by Julia Steiny
In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break. I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, “Not statistically possible!”
I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.
He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure. While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn’t lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they’d all be “proficient,” per the mandate of the new federal law. Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all? He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests. He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures. Cheek he had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership. But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions. Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone’s best work.
I wasn’t taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, “And you can quote me.”
So here we are: 2014. My, how time flies. What did we learn?
I learned two things. The first is that having good data is really useful. The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against. (They were.) NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity. If you know what you’re doing, “anchoring” statistics can verify the quality of statistics. All facts are friendly. Having good facts helps us help kids.
Ah, but do we actually want to help children? I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we’ll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement. Won’t happen.
Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014. But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law. As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems. We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can’t somehow beat their badness out of them.
Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits. Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever. There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors. No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.
Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they’re producing such bad results. Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed. For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults. When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.
Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet “F.” Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds — for the free-lunch kids — to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies. NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn’t get chewed up in the process.
Such mean behavior isn’t built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement. Let’s see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.
Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids. How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become “globally competitive” is an adult wish? What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help — long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland. Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an “F” when they deserve one. But they don’t need punishment. And neither do the schools.
It’s 2014, and the kids aren’t in significantly better shape than they were in 2001. They didn’t become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep. Punishment didn’t work. It was a dismal failure. In 2014, the question before us is: what will work? Only, let’s be honest this time.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.