When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, it had the potential to do both a world of good and a world of bad for education. Why the law and its implementation has been good or bad (or both) has been the subject of countless articles, commentaries, and debates. Now the law is up for renewal and the debates have become even more focused. A lot of people argue that there is some redeeming quality to NCLB (a lot of people like accountability, for instance, or the fact that that the stated goal is essentially to close the achievement gap) but that it needs to be tweaked. While the cacophony continues in Washington, I was lucky enough to catch a bit of a different argument on campus -- twice.
Richard Rothstein was on campus in the fall, and then was on campus again last week for the performance pay conference and stopped by our class to fill us in on his research. His argument against NCLB is the most compelling (and thorough) that I have heard. It goes something like this:
Throughout American history, virtually every important figure has set forth as the goals of education to not only provide basic academic skills to students, but also to teach many other things, such as: critical thinking, social skills, physical and emotional health, and far too many other things to list here. He has compiled an exhaustive supply of quotes and documents supporting this.
NCLB, meanwhile, holds schools accountable only for their performance on tests of basic skills in reading and math. As a result, many studies have shown, schools are increasing the time they spend on reading, math, and test prep, and reducing the time they spend on other activities.
Given that, throughout our history, basic academic skills have been but one purpose of schooling, Rothstein set out to see how important these skills are compared to other things that people want schools to teach. The general public, school board members, state legislators, and superintendents (through extensive surveying) all agreed that basic skills were the most important function of schooling, but indicated that out of 100 possible points spread across 8 different functions only about 20% should be focused on these. The other 80% of schooling, they responded, should be focused on things such as the list I mentioned earlier.
Here's why I like this approach to critiquing NCLB:
It's not an ideological position. He doesn't argue that standardized testing or accountability are inherently good or evil. What he finds is, quite simply, that NCLB encourages schools to focus on only a small portion of what is important and, for that reason, needs to be changed. In 1830 (to cite one of his incredible list of quotations) the Joint Committee of Philadelphia Workingmen argued that everybody should receive a broad education "rather than being limited, as in our public poor schools, to a simple acquaintance with words and ciphers." Unfortunately this seems to be happening under NCLB; the law needs to encourage schools to teach all the important topics rather than condemning students to learn nothing but the basics.