Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Humdrum Defense Of "No Child Left Behind"


The Washington Post offers an editorial debunking "myths" of No Child Left Behind by Chester E. Finn, Jr., author of a book on school reform. The first three aren't particularly interesting, at least to me. The author argues that NCLB isn't an extensive federal intrusion into state schools because states can turn down federal money. He argues that NCLB is not "underfunded" because its costs are "relatively modest" and critics should instead be asking why schools don't do a better job with their current funding. (Yes, the answer does not technically debunk the "myth".) He argues that setting standards will not cure U.S. schools, principally noting that many states have intentionally set weak standards even under NCLB.

To me, these seem like an odd set of myths to start with, not only because the debunking is weak but because I think they demonstrate an incorrect focus. Part of my concern is highlighted by the fourth "myth", "The standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind gets in the way of real learning":
Teachers' animus toward standardized testing has many roots, chief among them the grueling weeks of preparation and exams that they and their students endure every year. But the accountability made possible by standardized testing isn't all bad. If the test is an honest measure of a solid curriculum, then teaching kids the skills and knowledge they need to pass it is honorable work. Just ask any Advanced Placement teacher.
But what does the honest testing of a solid curriculum have to do with No Child Left Behind? Didn't we just hear the author admit that most states are setting weak standards so that they "meet" NCLB's requirements without actually improving their schools? And if the weeks of gruelling preparation amount to busy work, so the school can pass an administrative hurdle without actually improving school or student performance, what's to like?

Good teachers don't like standardized testing, at least where they are expected to coach the students to pass the test, because it's a waste of classroom time. Good students sometimes like standardized tests because it can be flattering to score in the 98th percentile or be told you're performing many levels above grade, but they're not the ones we're trying to test. And prep time for these tests is also wasted classroom time. For most students, the coaching and prodding is also a waste of time, not because it doesn't improve their test scores but because it has no further effect on academic performance. Teachers must "teach to the test" to create an artificial boost in results rather than teaching a curriculum and expecting that the test will fairly and reasonably measure their students' grasp of the curriculum. (Bad teachers don't much care either way. When you're already teaching kids out of workbooks, what does it matter if the principal says you have to use a different workbook for a few weeks.)

So standardized testing isn't bad if it's an "honest testing of a solid curriculum"? Alright then. When can we expect all standardized tests used for NCLB to constitute "honest testing of a solid curriculum"? Is there any movement in that direction?

A while back I proposed a solution to the standardized testing quandary - something that will shorten the time wasted on teaching to the test, and get the standardized tests out of the way early so that teachers may get back to a real curriculum.
Give the test at the start of the new school year, rather than during the course of the prior school year. Give the teachers a couple of weeks to bring the kids back up to speed from their near-inevitable summer backsliding, then administer the test. Kids who really learned their lessons the year before will do well. And that's what the testing is really supposed to measure.
So how about it, Mr. Finn?

The final myth seems out of place, criticizing the requirement that schools use certified teachers:
Lawmakers blundered when they confused "qualified" with "certified" teachers. There's no solid evidence that state certification ensures classroom effectiveness - and the booming success of programs such as Teach for America, which sends recent college graduates into troubled schools, suggests that certification may be wholly unnecessary. By requiring certified teachers in every classroom, No Child Left Behind makes it harder for district and charter schools to attract energetic and capable people who want to teach but take a less traditional route to the classroom.
Well here's the deal. Certification is substituted for qualification, because you have to somehow measure qualification. As with any certification or degree program, it's about averages. Most people who finish the program will have the minimum required qualifications. Some who are less than qualified will squeak through anyway, but that's going to happen under any standard. I'm sure that Mr. Finn has a Ph.D. - does that mean he is qualified to teach university classes, or does it just mean that he has a Ph.D.? If you've gone to college you know that having a Ph.D. is a poor measure of teaching skills, yet it's still something most universities require for tenure track teaching positions. What measure does Finn suggest as a substitute? Um... he doesn't.

I've also previously addressed "Teach For America", when responding to a more detailed Kristof editorial arguing against current teacher credentialing standards.
Sure. They make a two-year commitment to teach in the inner city. With the ability to reject 88% of the applicants the program should have no difficulty selecting applicants who have the necessary interest and aptitude to complete the program. Program participants come in with a new college graduate's energy and enthusiasm and are gone long before they burn out. Teach for America indicates that 60% of those who complete the program remain in education as "teachers, principals, education policy advisors and leaders and staff of education reform organizations", but provides no figure for how many remain in inner city schools.
While Finn pretends the participants are parachuted into classrooms with no training or support, that's not the case either. We can assume that a better credentialing system could be created, as that's almost always the case. But it's deceptive, and intentionally deceptive when the words are coming out of the mouth of an education reform "expert", to hold up "Teach For America" as some sort of paradigm.

There's also no evidence that there is a huge queue of qualified people, eager to teach but excluded from that opportunity by the certification requirement. Believe it or not, despite the occasional contention that teachers are overpaid, the people who will make the best teachers are often quite content to pursue other, more lucrative fields. (That was Kristof's point, in trying to open classroom doors to established professionals from other fields.)

Finn's call to wipe out teacher certification without creating an alternate, superior method of determining teacher qualification says to me, "this guy has an ulterior motive." So let's look up his résumé:
He was also a founding partner and senior scholar with the Edison Project, the private company setup to operate public schools on a for-profit basis. Hudson and Bradley are both major proponents of "school choice," which would allow public education money to be funneled to groups like Edison.
That's right, folks. The problem here seems to be that Finn's business ventures have to hire certified teachers in order to qualify for public funds. Eliminating that requirement without substituting a bona fide measure of teacher qualification will let them promote their groundskeepers to classroom teachers, significantly improving their bottom line. So again, Mr. Finn, what's the objective measure you propose for measuring teacher qualification?

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