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.