Unintended Consequences of No Child Left Behind
June 12, 2004
Letter, News-Topic (Caldwell County, NC)
Tom Shuford (retired public school teacher)
The federal No Child Left Behind Act is "having a tremendous impact on North Carolina's public schools," writes Title 1 director Dr. Caryl Burns (May 28). "Key requirements of the law are closing the achievement gaps, holding schools accountable for all students performing at a high level, and having qualified teachers in every classroom."
No Child Left Behind is designed to "end the long-standing practice of triaging children into those who can be expected to learn a lot and those who can't be expected to learn much," to borrow the words of a Washington Post education columnist who greatly admires the legislation. The logic of No Child Left Behind is compelling. Before NCLB, schools could hide wide gaps in achievement between ethnic, income and disability subgroups by reporting good average scores. NCLB forces districts to pay attention to the gaps. Not so good though are unintended consequences-some quite serious-sure to follow from this latest phase in a century-long process of transferring control of education from communities to distant authorities. It's worth looking at this centralizing process. There are roughly three phases: Phase I (1900-1990): The Rise of Experts, The Lure of Consolidation:
Phase I is, by far, the most important. State education experts set specifications for teachers, administrators, curricula, textbooks, etc. In a parallel process-also driven by experts--small districts merge to form large districts. The number of U. S. school districts falls from 127,531 in 1932 (with an average of 200 students per district) to fewer than 15,000 districts today with an average of 3,000 students per district. Large districts dilute parental influence.
Phase II: 1990- ?: High-Stakes Tests To The Rescue: By the late 70's, despite expert attention, American education is in crisis. In the vivid words of "A Nation at Risk," the famous 1983 report issued by a prestigious presidential commission, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Over the next decade alarmed politicians and education experts assess the casualties of Phase I and propose-more centralization. State education departments take control of classrooms in many states with high stakes end-of-year tests. Real consequences follow success and failure on the tests. North Carolina and Texas pioneer the approach.
Phase III, 2002- ?: The Federal Government Boards the Accountability Bandwagon: Phase II's early apparent success (scores rise) inspires Phase III: elaborate federal requirements. No Child Left Behind seeks to make up for a Phase II shortcoming: lagging achievement scores of poor and minority students and students with disabilities. We are just entering Phase III.
This ongoing 100-year-old process of centralization will end badly-either for its champions or for the nation. The first chink-weak link-in the centralizers' armor may have already appeared. North Carolina's central planners-early adopters of command-and-control education-are showing signs of bewilderment. Something unpleasant is happening with above average students.
Only 6% of above grade level NC seventh graders, for example, showed a full year's growth on state reading tests in 2003 according to a Charlotte Observer report: "When the state began its testing program, top scorers tended to show as much academic growth as low scorers did, [state testing director Lou] Fabrizio said. But when he looked at statewide averages for students who scored at each of the four levels in 2003, he found Level 1 and 2 students showing substantially more progress than those at Level 3 and 4. The gap was especially dramatic in middle school reading, where less than 10 percent of students earning a Level 4 showed the expected progress. In seventh-grade reading, for instance, 85 percent of Level 1 students, 96 percent of Level 2 students and 91 percent of Level 3 students made a full year's progress, but only 6 percent of the Level 4s did."("Top Students May be Losing Out," Jan. 8, 2004).*
North Carolina State Superintendent Mike Ward: It raises the question "for crying out loud, what's happening to the top performing kids?"
As Phase II & III centralization take hold nationwide, central planners in many states will be asking that question-and others. Prediction: they will be just as puzzled as our own state superintendent, but less candid.
Good people run our state education systems. Disappointments are not their fault. Top-down politically-controlled education systems are quite limited in their ability to respond to unintended consequences, to new information. Such systems have difficulty "learning." In particular, they cannot capitalize on insights of those on education's front lines: individual teachers and parents.
This is very unfortunate for we have-as a model-a much more flexible, responsive and accountable system: the free market. We depend on free markets for the great majority of our goods and services. The exceptions are mostly natural monopolies such as national defense, police and fire protection, water treatment, sewage, etc. Education does not need to be a monopoly. Education need not be deprived of free market responsiveness, flexibility, accountability and innovation.
No Child Left Behind is an order from above to raise the achievement of underperforming subgroups. It's a command that must be followed within the rigid structure of state monopoly education. The intense focus required by NCLB will produce successes-especially in the early grades. But overall results will disappoint. Moreover, there will be deformities, unpleasant surprises to which an inflexible system cannot respond. The faltering performance of North Carolina's above average students is a foretaste of unwelcome challenges to come.
The far better solution is to push decision-making power and accountability down to the front lines: to parents, teachers and principals-within a market-like mechanism.
Tom Shuford , Public School Teacher, Retired
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