I generally enjoy watching magic tricks. Illusions are great fun when you're just a spectator. Magic is sexy. It teases you with its seductive aura of the supernatural. But being made part of an illusion isn't always so fun. It's like witnessing how hot dogs get made. Magic loses some of its charm when you're on stage as a participant and can clearly see how an illusion is performed. It feels a bit like cheating. You start to see audience members merely as easy marks for a con—as prey. Then you realize you've been one of those easy marks that whole time too.
Yet, it is natural (and appropriate) to suspend your disbelief when it's for entertainment. It becomes far more problematic when it's for something as important as education.
As U.S. rankings in international education assessments stay low (or fall), more and more people are looking behind the veil and discovering the ugly realities of America's K-12 public-education policies. The problems with No Child Left Behind, in particular, continue to cause rampant disillusionment.
Still, the bold magicians—politicians, corporation-funded think tanks, and "education reformers"—keep performing. They continue in their quest to make you believe that their bad ideas are really good for you and the rest of their American audience as they quietly reap the rewards of their con game. They even update their tired magic acts with new tricks designed to dazzle those who've grown a little too skeptical.
Anyway, that's my theory. It's a maddening thing to contemplate.
What is the No Child Left Behind Act?
I'll try to keep this part brief for those who have not been blissfully ignorant for the past 10 years. (And, hey, if you do happen to be one of those people who don't already know what No Child Left Behind is, I almost envy you. Almost.)
President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) into law on January 8, 2002. NCLB is a federal program run by the U.S. Department of Education that aims to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged K-12 students in the basic skills of math and reading while holding public schools and teachers accountable if their students don't meet minimum standards. And it sets a deadline of 2014 for all students to reach proficiency in grade-level math and reading.
No Child Left Behind is a voluntary program that individual states can choose not to take part in. But most states do participate because it provides much-needed supplemental funding (federal dollars) for their poorest school districts. Once states accept NCLB money, they must meet the conditions set forth in the law. Some of the biggest conditions involve administering standardized tests to measure and track the effectiveness of the schools receiving federal money. You can read about the many other key provisions and accountability measures of NCLB here.
In spite of the government's rosy spin doctoring, NCLB has not been a success. In fact, the goal of getting every student up to speed in math and reading by 2014 is beyond unrealistic. That's why President Obama has begun granting waivers from NCLB to several states. In return, however, those states must commit to setting new targets and higher achievement standards as part of their own comprehensive plans, which still have to include accountability measures and be federally approved. It doesn't really change the game so much; it just moves the goal posts.
A decade after No Child Left Behind was signed into law, close to half of schools are unable to meet its requirements, resulting in ever-stiffer consequences for those schools (and, of course, for their teachers and students).
No Cheater Left Behind
I despise cheaters. I always have. Nevertheless, I've come to recognize that otherwise good people do sometimes crumble under enormous pressure. When they can't find honest solutions to problems that affect their reputations and livelihoods, they turn to other means. For them, it is a matter of survival (or escape).
No Child Left Behind puts teachers and school administrators under the microscope. And why not? After all, it is the education of our children we're talking about. But the stakes are incredibly high, and the obsession with accountability has resulted in widespread cheating and gaming of the system.
Many of the problems stem from this: The results of the standardized tests used to measure and track the progress of K-12 students are taken into account—in a major way—in the evaluation of school and teacher effectiveness. Again, this all sounds reasonable—until you look behind the magician's curtain and realize that things aren't so simple.
When teachers and school administrators erase wrong answers, fill in the correct ones, give their students the answers before the test, or cheat in any other way to get better test scores on the required standardized tests, their actions are inexcusable (of course!). But they also represent cracks in the grand illusion that paints standardized testing as a magic elixir that raises student achievement.
The reality is that most of the cheating is taking place in the school districts with the poorest students and smallest budgets. Not only do the students live in poverty, but the teachers within such places are often subject to extremely poor working conditions that can include low wages, harassment, and intimidation from school administrators.
It is naive and unfair to expect them to achieve the same results or test scores that teachers from more privileged school districts (with better working conditions, wealthier students, and more stable neighborhoods) are able to achieve. Yet we do.
Rather than cheat the system, some good teachers go as far as committing suicide, such as this one who killed himself after the Los Angeles Times labeled him as "less effective" than his peers based on the standardized test scores of his students (who came from an impoverished neighborhood plagued with gangs).
Mostly, though, the shallow testing regime of No Child Left Behind just creates more cheaters (or, at least, more fantasies about being one). The learning process becomes secondary. Quality teaching becomes a hindrance.
The thinking goes like this: When high test scores are all that matter, it matters not how you achieve them.
No Profiteer Left Behind
I don't have a problem with companies making a reasonable profit by offering quality products and solutions in the education sector. I do, however, have a problem when profit trumps everything else.
The paradigm of standardized testing feeds big profits to the private companies that produce the tests. Unfortunately, those profits seem to be the only thing some of those companies care about.
The standardized testing industry is run with very little public oversight. School districts fork over millions of dollars to companies that develop and score the tests they must use. In return, the testing companies frequently cut corners, cover up errors, or otherwise game the system. They don't focus as much on developing quality tests or scoring them accurately as on ringing out as much profit as they can from a struggling school system.
Quite simply, the tests and results these companies produce cannot be trusted. But don't take it from me. Take it from a guy who has worked for multiple testing companies and witnessed their operations from the inside.
Testing companies—along with their lobbyists and others who are part of the testing ecosystem—reap the rewards of the "education reform" movement. It is a movement that largely focuses on the alluring challenges of improving crummy standardized tests rather than the real-but-unsightly consequences of socio-economic inequalities.
It's the art of misdirection at its finest.
Testing is Sexy, but is It Meaningful?
Faith in standardized testing provides us with a comforting distraction from the true complexities of America's public education system. It masks the troubling issues that lurk deep below our shallow thoughts. It gives us permission to make convenient scapegoats of anyone who fails in a position in which they're job is to ensure that kids score high marks. It fools us into believing that everything possible is being done to improve our schools.
But teaching is not a science. And children are not robots. We've turned the simple tool of measurement into an unhealthy obsession. We whore our deeper values in exchange for easy metrics and hollow statistics, believing all the while that our lust for mechanical assessment is something special.
The superficial testing created for No Child Left Behind has left behind deep learning. It's turned teachers into drill sergeants that train students just well enough in a couple of key skills to win a meaningless battle. High scores in math and reading tests do not necessarily mean that students are good at math and reading. (Just ask any professor who teaches first-year college students.)
Yet, the politicians need something to debate about. And they need some kind of evidence to support their positions. That is likely the true reason for No Child Left Behind. Statistics, even if highly suspect, provide the ammunition they need to battle each other over policy decisions. It's much easier to win an argument in Washington, D.C. if you've measured something.
So our political leaders fawn over anyone who says he's got a better way of testing. Better testing equals sexier metrics. Thus, they keep ignoring the less convenient (less appealing) problems.
Think of it this way: If you want to lose weight, buying a fancier scale is not going to cut it. Sure, it's easy. It makes you feel like you've done something important. But unless you have a supportive environment, the resources to make exercising and eating healthy a regular part of every day, and the inherent motivation to make it happen, you're probably not going to see much progress. Purchasing an even fancier scale after you fail is not going to help.
But the testing companies keep pushing their ever-fancier, ever-more-efficient scales. They've even developed "robo-readers" to score essays. They claim their computer software is just as accurate at scoring written work as humans. (I'm sure I could write 10,000 words on this subject alone, so, for now, I'll just let you be the judge of those claims.)
I think a lot of our faith in testing and measurement comes from our belief in external reward and punishment as the key drivers of motivation. We believe that being accountable to someone or something outside of ourselves is necessary if we are to perform well.
It's why a teacher can be suspended from a Canadian high school in Edmonton, Alberta and be considered a hero. The teacher, Lynden Dorval, refused to abide by his school's No Zeros policy, which states that teachers cannot give zeros (failing grades) to students who don't do their assignments or show up for tests.
On the one hand, I support Dorval's courageous stance. Most students, after all, do need to learn responsibility and acquire a good work ethic if they are to do well outside of school.
On the other hand, I think we've allowed the use of grades and test scores to become a convenient way to avoid the harder work of creating environments (at school and at home) in which students can develop the intrinsic motivation to learn rather than the numbing obligation to avoid punishment.
Grades, testing, and other external assessments may not measure what we think they do. Maybe the stuff that's really important isn't so easy to measure.
What's the Solution?
For now, President Obama seems to think that part of the solution lies in more and better standardized testing. His Race to the Top initiative gives states the opportunity to compete with each other for federal grant dollars by adopting even higher standards, more expansive testing, greater accountability, and additional education reforms such as removing barriers to the growth of public charter schools (which are often managed by private corporations).
As a result, several states are adopting new common standards, known as Common Core State Standards, for K-12 public schools. Along with these new standards will come newer, bigger standardized tests that will be taken on computers (and mostly scored by them) beginning in 2014. These new tests will also include more short answer and essay questions instead of just multiple choice.
While there are some things to like about the new tests, they are still just tests (created by the same corner-cutting companies). So the results of Race to the Top remain to be seen. But, for now, it looks a lot like No Child Left Behind on steroids. I hope I'm wrong.
What's the Real Solution?
Some people want to blow up the whole damn system and start over. They want all the problems to, like magic, just disappear.
Most of us, though, simply throw up our hands and support whatever shallow "solutions" our political leaders want to trot out. We think the problems in education are too complex to figure out. So we leave everything to the politicians and profiteers who make scapegoats of the very people in the best position to help improve things: Teachers.
But what if more of us decided to care as much as most teachers?
What if we joined teachers in their fight for schools in which real learning can take place?
What if we started to focus more on improving the lives of people in our own communities instead of looking to government or corporations to solve everything for us?
What if we actually started to listen to people with good ideas and tuned out all the blowhards who promote only one solution (the one that fills their bank accounts)?
Some people believe that at least part of the answer to America's public education woes can be found by examining Finland's approach. In Finland, teachers are treated as top professionals (like doctors and lawyers), and its system does not rely heavily on standardized testing or accountability.
Finland's students consistently rank at or near the top of international rankings. But it wasn't always that way. They used to rank near the bottom. It took courage and a bold vision to transform Finland into an education superpower that places its focus on cooperation and overcoming social inequalities rather than on competition or any shallow notion of "academic excellence."
The sad irony is that many of the ideas implemented in Finland came from American researchers.
So we already have plenty of good ideas. We just need to start listening.
Do we care enough about America's future to abandon our comfortable trance by telling the sexy magician to take his shiny props and make himself invisible—permanently?