It isn’t NCLB’s Fault!

by Watson Scott Swail, President, EPI International and the Educational Policy Institute

On Wednesday, the National Assessment Governing Board released the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores. The findings of the report were used by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as proof that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) didn’t work.

In fourth-grade reading, scores have remained virtually identical since 2002, when NCLB was passed into law by President Bush. In fact, the scores are virtually the same since 1992 when NAEP was introduced. There have been some slight improvements in scores for Black and Hispanic students, and Asian/Pacific Islanders showed the greatest increases. American Indians/Alaska Natives saw their scores decline, albeit slightly. Eighth-grade scores show almost the same trends (or lack thereof).

As reported in Education Week, Steven Paine, West Virginia’s commissioner of education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, called the findings “disappointing” given the “considerable amount of effort” devoted to improving reading.

So why haven’t NAEP scores changed? Simple. Because we haven’t done anything about school reform! We have done reading programs, but they don’t hit all children, or even all children that need it. And they aren’t school reform. They just put more time on the clock.

People fail to remember that the US Department of Education—the federal government—plays a minor role in the education of children. That role, per the constitution, falls on the shoulders of state governments. They carry the ultimate burden and responsibility for the education of students from Pre-K to 12 in our nation. Even private schools fall under the authority of state governments.

We haven’t improved because we haven’t changed our modus operandi in education. Our classrooms look and feel like they did at the start of NCLB, and a whole lot further back in time. We’ve added computers. Big whoop. We haven’t made the necessary changes to how we use technology or how we teach children. We haven’t altered, one iota, how we teach and induct teachers. We always have pockets of success, but have not found a way to rachet up our knowledge to practice.

And why is this? Because we can’t agree on what works. Policymakers and educators often say that we know what works, we just need to do it. They are only partially correct. We do know many of things that work in schools. But none of these are reformations to a large degree. And we can’t agree on which strategies are best and how to use them. This becomes political, as I’ve argued before. One political party seems to vote consistently for the Three Rs of education, while the other looks to progressive approach, but can never agree on what a progressive approach is. Who choose which party is which.

Secretary Duncan’s approach is to lengthen the school day and the school year. Have you walked into a school classroom lately? I don’t think the answer is adding more time; it’s doing more with the time they have.

Schools in the United States, as is true in Canada, should be places where students enjoy attending and have fun in their learning environments. But it should be work. And they should see it as work and understand that they need to work hard at school. Like we say in the adult world—work hard, play hard. The same is true for kids of all ages. But yes, it should be fun. It should be creative. It should be a social atmosphere that makes it OK to achieve at high levels—not punish people for “doing good!”

The NAEP score problem is not because NCLB failed. If that’s the case, everything else has failed, too. The real reason is because the states haven’t done enough to change how we educate youth. We haven’t seriously looked at the issue of cognitive-specific learning rather than age-level learning. We don’t really have a decent mechanism for allowing students to skip classes or courses because they are beyond that level of learning. Why haven’t we fully utilized diagnostic testing (e.g., CLEP style) to see where students should be placed rather than when they were born? We can’t even get across that discussion, which has been ongoing for 40 years.

We talk a lot about project-based learning, but we don’t really do it, because teachers find it a pain because is a bit amorphous. But it doesn’t have to be. They just need to be taught how to pull it all together and make it a serious learning experience.  

We talk much about harnessing computers, but we don’t really do it. My kids know most about computers and history from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and similar games. Truth. Two of my children, and now a third, know more about World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam Nam War, and Desert Storm through video games. They know the geography, the culture, the equipment, and the strategies, and not just from the US point of view. While there may be some blood and some language, what they have learned through those games is outstanding. But we can’t harness that same technology for classroom learning. Instead, we make PowerPoints.

So let’s not blame the federal government on what has or has not happened. States, it’s your gig. Your responsibility, and you’ve been asleep at the wheel for too long. And while we say it isn’t about the money, it is, to a point. We need more money in education if we expect to get more out. And it is about ROI. We need to see the outcomes we demand of the investments we make. It’s time.

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