Test scores became an obsession. Many school districts invested heavily in test-preparation materials and activities. Test-taking skills and strategies took precedence over knowledge. Teachers used the tests from previous years to prepare their students, and many of the questions appeared in precisely the same format every year; sometimes the exact same questions reappeared on the state tests. In urban schools, where there are many low-performing students, drill and practice became a significant part of the daily routine.
NCLB was a punitive law based on erroneous assumptions about how to improve schools. It assumed that reporting test scores to the public would be an effective lever for school reform. It assumed that changes in governance would lead to school improvement. It assumed that shaming schools that were unable to lift test scores every year — and the people who work in them — would lead to higher scores. It assumed that low scores are caused by lazy teachers and lazy principals, who need to be threatened with the loss of their jobs. Perhaps most naively, it assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education. Its assumptions were wrong. Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.
In the NCLB era, when the ultimate penalty for a low-performing school was to close it, punitive accountability achieved a certain luster, at least among the media and politicians. Politicians and non-educator superintendents boasted of how many schools they had shuttered. Their boasts won them headlines for "getting tough" and cracking down on bad schools. But closing down a school is punitive accountability, which should happen only in the most extreme cases, when a school is beyond help. Closing schools should be considered a last step and a rare one. It disrupts lives and communities, especially those of children and their families. It destroys established institutions, in the hope that something better is likely to arise out of the ashes of the old, now-defunct school. It accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families, and communities need as anchors in their lives. It teaches students that institutions and adults they once trusted can be tossed aside like squeezed lemons, and that data of questionable validity can be deployed to ruin people's lives.
Tests are necessary and helpful. But tests must be supplemented by human judgment. When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble. When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies (mens sana in corpore sano), and forming citizens for our democracy, not just for teaching basic skills. We even forget to reflect on what we mean when we speak of a good education. Surely we have more in mind than just bare literacy and numeracy. And when we use the results of tests, with all their limitations, as a routine means to fire educators, hand out bonuses, and close schools, then we distort the purpose of schooling altogether.
Results from this multibillion-dollar undertaking have been disappointing. Gains in achievement have been meager, as we have seen not only on NAEP's long-term-trend report, but also on the NAEP tests that are administered every other year. In national assessments since the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed, 4th grade reading scores went up by 3 points, about the same as in the years preceding the law's enactment. In 8th grade reading, there have been no gains since 1998. In mathematics, the gains were larger before NCLB in both 4th grade and 8th grade.
In the latest international assessment of mathematics and science, released this past December, U.S. students again scored well behind students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Taipei. Our 4th grade and 8th grade students recorded small improvements in mathematics, but not in science, where those in both grades scored lower than in years predating No Child Left Behind.

The decline of 8th grade test scores in science from 2003 to 2007 demonstrates the consequences of ignoring everything but reading and mathematics. Because NCLB counts only those basic skills, it has necessarily reduced attention to such non-tested subjects as science, history, civics, the arts, and geography.
(NCLB) has encouraged the states to dumb down the standards by saying that every state would have its own definition of proficiency, every state would use its own test, by setting a deadline of 2014—which is totally unrealistic—by which all students are supposed to be proficient, and then having very onerous sanctions for schools that are unable to meet this completely unrealistic deadline. It's meant that everyone is encouraged to find ways to produce the numbers, and one thing we know from the market sector is that when the numbers are what counts, people meet the numbers, even though they sacrifice the goals of the organization. What we're doing instead of producing well-educated people is producing the numbers. The gains since No Child Left Behind was adopted are smaller than before No Child Left Behind was adopted.
The basic strategy is measuring and punishing. And it turns out that as a result of putting so much emphasis on the test scores, there's a lot of cheating going on; there's a lot of gaming the system. Instead of raising standards, it's actually lowered standards because many states have dumbed down their tests, or changed the scoring of the tests, to say that more kids are passing than actually are.

There are states that say that 80 to 90 percent of their children are proficient readers and proficient in math. But when the national test is given, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same state will have not 90 percent proficient, but 25 or 30 percent.
The Obama education reform plan is an aggressive version of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind, under which many schools have narrowed their curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math. This poor substitute for a well-rounded education, which includes subjects such as the arts, history, geography, civics, science and foreign language, hits low-income children the hardest, since they are the most likely to attend the kind of "failing school" that drills kids relentlessly on the basics. Emphasis on test scores already compels teachers to focus on test preparation. Holding teachers personally and exclusively accountable for test scores — a key feature of Race to the Top — will make this situation even worse. Test scores will determine salary, tenure, bonuses and sanctions, as teachers and schools compete with each other, survival-of-the-fittest style.

e-mail Miller via a form here:


U.S. Mail

Hon. George Miller
2205 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

202-225-2095 (D.C.)
925-602-1880 (Concord)
510-262-6500 (Richmond)

707-645-1888 (Vallejo)

Or contact him through Facebook (the one with the picture of him that says “Local Business”).

— Caroline Grannan,
San Francisco public school parent and advocate


No comments: