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Published in Print: July 28, 2004, as Down the Rabbit Hole


Down the Rabbit Hole

Absurdity in the quest for better schools.

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Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh ...

From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Absurdity in the quest for better schools.

As the principal of a small K-12 school in rural Alaska, I can identify with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. The No Child Left Behind Act gets "curiouser and curiouser." I live and work in the middle of the Arctic, yet lately the tentacles of Washington have reached out and grasped my school in a stranglehold of absurdity. We have been thrust headlong down a rabbit hole and met the Queen of Hearts, only to find that she looks suspiciously like George W. Bush.

All across the country, educators are scrambling to comply with the requirements of this federal legislation. They attend conferences on it, only to be confronted with ambiguity and uncertainty. The definition of "highly qualified teacher" changes weekly, for example, and what the criteria for "proficiency" are on a given day is anyone’s guess. It’s a bit like playing croquet with a flamingo.

The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortable enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing: ... it was very provoking. ... Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.

Teachers also find themselves in the rabbit hole. The law requires them to be "highly qualified," yet the definition of what that is keeps shifting and varies enormously from state to state. In New Mexico, you need five years’ experience, two successful observations by two peers who teach the same subject, a satisfactory portfolio, two judges who agree, and a partridge in a pear tree. My own state of Alaska is adopting an approach known as HOUSSE, for High, Objective, Uniform, State Standard of Evaluation. While there is merit in some of this, the process is mostly unrelated to the essence of the practice of teaching. In response to the federal demands, states are creating nothing more than new sets of hoops that serve only to make teachers better hoop-jumpers.

Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure, she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any minute ... "and then," thought she, "what would become of me? They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!"

Principals, teachers, and school districts stagger under the burden of compliance required by this law. Yet, the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site on the No Child Left Behind Act has the audacity to claim that the law reduces red tape and bureaucracy. It also claims that the law increases local power and control.

"Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!" said Alice.

My school is a designated "Level 2" school. By the No Child Left Behind law’s definition, we are failing (or "needing improvement"), and must offer supplemental services (among other things) to our students. This is where the trip down the rabbit hole really gets interesting. In order to offer these services, the district must contract with outside service providers. These providers have no requirement to hire "highly qualified" staff. For my school, this is not a problem, because such providers don’t exist in this remote country. They deliver their services by telephone, or via the Internet. There is no evidence, however, that this is an effective practice, and it’s a huge waste of resources.

In response to the federal demands, states are creating nothing more than new sets of hoops that serve only to make teachers better hoop-jumpers.

Neither is there recognition from the Queen that our student population is made up exclusively of Inupiaq Eskimos, an indigenous people, many of whom are still struggling to cope with the language and culture of the Western world. Yet the law demands that this Native American population be exactly the same as every other population. "Off with their heads," roars the Queen, speaking, of course, of the bumbling teachers and administrators who are unable to carry out the royal decree.

The trouble is that, in spite of its lofty ideals, the No Child Left Behind Act is so completely flawed, so poorly developed and executed, that without revision, it has no chance of success. The expectation that all children will attain basic levels of academic achievement is reasonable. The problem is in the timing. The law demands that 100 percent of students be "on grade level." Achievement is thus tied to age. One hundred percent of children of 3rd grade age are expected to be proficient on a test designed for 3rd graders—no excuses, no exceptions.

Every educator in America understands that children don’t all come to school on an equal footing and that they don’t progress at the same rate. Politicians should put this down as an axiom of education and act accordingly. For the No Child Left Behind law to demand that this reality be reversed is nothing short of absurd.

To achieve its worthwhile goal of helping all children, the law must be recrafted to reflect reality. Here are four suggestions: First, we need a testing approach that delivers timely and useful information to students and schools. Computerized adaptive tests, which provide instant feedback, would, if applied on a national scale, be a great benefit to instruction.

For decades, we have been subjected to standardized, norm-referenced testing. Such tests serve only to compare students, schools, districts, and states, a purpose that is more political than educational. In the RAND Corp. report "Large-Scale Testing," authors Stephen Klein and Laura Hamilton write that "none of the large-scale national achievement tests currently in use can be employed to monitor individual student progress or to evaluate the effectiveness of particular schools, districts, or educational programs." Yet in spite of this, we use such data to make decisions of enormous consequence, such as whether or not schools meet the "adequate yearly progress" requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Testing must inform instruction. The Northwest Evaluation Association provides a criterion-referenced, computer- adaptive test that meets this need, as our district discovered several years ago. But we continue to be saddled with state and federal requirements for additional testing. It’s political nonsense of a kind that crushes schools and students with its weight.

Second, we should remove the age component from the equation. Students can only start where they are and move forward; they can’t work miracles, and neither can schools. Success must be defined in terms of growth and must be disconnected from age-based comparisons and expectations. The best children can do is to progress at a reasonable pace in accordance with who they are as an individuals. The best any school can do is to provide for this growth by making use of the best practices. We must once and for all discard the industrial model of education. Children cannot be conveyed along an assembly line, receive periodic checks to assure quality, and to emerge at line’s end as exact replicas of one another.

We should offer assistance to beleaguered school principals, instead of forcing them into this mad game of croquet.

Third, we must rid our education mandate of punitive threats. The No Child Left Behind law is currently all stick and no carrot. We should replace its threat with the offer of very-early-childhood education, which can make a real difference. We should offer teachers incentives to take advanced degrees and other rigorous coursework; encourage them to seek out and employ the best practices known in the profession; and provide them the time to develop those practices without threatened sanctions. And we should offer assistance to beleaguered school principals, instead of forcing them into this mad game of croquet.

Finally, we must provide an array of alternate routes to success for students. Vocational education needs to come to center stage nationally as an honorable and highly valued component of education and as a vehicle for delivery of academic instruction.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the latest, and most extreme, example of educational meddling by politicians who operate under the delusion that American schools are failing grossly. This idea was originally—and falsely—presented in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk. But it is fundamentally wrong, and continues to provoke Draconian corrective measures. Ironically, we have become the world’s only "superpower" with our supposedly failed system of education. There is certainly room for improvement, but our schools are not as miserable as the No Child Left Behind law and its attendant hoopla would lead people to believe.

The greatest joke in education circles today is that state and federal operatives are going to come in and "take over" poorly performing schools. In fact, the greatest fear in state and federal education agencies is that they might actually be required to do so. We must put an end to this national joke and implement sensible ways to improve our practice. We’ve had enough of chasing Alice through this nonsensical bureaucratic rabbit hole.

"In that case," said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, "I move that the meeting adjourn, for immediate adoption of more energetic remedies."

Sherman Minter, a principal in Shugnak, Alaska, recently retired from that post and now lives in Houston, where he is an educational consultant. (

Vol. 23, Issue 43, Page 30

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