Saturday, January 9, 2016

Another Bad NCLB Apologia

At FiveThirtyEight, economics writer Ben Casselman has concocted one of the saddest revisionary apologias for No Child Left Behind.

Even the headline/subhead combo signal that this is going to be a tough ride. "No Child Left Behind Worked: At Least in One Important Way." And then Casselman goes on to explain how NCLB really didn't work.

Casselman buries the lede about four paragraphs down:

Nearly a decade and a half later, No Child Left Behind is often described as a failure, and there is no question that the law fell short of many of its most ambitious goals. Most schools didn’t come close to achieving the 100-percent-proficiency mandate, which experts never considered a realistic target. Subsequent research found that the law’s penalties did little to improve student performance, and may have done more harm than good in some schools. Large achievement gaps remain, in part because Congress didn’t provide all of the billions of dollars in additional education funding that the law’s backers envisioned.

And that's why Casselman's "at least" is also a fail. It's worth talking about, because it is the same "at least" that many folks like to tack on NCLB, as in, "Well, at least it accomplished this one great thing."

The "at least" is "at least NCLB made schools disagregate data so that they would discover the little previously-ignored pockets of failure." Casselman even opens with the story of an affluent suburban Massachusetts school that was shocked to "discover" through test results that they were a failure (who knows-- maybe this neighborhood was the home of Arne Duncan's storied white moms)

This is the narrative that helps maintain support for test-and-punish as education policy. But there are several problems with it.

First of all-- nobody is surprised by test results. No local school district in this country has ever, in the last decade-plus of NCLB and NCLB Jr., gotten test results back and said, "Holy smokes! We had no idea that this batch of students was doing poorly!!" Not once. The Big Standardized Tests have told us nothing we didn't know, unless it was that we occasionally discovered that some otherwise great students were lousy test takers.

Second of all-- and Casselman acknowledges this one-- test-and-punish was definitely not test-and-rescue or test-and-assist. NCLB told districts, "Hey, you have a problem right here. Good luck fixing it!" And where test-and-punish turned into test-and-send-students-off-to-charters, the message was "Fix your problems with fewer resources than you had when you got into them in the first place."

Casselman has read up on this-- he devotes a few paragraphs to the research showing that the penalties of NCLB made it harder for schools to get better. Economist-researcher Jacob Vigdor compared the ever-ratcheting punishments to yelling at a failing kid: "You might succeed in scaring the Dickens out of the kid, but you’re not going to help them pass algebra."

So, in other words, NCLB's "success" was to tell districts what they already knew and to offer punishment without assistance.

Casselman also wants to make a case for the "success" of transparent data.

But for all its failures, No Child Left Behind had at least one significant — and, experts say, lasting — success: It changed the way the American educational system collects and uses data. The law may not have achieved the promise of its title, but it did force schools across the country to figure out which students were being left behind, and to make that information public. 

Well, the "collect and use" data is true-- schools now collect a bunch of test data that is useful for doing test prep so that we can collect more data. It's a change in the sense that professional baseball would be changed if, between each inning, one team dug holes on the field and then the other team filled them in. It's a waste of everybody's time, but boy are they busy Doing Something (and the shovel companies make a mint).

And no school in the country needed help finding out who was left behind, but then, that's not really the point, is it. It's the "make the information public," because test-and-punish also includes test-and-shame. Because a premise of both NCLB and NCLB 2.0 (Duncan-Obama) was always that schools are big fat lying liars who lie. And it would only be natural that Casselman would pick up that idea, because now many paragraphs in, we discover who one of his his "experts" is. CAP.

“There’s a very long history of states and school districts and schools essentially hiding behind the average performance of their students,” said Scott Sargrad, a former Education Department official in the Obama administration who is now a researcher at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “That masks really significant differences between kids who are more affluent, who are white, who don’t have disabilities, whatever it is, and their peers who are more disadvantaged.”

What a swell quote. First, of districts were "hiding," one might ask what they were hiding from and why (I'm going with "dumb, punitive federal and state policies that get in the way of doing the actual work of educating students"). Second, please notice that even this CAP tool doesn't talk about this in terms of achievement or education or learning or skill and ability levels, but in terms of affluence, race and disabilities. Even he doesn't think that test-and-punish has an educational purpose or reveal educational results. Testing is all about race and class, and nothing about actual education. Which evokes a hilarious scene in a district office somewhere with administrators poring over test results and exclaiming, "Hey, I think some of these kids might be poor-- in fact, I think some of them are poor and black! man, I'm glad we got these test results so we could figure this out."

Ultimately, Casselman is left with "we handle data differently" and that, by the end of the article, is whittled down to "we can track individual student data year to year" (not everyone's idea of a Good Thing) and "we use specific figures instead of averages." I'm pretty sure we could have moved away from averages on our government reports without up-ending the entire education system with untested, unproven educational malpractice baloney. If that's the best we can offer, I think we can keep right on saying that No Child Left Behind was a complete and utter failure.


  1. It's interesting that he decided to open with an account of Beverly, MA, which is a decidedly middle class town and pretty urban compared to the surrounding area. There are rich kids, but they all go to private school (of which there are several dozen in town).

    Basically, this backs up your idea that test scores were no surprise- Beverly knew exactly how they were doing before the testing began.

  2. Ranking and stacking schools also seems to be useful for the real estate market to be able to up the prices of the areas where schools have the best ratings.

    I don't see how anyone with a lick of common sense could ever have thought that punishing struggling schools by taking away resources was going to help them improve.

  3. "If that's the best we can offer, I think we can keep right on saying that No Child Left Behind was a complete and utter failure."

    Not so sure I agree, Peter. After all, the tests have set the stage for designating schools as "failures", ripening them up for privatizers to take over. Wasn't that really the whole point?

  4. Not only did NCLB leave behind a legacy of overtesting and misusing the results, it also left behind ineffective teaching practices. Teaching children to read turned into teaching a series of isolated and EASILY TESTED skills. I cringed as I watched what was being promoted as "research-based teaching." They reduced literacy to easily measured skills so they could make Data Walls and graphs. It was no surprise to anyone who understood literacy that NCLB was a huge failure. We're still trying to turn around teaching practices.

  5. The data legacy is certainly something. As a teacher, it meant sitting in meetings with checklists where we marked our "double" and "triple" hitters--students who were minority, poor, and maybe on an IEP. Those students were then pulled from things like gym, art, music, and/or core instruction, for intensive extra "help" learning how to be good #2 pencil bubblers. They were getting a separate but unequal education because of their race or economic status, and I learned what it felt like to participate in bigotry.