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Apr. 16 2010 - 11:36 pm | 312 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

How should Obama fix No Child Left Behind?

The first few months of 2010 have been important and exciting in the world of education. We’ve seen the first winners of federal Race to the Top grants, a draft of national standards in reading and math, and the beginnings of the re-tooling of No Child Left Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA). Since this last issue will be in the news quite a bit in the coming months, I thought readers might like to hear about it from someone currently working in the public school system. My friend and mentor, Dr. Dooley (his school board recommended he use a pseudonym), currently serves as an elementary school principal in Virginia, and he agreed to share some of his thoughts. His entire career has been spent as a public school teacher and administrator, and he has worked at all three educational levels (elementary, middle, high) in several states. He enjoys pondering the intersections of educational theory, policy, and practice, and we had the following e-mail exchange over the past few weeks:

Michael: As an elementary school principal who is responsible for getting students off to a good start with their formal schooling, what do you think should be changed—and what should remain the same—in the re-authorized ESEA that President Obama is pushing Congress to complete by the end of this year?

Dr. Dooley: I agree with your March 21 post on No Child Left Behind. Many of the issues we associate with NCLB are implementations issues, not policy issues. The examples you cited draw us back to several issues: What is the role of the federal government with regard to education? Is large scale reform the best way to improve education? Is a policy change the best way to improve implementation? With these thoughts in mind, here are some very initial thoughts about the No Child Left Behind overhaul:

What do I think should be changed about ESEA?

1) Expand the definition of assessment beyond the scope of yearly tests.

I recently visited my nieces and nephews during their state assessment period. The stress and anxiety in their voices as they described the two week “testing window” greatly concerned me. When we depend upon a single “snapshot” of student performance data to create a “portrait” of a school, we create the circumstances that lead to such things as test anxiety, cheating, creative student labeling and selective absentee patterns. If we discover how to create a “portrait” of each school, then many of these implementation issues should fade away.

2) Redefine the definition of proficiency at a higher standard

During the Accountability Era, states often changed the cut score on state assessments to achieve a better pass rate. This “statistical shell game” did nothing to improve or even change instruction. As an elementary school principal, I believe our first focus must be assisting students to achieve at very high levels in reading and math, not “college and career readiness.”

What do I think should remain the same with ESEA?

1) Accountability and assessment

NCLB ushered “data driven decisions” into education. I believe these concepts drive instructional improvement, especially at the building level. I am still searching for better metrics to improve classroom instruction, but I would not abandon using data. Again, many of the issues associated with accountability and assessment are implementation issues.

2) Maintain the goal of student proficiency in reading and math.

The term “college and career readiness” invokes images of the vague eduspeak I encountered when I first became a teacher. As a supervisor, it is difficult lead to a standard or hold a teacher accountable without a clearly articulated, measurable standard.

Michael: With regard to standards, what is your take on the draft national standards that were released in early March? Do you think one set of standards (and eventually assessments) nationwide is the answer?

Also, you mentioned “college and career readiness” a few times. Let’s say there were some measurable standards to go along with that phrase. Would that make it more palatable to you, or does career and college readiness not have a place in elementary schools?

There are, of course, many constituent groups present in education—parents, children, teachers, administrators, politicians, community members, and so on—which means no one is going to be completely happy with the eventual federal education law. But since teachers likely will be more affected by the new law than anyone else, I’m curious to know if you have a sense of what would make teachers in your building happy with regard to the re-authorized ESEA.

Dr. Dooley: I believe the idea of national standards has the potential to impact education positively. In theory, national standards would create consistency and efficiency for K-12 academic programs. They could lead to monetary savings when designing curriculum, creating assessments or testing children. Standard assessments would enable the “value-added” model of academic achievement to be applied across states, not just within states, and we, therefore, could better track the academic progress of students.

All these possibilities, however, bring us back to the issue of implementation. I anticipate it will be very difficult to reach consensus on these standards, especially in the areas of language arts and social studies. I will refer readers to your post about the teaching of history in Texas for an example of my concern. Some states, also, may view the idea of national standards as ceding an area of state power to the federal government. In the current political climate, this issue may become more divisive than in the past, and education could become a battleground like health care.

“College and career readiness” definitely has a place in elementary education. The sooner children think about career and life possibilities, the more likely they are to understand the long term benefits of their academic efforts. As educators, we must incorporate real world connections into daily lessons and introduce students to these ideas and possibilities. My school, for example, is adding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related titles and resources to its library as quickly as possible.

Measurable standards would make the proposed “college and career readiness” goal more palatable. But what does such a standard look like? The current Virginia standards are set a minimum level and do not create “college and career ready” students. Based upon conversations with researchers and practitioners in Virginia, students who simply “pass” the Virginia state tests throughout their K-12 career do not demonstrate success when they enter college. Students consistently need to achieve at the “pass advanced” level to be prepared for college. This is why I believe a focus on achieving reading and math proficiency at a high level is a more immediate concern than the vaguely defined “college and career readiness.”

If you dialogued with my staff, I suspect you would identify two groups of teachers. One group of teachers entered the profession before the accountability movement of the mid-1990s. They want to “roll back the clock” and would completely eliminate the tenets of NCLB. This group equates assessment and measurement with anxiety and prescribed curriculum. The other group of teachers entered the profession during the mid-1990s or later. They would identify implementation issues as concerns like we have. They would seek improvements to the current policy, but their teacher training has taught them to understand the alignment between curriculum, assessment, and instruction. As with most of life, the truth is somewhere in between.


If you have a question or comment specifically for Dr. Dooley, please make that clear when you leave your comment below. He’ll then read it and e-mail me his response, and I’ll post that response so you can see what he has to say.


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  1. collapse expand

    If Obama fixed es the schools the way he fixed health care…..there will be no school standing in ten years

  2. collapse expand

    When will we admit that not everyone is cut out for an academic view of daily life? In previous generations, once you learned to read, calculate with regular arithmetic and geometry, you were pretty much ready for anything that society had to throw at you.

    Even heavy duty high tech fields such as engineering could work this way. One of my mentors once told me that if I found myself doing something that required more than common arithmetic or algebra to figure out, to check around because it was likely that I was missing a rule of thumb or that I was doing something wrong.

    I will confess to having applied calculus and differential equations on occasion to my field of study (and no, I wasn’t doing anything wrong). But those instances are few and far between.

    We need to consider what we want from our educational systems. What requirements do we really need to meet?

    Professors and Teachers are losing touch with much of the rest of the working world –and it’s not their fault. We have invented this need for an ivory tower education that will suffice for everything. And frankly, I don’t see the need or that it really does work.

    How could we start re-evaluating the efficacy of our educational system? How can we set achievable goals?

    • collapse expand

      jake – Here’s Dr. Dooley’s response to your comment:

      “I’m not sure a focus on reading and math equals an ‘academic view of daily life.’ If every American student could graduate with successfully completing Algebra I and reading at a 10th grade level, then your scenario of ‘ready for anything that society throws at you’ is plausible. For me these two goals are necessary for student success. Unfortunately, this goal is unmet for the current educational system. When I speak of a focus on reading and mathematics, these goals are the minimum I want students to achieve.

      Your scenario again is plausible, but I am unsure if it is realistic for the future today’s students will face. I recently visited my grandfather and admired the clock GM presented to him on his retirement after 33 years at the plant. He had a high school education and was a WWII veteran. The GM factory provided an opportunity for a middle-class life and good retirement. Will the American economy provide such an opportunity to someone with similar qualifications in the next 50 years? Not every student needs to attend college and earn an ‘ivory tower education.’ However, every student should possess the reading, math and thinking skills to compete in the job market and to pursue the future he or she chooses. I think this scenario becomes possible with a specific focus on math and reading.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    This documentary examines the results of No Child Left Behind on promising kids. “For a nation that proudly declared it would leave no child behind, America continues to do so at alarming rates. Despite increased spending and politicians’ promises, our buckling public-education system, once the best in the world, routinely forsakes the education of millions of children.”


  4. collapse expand

    It strikes me, as a retired teacher and mother of a special ed teacher in Virginia, that along with considering our views of what goals would be theoretically desirable, we might also consider the possibility of achieving them and the actual needs of the children for whom we are responsible.

    The average capability of our population is at the IQ level of 100. That’s a built-in factor, not one over which we have control. The average reading level is 8th grade, not 10th, much though Dr. Dooley might wish it to be so.

    Every school has students with IQs well below that average–barely above MR level–who spend their days in classes pursuing the mandated grade curriculum. Some of them can’t read, yet they are expected to follow stories well above their comprehension. They are expected to write coherent essays although some cannot construct a simple sentence. They will be tested on grade level material, no matter that their actual achievement is years below that. The state requires differentition of material for these kids, but in my daughter’s case, neither her school system nor the mainstream teachers are set up or trained to provide it. The kids are not only floundering, they are not getting any actual teaching at all, because to take them out for special instruction would violate the principle of mainstreaming.

    There are layers of complexity barely hidden in that last paragraph–politically correct positions on mainstreaming, parental inability to force change for their children, administrations paralyzed by the fears of NCLB shutdown and punitive measures, ignored teachers, too many layers of higher administration PhDs insulated from the realities of the needs and abilities of average and below average kids.

    I am emphatically NOT suggesting dumbing down anything. I am suggesting teaching to the needs and capabilities of actual children, not to theoretical standards decided by people who have not been in a classroom in years and who consider “average” to be a nasty word. An entire generation of young people of average and below average ability is being forced through a food chopper that is denying them the actual education they need and at which they could succeed proudly and well. Do you see an answer?

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.