Ooops… we left all the children behind

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“No Child Left Behind” was doomed to be a failure, because it was ill concieved, politically cynical, and underfunded. But like the War in Iraq, the Patriot Act and Tax Breaks for the Rich, and all the other initiatives of the Bush Administration that never should have happened, we have been saddled with this melt down of a policy for over a decade. “NCLB” was one of the first policies implemented by Bush.

The evidence that the approaches developed under this policy have failed has been mounting for years, and the supporters of NCLB have been dropping like flies on no-pest strip. The latest and perhaps most important policy related statement to date has just come out, and it is a study published by the National Academies of Science: Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education by Michael Hout and Stuart W. Elliott, Editors; Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education; National Research Council.

And the study says …

In recent years there have been increasing efforts to use accountability systems based on large-scale tests of students as a mechanism for improving student achievement. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a prominent example of such an effort… bla bla bla … For the first time, research and theory on incentives from the fields of economics, psychology, and educational measurement have all been pulled together and synthesized. Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education will inform people about the motivation of educators and students and inform policy discussions about NCLB … bla bla bla …

Never mind that part … it’s just the text they put on the front page so as it arrives on the desks of the members of congress who implemented this policy they don’t have amateurism. Let’s get right to the conclusions. There are two:

Conclusion 1: Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs. Even when evaluated using the tests attached to the incentives, a number of programs show only small effects. Programs in foreign countries that show larger effects are not clearly applicable in the U.S. context. School-level incentives like those of the No Child Left Behind Act produce some of the larger estimates of achievement effects, with effect sizes around 0.08 standard deviations, but the measured effects to date tend to be concentrated in elementary grade mathematics and the effects are small compared to the improvements the nation hopes to achieve.

Holy crap! The policy was ideologically sound and based on free market theory and stuff! But it didn’t work!

Conclusion 2: The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement. The best available estimate suggests a decrease of 2 percentage points when averaged over the population. In contrast, several experiments with providing incentives for graduation in the form of rewards, while keeping graduation standards constant, suggest that such incentives might be used to increase high school completion.

OMG! The No Child Left Behind Program has RUINED education in America instead of FIXING it!

There are three recommendations and they are rather disappointing.

Recommendation 1: Despite using them for several decades, policy makers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on
achievement and to improve education. Policy makers should support the development and evaluation of promising new models that use test-based incentives in more sophisticated
ways as one aspect of a richer accountability and improvement process. However, the modest success of incentive programs to date means that all use of test-based incentives should be carefully studied to help determine which forms of incentives are successful in education and which are not. Continued experimentation with test-based incentives should not displace investment in the development of other aspects of the education system that are important complements to the incentives themselves and likely to be necessary for incentives to be effective in improving education.

Translation: What we are doing now does not work. There are some efforts to do what we are doing now which have shown insufficient promise, so pursue those for a while but then quietly drop them and shift to the unmentionable things that would actually work. Which we shall not mention.

Recommendation 2: Policy makers and researchers should design and evaluate new test-based incentive programs in ways that provide information about alternative approaches to incentives and accountability. This should include exploration of the effects of key features suggested by basic research, such as who is targeted for incentives; what performance measures are used; what consequences are attached to the performance measures
and how frequently they are used; what additional support and options are provided to schools, teachers, and students in their efforts to improve; and how incentives are framed and communicated. Choices among the options for some or all of these features are likely to be critical in determining which–if any–incentive programs are successful.

Translation: Stop teaching to the test, stop funding schools based on test results, stop designing systems that move the encouragement to cheat from the student up to the administrator, and instead implement other approaches that may actually work which we shall not name.

Recommendation 3: Research about the effects of incentive programs should fully document the structure of each program and should evaluate a broad range of outcomes. To avoid having their results determined by the score inflation that occurs in the high-stakes tests attached to the incentives, researchers should use low-stakes tests that do not mimic the high-stakes tests to evaluate how test-based incentives affect achievement. Other outcomes, such as later performance in education or work and dispositions related to education, are also important to study. To help explain why test-based incentives sometimes produce negative effects on achievement, researchers should collect data on changes in educational practice by the people who are affected by the incentives.

Translation: Go back to basics and find out what works. Consider alternation methods that shall not be named. Consider aligning the objectives of education with the realities of society.

Now we just have to undue the fabricated belief that class size does not matter, strengthen efforts to professionalize the teaching profession, and address issues of variation among students in ways that allow us to work with what we’ve got rather than to ignore both problems and potentials among our students.

You can get your own copy of this report here.

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20 thoughts on “Ooops… we left all the children behind

  1. Now we just have to undue the fabricated belief that class size does not matter, strengthen efforts to professionalize the teaching profession, and address issues of variation among students in ways that allow us to work with what we’ve got rather than to ignore both problems and potentials among our students.


    So how do we do that? I’ve pondered that and have no answer. As long as the rightwingnuts are effectively in charge, I feel hopeless that anything will get better. 🙁

  2. “Now we just have to undue the fabricated belief that class size does not matter, strengthen efforts to professionalize the teaching profession, ”

    Gonna be hard to get people to buy into that. I know people in WI (some in-laws among them) who

    * were thrilled by Walker’s moves to demonize teachers, strip their negotiating rights, and cut pensions and salaries, while
    * complaining about efforts to do the same to police and fire unions

    The difference, in their words: “Police and fire-fighters serve the public good. Teachers work against it.”

    That sentiment is growing here in michigan, under snyder. You won’t be able to move politicians to do anything but the quick, useless things, as long as there is such narrow-minded views are held “by the people”.

    I agree with your comments and will read the report, but I am immensely pessimistic about how quickly nclb will be modified for the better, let alone eliminated.

  3. This whole business is much easier to understand if you start with the premise that it’s an excuse to defund public education. “Class size doesn’t matter” translates into “we can sack half of the teachers and pretend that our results will improve.” Then, when they don’t, sack some more teachers.

  4. “Class size doesn’t matter” translates into “we can sack half of the teachers and pretend that our results will improve.” Then, when they don’t, sack some more teachers.

    And when that doesn’t work: “The people who were responsible for sacking the teachers have been sacked.” Iterate a la Monty Python.

    (Hey, it can’t be any worse than No School Board Left Standing.)

  5. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Patriot Act was adopted WITHOUT public approval or vote just weeks after the events of 9/11. Such an unconstitutional set of laws should be abolished seeing as they violate human rights and due process. A mere 3 criminal charges of terrorism a year attributed to this act, which is mainly used for no-knock raids leading to drug-related arrests without proper cause for search and seizure. The laws are simply a means to spy on our own citizens and to detain and torture dissidents without trial or a right to council. You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artistâ??s blog at

  6. Hmmm, so we should throw the baby out with the bathwater? Abandon graduation requirements, skills and knowledge testing? Does this include no more SAT, ACT, GRE, professional licensing for lawyers, doctors, engineers? Qua

    Why not hand every kid a picture-Bible, a gold star, some phony certificates, and send them home? As we continue our slide into the American Dark Ages, science education will be the first to go: oh sorry, it already has been tossed overboard, hasn’t it?

  7. It’s odd that all the countries with high achievements are the ones that have rigid exam structures, demanding excellence from the few suitable for higher education, and concentrating the rest on the effort to providing a broad education to those destined for the regular work force. As long as the US insists on wasting education resources to “graduate” a few more % on the low end instead of providing a top education to those in need of it and graduate the rest at 16, the country is doomed to failure in the world-wide comparison.

  8. I despise NCLB (I’m a college professor getting these nitwit high school graduates as students) but blaming it solely on Bush just reveals your ideological bias. NCLB received overwhelming Bipartisan support (384â??45 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate). Ted Kennedy was a co-author of the bill.

  9. Yes, it did receive overwhelming bipartisan support, and along with NCLB there were a number of other education related laws that were proposed and mostly fought off by Kennedy and others. NCLB was also funded reasonably well by amendments that were not supported by the Republicans and the Bush White house. And the invasion of Iraq was signed on to by a majority of Democrats but no one seriously considered that to have been a Democratic war.

    So, Steve, what is your point?

  10. So, Steve, what is your point?

    I cannot, and do not, speak for Steve; however, I interpret his point as being both sides – Democrats and Republicans are responsible for the mess we are currently experiencing. If we as a population, want to improve that situation, then we as an electorate need to stop electing both Democrats and Republicans. I rely on the old adage, when choosing between two evils (or in this case more than two evils) I like to go with the one I have not experienced yet.

    I believe Alan has it right when he writes:

    The problem with an educated population is that they might start making informed decisions at the ballot box.

    Neither party wants an informed electorate, both want the electorate to make decisions solely from an emotional standpoint. They stand a much better chance of winning the election.

  11. “Neither party wants an informed electorate”

    That may be true to some extent, but I wonder if the notion that there was once an “educated electorate” is as lacking in fact as the idea there was a “glorious time back in the 50s”, or whenever, that so many conservatives wish they could return the country to.

  12. Mu makes a good point. We in the US start with the idea that all students can (and should) go to college, while other countries spend resources on preparing students for a variety of levels of job skills and academic pursuits. As a high school teacher I know not every kid is capable of being an astronaut or surgeon, but it’s politically dangerous to say so here or at school.

    Trying to treat every kid as having exactly the same potential neglects all the social and cognitive differences that makes every student unique.

  13. Onkel, I’m pretty sure Steve was obfuscating the point, though perhaps unintentional. Kennedy may have sponsored the bill, but a) he fought to have it funded and the Bushies stopped that from happening and b) progressive educators swallowed the NCLB pill in a conservative anti-teacher and anti-education climate as the next best thing to having the NEA disbanded and wholesale sellouts to charter schools, and hoped to make it work (and it could have) but at every stage, shifting resources to wealthier suburban schools and closing down inner city schools and all that sort of thing was the political agenda and NCLB the tool to apply that agenda. The progressives that helped craft this at the beginning got off the boat way back when. NCLB was a Bush/Republican policy that got bipartisan support for good reasons that went away at the very beginning.

    Steve either doesn’t know that or is deflecting.

    It is the position of the Democratic Party to make high quality education available to everyone. “Neither party wants an informed electorate” is cynical false balancing. Mostly.

  14. My point is, Greg and others, that you’re being partisan by only blaming Bush.

    It’s not a simple Democrats good/Republicans bad issue. Sorry I’m seen as an enemy for saying that (more evidence of blind partisanship on your part).

  15. No, it is not a simple story. I even considered adding the phrase “passed with bipartisan support” to the first sentence of this post when I first wrote it. But I didn’t because I would have then had to spend time explaining why it wasn’t really bipartisan support over the last so many years, and how it was a compromise even then, and how there were warnings that it better be funded but it then was not funded. Kennedy had more negative to say about NCLB, as it developed as an unfunded mandate, than he had positive to say about it at the time it was passed.

    But all that would have been a distraction to the point of this post. And, I figured somebody would bring it up in the comments anyway.

  16. I monitor grad level education courses for a state university; the content is all about the $$$$$ that can made by professional parasites. Dysfunctional kids, parents and schools are a paradise of profit for all the industries that have been created by NOT educating children: criminal justice, psychiatry, drug treatment, legal and illegal drugs, technology, remedial classes, special classes, curriculum development, research, and on and on, condemning so many American kids to dismal futures. The result is an unhealthy society of infantile consumers, not producers.

    Human infants arrive primed to learn – it’s instinct, it’s nature – but we view this utterly natural and positive process as abnormal! Raising children to be functioning adults is presented as cruel and unusual punishment, discriminatory and impossible. Crazy, but profitable.

  17. It’s like this Onkel et al: Republicans push either the complete privatisation of schools (killing inner city education) citing the mythical power of Free Market Ideals to be the solution to education’s woes. Democrats try to get something that may get past the Republicans by using “The Free Market Ideals” in a method of accountancy for educationalists. Now known as NCLB.

    Like the Single Payer Option, the better options were NOT possible because one entire party very nearly to a man would block it and many in the other party are beholden to interests that wouldn’t fund their campaigns unless they toe the line.

    When 95% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats are behind a bad idea, not only is it impossible to get a good one through, the blame by party label is NOT equally apportioned.

    The Republicans aren’t responsible for some Dems being DINOs, that IS genuinely the fault of the Democratic party.

    But bipartisan support when one side will NEVER accept a proposal form the other isn’t proof that both sides are equally culpable in passing bad legislation.

  18. No Child Left behind always boggled me right from the offset. The name in itself is the clue, we all sail at the speed of the slowest ship so if your slowest pupil can’t get reading then that means all those who can read are going to keep going over the same stuff over and over again. Tests based stuff just reminds me of this cartoon:

    Overall, I think education fails students in general needs a big shake up. I did my education in the UK as I’m British but the same problems exist. As a person who has ‘learning difficulties’ and was thus a ‘straggler’ at school, I was dumped right down at the bottom. Thankfully I was spotted by an observant special needs teacher, diagnosed with Dispraxia and Dyslexia and got the help I needed. I was, I might add, in a private school, not a state school, so the facilities were there. Hundreds if not thousands of kids are not so lucky and every year are thought to just be ‘thick’.

    I think education needs to do a few things and many of them were mentioned above and in the comments. First, we’ve got to recognize that not everyone needs a degree or will do well at traditional subjects. That doesn’t make them stupid, I know many an intelligent craftsman. They just have a different intelligence, they are smart with wood or metal or whatever. Putting them through the one size fits all mangler that is ‘education’ kills any intelligence they might have. We should cater for that.

    Second, we need to ‘educate’ not teach. Education should be teaching people how to learn, teaching is pumping in facts and hoping some stick. Kids are smart, teach them how to educate themselves and they will! Like someone said, the human infant is programed to learn, why do we find that so bad? They’re the best at finding what they are good at and where they are strong. Give them lots of options at a young age and they’ll sort it out.

    Thirdly, we need to spend money on it. If a country can afford atomic weapons and giant aircraft carriers and can’t afford a decent education system (or healthcare for that matter) then the priorities are not in order.

    Finally, you can’t just throw money at it. I think the author is right; many things like organizing teachers better need to be done if education is to succeed. Without it, any nation is doomed.

    China is going to have this problem soon enough as well, they’ve not been educating, just teaching. Thousands of out of work graduates, not much ‘intelligence’ between them. Great if you need factory workers or people to press buttons all day but wave goodby to innovation…


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