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Pure Onsense

A Wasted Decade

Scott Zuke

(Oct, 2011)  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will be ten years old this January. Like the nation's struggling students, it has been pushed along, year after year, by politicians unwilling to face its glaring flaws until they became impossible to ignore. Unlike the children, though, this policy never had potential.

The basic goals of NCLB sounded reasonable enough, at least to those outside of the teaching profession: higher performance standards and greater accountability for improvements. Schools that fall short of achieving "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) for two or more consecutive years face a variety of penalties, including funding cuts, staff shake-ups, and having to provide students with after-school tutoring or transportation to a better school nearby. The program's ultimate goal: 100% of students on grade level in reading and math by 2014.

In practice the program suffered from poor implementation and a number of predictable consequences. Let's start at the end. After ten years and many billions of dollars in NCLB investment, America continues to spend more money per pupil on education than any other country, but is lagging far behind in results. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in 2009 the US ranked 17th in reading scores, 23rd in science, and 31st in mathematics.

Shanghai, China, holds first place in all three, and the majority of the other top ranking countries are in the Eastern hemisphere. Why does this matter? With US job growth lagging since the 2008 recession, we've been struggling to define our role among global markets. While manufacturing and other low-wage jobs have moved overseas, economists keep predicting that America's comparative advantage will be in producing advanced technology and high-end services. But if workers in China and other developing nations are not only working for far lower wages, but are also exceeding US education achievements, it's going to be that much harder getting our economy back on solid footing.

Where did things go wrong with NCLB? I'll focus on two issues here: 1) the misapplication of a business model to schools, and 2) the program's poor understanding of incentives, which resulted in unintended, but predictable consequences, particularly cheating.

No Child Left Behind was a business-style program developed by the businesslike Bush administration. Its methods were intended to be pragmatic: set high standards, reward what works, and eliminate what doesn't. However, whereas a business is a straight-down hierarchy with a single set of quality standards for its products (outputs), no such unified set of standards was implemented nationwide for schools. Each state designed its own standards, including its own methods of assessment. Maryland has the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), Virginia has the Standards of Learning (SOL), and so on. Since economics and business are concerned with the effects of "incentives," shouldn't we question what incentive one state would have for setting tougher standards of achievement than its neighbor? What incentive would a state have for continuing to administer an exam that fails to get the desired number of proficient students?

The idea of rewarding what works continues to be popular even into the Obama administration. The Race to the Top Fund, a $4 billion program to get states to compete for extra federal dollars, ended up rewarding states that implemented performance-based pay, among other things. Linking a teacher's benefits to his or her students' standardized test scores is another idea that makes sense from a business perspective, but there's a classic dilemma when trying to balance objective assessment with subjective observations. Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows there is far from a 1:1 correspondance between teacher skill and student performance. Unlike businesses, schools and teachers have no control over the quality of their inputs. If a teacher is assigned to a poor quality group of students, she does not have the option to trade them in for a better crop with greater potential for growth. It may be possible to subjectively identify those teachers who do a relatively outstanding job with the students they are given, but how to capture such things objectively through standardized tests remains elusive.

This takes us to the second point. When schools are put under intense pressure to show continuous improvement, but are not fully in control over whether such improvement is possible, what is the expected consequence? Think steroid abuse. The tragically underreported bombshell story of the summer was a massive cheating scandal uncovered in Georgia's Atlanta Pubic School system. According to a major report, 44 of 56 schools that were investigated were found to have committed various kinds of cheating, including "changing parties," where teachers would get together on weekends to erase students' incorrect answers on tests. Some reportedley opened plastic-wrapped exams, made corrections, then resealed them using cigarrete lighters. The report named 178 educators, including 38 principals, who participated in the cheating, and as of July, more than 80 had confessed. Even the school system's superintendant, Beverly Hall, was implicated in the scandal for supressing whistleblowers and rewarding those who produced favorable results, however suspicious. Hall won the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year award from the American Association of School Administrators for accomplishing "significant gains in student achievement." Please step forward to receive your asterisk.

Cheating is likely far more widespread than the public will ever know. It's not nearly as overt in most places, but school systems are undoubtedly gaming the system in all kinds of ways to squeak by the unattainable standards they are required to meet. We've given ourselves an education system where achieving "success" and "improvement" in the data sets all too often indicates just the opposite reality for students.

Before we can find real solutions, we have to fully acknowledge that everything we've tried is failing. The Obama aministration has recently begun to grant waivers to states that are unable to meet AYP, on the condition that they implement various other accountability measures. Unfortunately, this only shows that NCLB is finally collapsing under its own weight, not that anyone has grasped why it was doomed from the start and come up with a better alternative.

Read other article by Scott Zuke