Education - Solution 1a - Essay on One Aspect of the "No Child Left Behind" Law
President Bush Signing the NCLB Act
YESTERDAY, APRIL13, 2012, I ATTENDED MY GRANDSON'S 3rd grade A-B Honor Roll ceremony at his elementary school in Florida. While sitting there, waiting for my very proud grandson to "take the walk" (from his grammy to the principal) to receive his award, a Taco Bell gift certificate and a hand-stamp worth an ice cream after lunch, I noticed all of these balloons scattered around the cafeteria/auditorium above little signs that said "F-CAT Rocks!." Upon inquiring what that was all about, I was told it was for a pep-rally that was being held the impending annual F-CAT, Florida's version of the standardized No Child Left Behind tests for 3rd and 5th graders. That, of course, got me thinking, "pep-rally" ... for a test? Really! Has it actually devolved down to that?
The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President Bush on January 8, 2002, almost exactly one year after he introduced it. The Act [which a State-driven effort called Common Core is trying to replace in 2014] is one of the few truly bipartisan bills to pass Congress during his administration and was implemented with great fan-fare. The Act is tied to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 which provides Title 1 funding to disadvantage children in government-run schools. The Act had several important provisions, some of which are:
- Administration of state-wide annual standardized tests to all students grades 3 through 8 and at least once during high school.
- To receive Title 1 funding, each school must show "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP)
- States must provide "highly qualified" teachers to all students
- The Act does not assert national achievement standards but, instead, leaves that up to each individual state
- Provides information for parents by requiring states and school districts to give parents detailed report cards on schools and districts explaining the school's AYP performance.
- Schools must also inform parents when their child is being taught by a teacher or para-professional who does not meet "highly qualified" requirements.
- Establishes the foundation for schools and school districts to significantly enhance parental involvement and improved administration through the use of the assessment data to drive decisions on instruction, curriculum and business practices.
- Greatly increases the amount of federal and state funds for education, especially reading
There are many more, but those are the highlights. The FCAT, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is Florida's implementation of No Child Left Behind and it has added several features, the most important two being, 1) annual testing is extended through grade 11 and 12) a passing grade is required for a student to advance from 3rd to 4th and 10th to 11th grades and to graduate from high school. There are a myriad of pros and cons surrounding this Act and it is not my intent to delve into all of them but, instead, just focus on a couple that pertain to my thoughts that ceremonial morning.
I don't think the way the national requirement for standardized testing of various grades throughout the K-12 system is having the desired effect. It is not that I don't approve of wide-spread standardized testing in the nations school systems; I just don't approve of their ultimate purpose or collateral, unintended bad consequences. Instead, I think these tests should be administered on a random basis, with no prior warning, or very little anyway, whose goal is to identify weak areas where resources need to be applied.
[Florida is dropping the all multiple choice FCAT as of 2014 in favor of a more analytical-based on-line testing regime from American Institute for Research (AIR)]
No Child Left Behind - Good or Bad?
THE ANSWER IS UNEQUIVACALLY both! The intent, and many of its provisions, fall right in line with what I have been proposing in my series of hubs on this subject, although, from my perspective, other provisions fall wide-of-the-mark. To hold states, school districts, and schools accountable for the quality of the education is spot on. Requiring annual, standardized tests for all grades 3 through 8 is not; in fact, in my view, it is counterproductive. Disastrous, and entirely the point, is Florida's use of these tests to determine the future of Floridian students. The bottom line is that the "Good", is it is a start in the right direction and the "Bad" is how it has been implemented.
One of the major criticisms of NCLB is its propensity incentivize schools to "teach to the test". Another major criticism is the unbalanced system that has been created to measure school performance and the solutions for "poor" performing schools. It is these two criticisms which crossed my mind sitting in the cafeteria that morning.
No Child Left Behind "teaches to the Test"
AND IN FLORIDA, they don't have a choice because too much rides on the outcome for both the school and the student. This is why I saw evidence, at the honor roll ceremony, of the waste of very scarce educational resources on efforts trying to encourage the students to take these tests seriously. For example, 1) my grandson has taken multiple pre-FCAT tests; 2) my step-daughter is frantic that her 3rd grader will not pass this test because the day of the exam may be "one of those days" when his attention span languishes because his ADHD medication did not work well; 3) time has been taken out of a students morning (losing precious sleep which studies now show he or she should not be deprived) to go through FCAT "tutorials"; 4) today I learn the students had been taught "test taking strategies" - third graders, can you believe; and the list goes on
Not only is this happening for a good part of the school year in third grade, it is happening in fifth grade as well. (I don't know if Florida received a waiver for 4th and 6th grades nor do I know how Florida handles 7th and 8th grades.) This is a lot of time and effort spent directed toward a single testing event that primarily covers reading, writing, and arithmetic (Florida is supposed to be adding science). Where are the arts, history, social sciences and all of the other subjects that go into a well educated student? These subjects, by necessity, are being minimized in order to insure the highest possible individual and school scores on the NCLB standardized tests; there is simply not enough time for them to be taught at more than a superficial level.
This marginalization of non-"core" subjects is one of the major criticisms leveled at the "Teach to the Test" syndrome engendered by this kind of approach to standardized testing. Another is the potential for "dumbing" down of the school population, particularly the "gifted" students as the school concentrates on teaching the minimum standards. Others are the emotional strain put on teachers, students, and parents; the unrealistic goals of the AYP; "gaming" the system, and so on. Even though there are many positive aspects of the NCLB Act, the negatives give pause and may give rise to the need for an alternative approach.
What's the Real Point of the No Child Left Behind Act?
SIMPLE, TO IMPROVE STUDENT PERFORMANCE. What is the best way to improve student performance? Provide high quality, motivated teachers who are able to teach in an environment favorable to learning. Easy right? You only have to worry about three things, students, teachers and the learning environment; if were only that simple! Of those three ingredients to great learning is the student.
Even they come in a great variety, with IQs that span a wide scale; various physical and mental impediments that may or may not be present; an unknown number of differing home environments which lead to differing emotional states that can vary widely; and, if you are a Meyers-Briggs affectionado, 16 different personality type indicator (MBTI) combinations with each of the four traits that make up the MBTI having strengths from 1 to 10. That is a lot of variability to try to teach with what used to be a "in-size-fits-all" educational system! And, up unitl recently, that was the way we taught school, fitting all of those round kids into a square hole; only in the couple of three decades have attempts been made to actually take into account different student needs into how we teach them.
One of the worst obstacles, in my opinion, to all schools being staffed by equally qualified teaches is the use of property tax to fund school districts. When that is the basis of funding for schools then you will end up with the huge disparity in teaching quality in schools funded from property taxes derived from Watts, CA and Beverly Hills, CA. Further, studies have shown that the single most important external factor to a students success is the quality of the teacher(s) teaching them. And one of the important factors in attracting quality teachers is money, including benefits. Granted there are some high quality, selfless teachers who go where the need is, but, most go where the money is, that is the American way, after all.
Learning environment is the third critical piece, and money drives this to a large degree as well. There is, however, one other hugely important driver regarding this factor and that is the parents. It should be obvious that there are three major subsets to the learning environment, the school, the family/home, and the social; each play an important role on whether a student will succeed or not. Even these can be broken down further to develop greater understanding.
The NCLB Act is designed to improve both the quality of teachers and the learning environment in order to improve student performance. It does this with a combination of programs and initiatives outside of the testing plus the effects of the testing itself. However, as I have previously suggested, I think the way the testing is administered both detracts from the overall learning environment while concentrating on only a subset of the total curriculum and, because of unintended consequences of this unrelenting focus, limits the students ability to perform as a total human being.
So, What to Do?
WELL, FOR ONE THING, I would keep on testing, I am a firm believer in the need to measure performance against established and reasonable benchmarks; just conduct the measuring differently. In my view, you have to test such that:
- all of the main curriculum is covered; not just reading, writing and arithmetic.
- you can't "teach to the test"
- It accounts for different levels of learning ability
- it measures true teaching ability, not the ability to "teach to the test."
- a school's life does not depend on the outcome so that there is no need to "game" the system
- there is still incentive to do well
- there are mechanisms put in place to improve "failing" schools.
So, what kind of testing can fulfill all of these needs? From the 100,000 mile perspective, it would look somewhat the same, but from 100,000 feet, I see substantial differences. In my considered lay opinion, the measurement system would need the following characteristics:
- First and foremost, the purpose must not be to measure student performance; instead its purpose needs to be measuring teacher performance and the adequacy of the learning environment. The student is simply the vehicle used to score the object of the tests.
- The timing of the testing cannot be predictable; it must be random in order to prevent the "teaching to the test" paradigm.
- The testing needs to cover all major school curriculum, not just reading, writing, and math.
- The testing does not need to be 100% of the students in each grade, appropriate random sampling is sufficient.
- Deficiencies which are found in teachers and/or schools will trigger focused studies by expert outside groups to determine what the true problems are and recommend solutions.
- State and federal agencies are held accountable and responsible for making sure the solutions are implemented and not just the school. The idea is to fix the problem, not abandon the school.
- Incentives must be made available to students who take the tests to do well, but no punishments if they do not. It is the results of the investigation instigated by significant under-performance and the school, state, and federal response to it that is important.
- The testing should avoid multiple choice to the highest degree possible.
- The benchmarks for the tests should be a state-federal collaborative effort led by the federal government in order to establish a minimum standard of knowledge all children should obtain as they matriculate, but nevertheless owned and executed by the states.
- Tests should not be one-size-fits all but designed to fit general categories of students with different capabilities from gifted to challenged.
Why This Way?
TO ME IS TO ACTIVELY FIX the problem, not just punish poor performing students, teachers, and schools. You see, one cannot count the number of successful teachers and school systems in America where students perform well; there are a multitude of models to choose from with which to draw inspiration. The school, state, and federal governments have three levers they can control, 1) the quality of the teacher, 2) the school learning environment, and to a degree, 3) the students external learning environment. Each successful school rates A or B in each of these three categories; and they can easily be influenced with a combination of money, laws, and policy such that failing schools can achieve As and Bs as well.
For each of those levers, there are hundreds of variables which bear on how well a school executes each one. Consequently, the reasons a particular school may be failing will never be the same as the next, that is why it is critical to bring in outside experts, who the federal, state, and local leaders believe are capable of analyzing the issues and developing solutions, to accomplish a thorough investigation.
Even though experts may come up with THE perfect solution, it is worthless if it is not implemented with the full backing of federal, state, and local authorities; without that backing, the effort is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars. The combination of these two outcomes from the results of the all of this expensive testing is what can FIX the problem. Instead, today, we say, you, school, are failing, so you lose resources, but, you better improve or you will be closed down; that is NOT the way to run a railroad, from my perspective. I would much rather make what we have better as opposed to scrapping it, don't you see.
Well folks, there is my solution for world peace and a better education system. What are your views?
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