Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Petrilli: "Hey, Let's Do No Child Left Behind Again!"

Mike Petrilli, head honcho of the right-tilted Fordham Institute thinky tank, made it into the New York Times today to do some chicken littling about Learning Loss and suggest a bold solution. Don't have a NYT subscription? That's okay-- let me walk you through the highlights of this festival of Things We Can Stop Saying About Education Right Now, Please.

Let's start by invoking general Learning Loss panic. Petrilli points out that students "lost significant ground" during covid, and now NWEA says that students continue "backsliding" and "falling further behind." People, in Petrilli's view, are not panicking enough about "America's massive learning loss."

First, let's use some more precise language, please. In all discussions of learning loss, we are actually talking about scores on a Big Standardized Test of reading and math going down. We will never, ever know how much of the slippage in tests scores is the result of students going a year or two without practicing for the BS Test. But in the meantime, it would be great if we stopped talking about test scores as if they were infallible equivalents of learning and achievement.

Second, "learning loss" is a misnomer. I'm willing to bet that verrrrrrry tiny number of students in this country actually lost learning. I'm equally certain that the vast majority of students did not learn as much as they would have in a non-pandemic year, but that's not the same. 

Think of it this way. It's budget time, and the Mugwumps' proposed budget increases spending on widgets from $500 to $600. The Wombats say, "Let's only increase widget spending to $550." That gets us to the part where the Mugwump talking point is "The Wombats want to cut spending on widgets." When in fact everybody wants widget spending to go up.

That's where we are. During the pandemic, learning occurred--just not as much as might have been expected in a normal-ish year. And this looks most like a crisis if you think of test scores like stock prices and focus on data rather than individual human students. (Petrilli does not invoke the baloney about impact on future earnings, so we'll not go there right now.)

And, it should also be pointed out, it is where we were for a decade before covid even hit.

Having sounded the alarm, Petrilli bemoans the surfeit of leaders willing to make alarmy noises.

The country is in desperate need of leaders who will speak the truth about what’s happening in our K-12 schools, and are willing to make the hard choices to fix it. Simply put, we need to bring some tough love back to American education.

Tough love? Back? Petrilli doesn't really explain how the pandemic led to a loss of tough love in education. But that's the dog we're going to try to hunt with.

He cites Michael Bloomberg, who is ceaselessly alarmed about anything going on in public schools. Bloomberg wants a plan from Washington, a joint session of Congress, a Presidential address. 

Ah, says Petrilli--you know when politicians were on the same page about education, presumably flinging tough love around with wild abandon.

We're talking, of course, about the golden days of No Child Left Behind. 

Petrilli remembers it fondly, citing how we saw "significant progress" which of course means "test scores went up," which they did, at first, for a few years. Anyone who was in a classroom, especially a math or reading classroom, can tell you why. Within a couple of years, schools figured out what test prep would be most effective. Then they targeted students who were teetering on the line between High Enough Scores and Not High Enough Scores, especially the ones in special subgroups, and test prepped the hell out of those kids. At which point scores started stagnating because schools had done all they could do. 

The Average Yearly Progress requirements were set up as a bomb that would go off during the next administration. Again, if you were working in a school at the time, you remember that chart, showing a gentle upward glide for a bit before jutting upward to 2014, the magical year in which 100% of students were to score above average on the BS Test. Oh, Congress will fix that before it happens, we were told. They did not. By the early 20-teens, there were two types of school districts--those that were failing, and those that were cheating. 

Petrilli claims maybe success probably, saying NCLB "likely contributed" to graduation rates (no, schools just learned how to game those), college attainment rates (eh, maybe, but correlation is not causation) and "possibly" future real-life outcomes (absolutely not a shred of evidence--even reformster Jay Greene said as much).

"It’s true that No Child Left Behind was imperfect," says Petrilli. No. It stunk. But Petrilli has quite the tale here.

There were fierce debates over “teaching to the test” and “drill and kill” instruction; about closing low-performing schools versus trying to fix them; and about the link between student achievement and family poverty. But once the law’s shortcomings became apparent, policymakers responded by adopting common standards and improving standardized tests, so as to encourage higher-level teaching. They poured billions into school turnarounds, invested in stronger instructional materials and started grading schools on how much progress their kids made from year to year, rather than focusing on one snapshot in time — an approach that is markedly fairer to high-poverty campuses. Still, the bipartisan effort that was No Child Left Behind ultimately fell apart as our politics fractured.

That's quite the load. There was no debate about teaching to the test or drill and kill, because nobody was in favor of it except shrugging administrators who were staring at 2014. Petrilli also forgets that "teach to the test" ended up meaning "cut out any other classes--or recess--that does not appear on the test." Arts slashed. History and science cut (at least for those teetering students). Closing low-performing schools was, in fact, the quickest way for a district to free itself of the low scores; who knows how many districts were restructured to put predictably low 8th grade scores under the same roof as better scores from lower or higher grades. And yes, poverty affects scores, despite all the No Excusing in the world.

What came next did not address any of these issues, The Common Core was an amateur hour fiasco. Were standardized tests improved? Not really (as witnessed by the fact that states dumped the SBA and PARCC as quickly as they could)--but it made a lucrative contract for some test manufacturers. Including progress in scores is great--unless you're teaching kids who are already scoring at the top. School turnarounds have consistently failed (e.g. Tennessee's failed Achievement School District). 

But he's right that Trump's election and appointment of Betsy DeVos hurt the reformster alliance (despite the fact that DeVos had long been part of the club). But then, so was the increasing split between the social justice wing of reform and the free marketeer AEI-Fordham wing. 

But look-- NCLB and the sequel, Race to the Top, were just bad. They started from bad premises: 1) US education is failing because 2) teachers either don't care or don't know what they're doing. They rest on a foundation of using a mediocre BS Test as an unquestioned proxy for student learning and teacher effectiveness, creating a perfect stage on which to conduct a national field test of Campbell's Law (when you make a measure a proxy for the real thing, you encourage people to mess with the measure instead of the real thing, and it gets worse if the measure isn't very good). And none of the "policymakers" who championed this mess ever came up with a single solitary idea of how to Fix Things that actually worked on either a local or macro scale.

The pandemic did not help anything in education. But it did lead to some flaming prose, like Petrilli's assertion that "here we are, with decades of academic progress washed away and achievement trends still moving in the wrong direction." This kind of overheated rhetoric is nothing new from the folks who gave us The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading as a headline. But what does it even mean? Washed away to where? Did knowledge dribble out of students' heads? Did the learning of the past several years retroactively vanish with former students waking up across America feeling a little bit dumber somehow? Did teachers forget everything they knew about how to teach students, so they have to start over? Or do we just mean "test scores are down"?

Petrilli breaks this down to some other issues. His first point starts out fine-- there's an attendance problem right now. But he tries to set that beside an alleged nationwide move to lower standards. I'm not sure what basis there is for that assertion. He points to the "no zeros" rule used in some schools, but that rule existed in many places (like my old district) for ages. Maybe it's letting slackers slide through in other places, but my own experience with no zeros policy is that it merely kept students working who would otherwise have given up--kind of the opposite of encouraging slacking. 

But then he's slicing NCLB-style baloney again:

Virtually all schools and districts have enjoyed a vacation from accountability. Almost nobody is worried about state officials shutting their campuses because of low performance, or forcing district schools to replace their principals or teachers.

You say that like it's a bad thing, Mike. 

Embedded here are many of the same bad assumptions that have driven ed reform for decades. Teachers and schools have no motivation to do their jobs unless they have some kind of threat of punishment hanging over their heads. This isn't just bad education policy--it's bad management. As management whiz W. Edwards Deming pointed out often, fear should be driven out of the workplace. But NCLB and RttT were always all stick, no carrot, always starting out with the worst possible assumptions about the people who had chosen education as their life's work (assumptions made largely by people who had never actually worked in a school). 

And even if you don't dig Deming, there's another thing to consider--none of the stuff Petrilli misses actually worked (which was Deming's point). He points out that the kind of thing being done in Houston right now has become rare, to which I say "Good," because Houston is a nightmare and it will end just like all the other similar attempts--no actual success, but lots of disruption and dismay and upheaval of children's education.

Petrilli will now argue for NCLB 3.0. We need "action at scale," but we can't ignore "the support and assistance schools require." Holding schools accountable wasn't enough because-- wait for it-- if NCLB failed it was because schools lacked the expertise and know-how to do it right. And now Petrilli almost--but not quite--gets it.

“Teaching to the test” and other problems with No Child Left Behind stemmed from schools resorting to misguided practices to meet requirements. Under pressure to boost scores, but without the training to know what to do, some educators engaged in endless practice testing, and stopped instruction in any subject that was unlikely to be on the state assessment. In a few places, educators even resorted to outright cheating. They likely felt they had no choice, because they hadn’t been given the tools to succeed.

Nope. Close but no cigar. No, the reason all those things happened was because, as NCLB 1.0 and 2.0 were designed, those things were the tools to "succeed." Because "success" was defined as "get maximum number of kids to score well on a poorly-designed multiple-choice math and reading test." Granted, when most of us think about "success" in education, we have a whole list of other things in mind--but none of those things were valued by NCLB or RttT.

But we're rolling up to the finish now. 

But after a decade of building capacity, offering helping hands and adding funds, it’s time once again to couple skill-building with will-building.

That is a great line. But what capacity-building? More seats in unregulated charters and voucher-accepting schools? Which helping hands? And exactly whose will needs to be built? Parents? Children? Teachers? Policymakers? I'm seriously asking, because I think a hell of a lot of will was involved in slogging through the last couple of years. 

Petrilli calls on schools to spend their "federal largesse" to "catch their kids up"--and I think the call to accelerate education is one of the most infuriating calls of the last few years. Sure-- because all along teachers have known how to educate children faster but they just haven't bothered to do it, but hey, now that we have certified lower test scores, teachers will all bust the super-secret Faster Learning plans out of their file cabinets. 

Petrillii says we don't actually need to bring back NCLB, though he seems to have been talking about nothing else-- just let's get out those big sticks and get back to (threats of) "tough interventions for persistent underperformance," because that has totally worked in the past. No, wait. It hasn't actually worked ever. 

Kids, too, should know that it’s time to hit the books again. We need to rethink our lax grading policies, make clear to parents that their children need to be at school and bring back high school graduation exams and the like to ensure that students buckle down.

Also, get those kids off our lawns. And while you're making sure parents know their kids should be in school, maybe talk to all the reform crowd that has been working hard to build distrust of public schools and deepen disrespect of educators.

And the big finish:

Education matters. Achievement matters. We need leaders who are willing to say so, and educators who are willing to act like these simple propositions are true.

This seems straightforward enough, though if you replace "achievement matters" with "standardized test scores matter," which is what he really means, it doesn't sound quite as compelling. And it's insulting as hell to suggest that the ranks of educators are filled with people who are unwilling to act as if education matters. 

Well, the piece is completely on brand for the New York Times, and it certainly echoes the refrain of that certain brand of reformster whose response to their own policy failures has been, "Well, get in there and fail harder." No Child Left Behind failed, and it not only failed but left some of its worst policy ideas embedded in the new status quo, continuing to do damage to public education right through today. 

The pandemic did many things, and one thing it did was panic the testing industry, which faced an existential threat that everyone might realize that school without the BS Test, or NWEA's lovely test-prep tests, might actually be okay. It's no wonder that they feel a special nostalgia for the days when the entire weight of the government reinforced their importance. So here we are, painting low reading and math tests scores as an educational crisis whose only solution is to get more fear, more threats, and especially more testing back into schools. 

I'm sorry if this assessment of some reformsters, their policies, and their motives seems harsh, but, you know-- tough love.


  1. Petrelli is still crying over NAEP results? He obviously doesn't understand that NAEP primarily measures student apathy toward yet another test that doesn't count and for which no teacher can provide any compelling reason for students to do their best. Ask the small handful of teachers who administer the NAEP what the effort levels are like, especially during these pandemic-influenced exams. Not surprising that NAEP doesn't release the scores of 12th graders in their final semester as even they know that it is the ultimate test of creative bubble patterns.

    By the way Mike the NCLB re-write (ESSA) was signed into law by Obama in 2015 with little change in testing requirements, test score transparency (school report cards) requirements, and teacher evaluations based on student "performance". Just slightly less threatening but every bit as mush pressure from administrators and BOEs

    1. My err. Petrelli's pearl clutching was based on NWEA MAP tests administered three times a year and the more than convoluted RIT scores they produce. This of course is even worse than NAEP, as it is a measure of the deadly combination of student apathy and its close cousin, test fatigue. SMH.

  2. Students are smart. They realize that these outside tests (like NAEP) have no effect on their everyday life so they do not see them as something serious. On the other hand, the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind and ESSA had consequences and they are not good. We have reduced each student to a number. We know nothing else about them as people or the work they produce in class, just that number attached to them.

    Now, with the hand wringing over learning loss from the Pandemic, rather than looking at it as lost learning opportunities, we again are leaning heavily on teachers to focus on skills that are tested as proof that children are regaining loss. We will be disappointed by those results and I think it is happening already.

    I wrote a paper with Jennifer Chen from Kean University about delving into what strengths the children have or might have gained during the Pandemic and building from there with an engaging curriculum that includes content knowledge AND skills, rather than this doubling down on skills alone.