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Published in Print: July 26, 2006, as What Works vs. Whatever Works

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What Works vs. Whatever Works

Inside the No Child Left Behind law’s internal contradictions.

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Are you still struggling to make heads or tails of the federal No Child Left Behind Act? Does the law remind you of Dr. Dolittle’s two-headed llama, the PushMePullyu? It should, because when it comes to the law’s “theory of action,” it’s heading in opposite directions at the same time. Specifically, the No Child Left Behind Act is the result of an uncomfortable truce between two groups of school reformers: the “what works” camp and the “whatever works” camp. The law is an amalgam of their ideas, and their ongoing competition will shape the contours of No Child Left Behind version 2.0.

First, let’s examine the what-works crowd. These reformers look across the education system and see its failings in terms of ignorance and ideology. They decry the pedagogical fads that sweep through our schools, bemoan educators’ resistance to scientifically proven reading-instruction methods, and abhor the quasi-religious nature of disliked educational “philosophies” such as constructivism and “multiple intelligences.” They seek to bring order to this chaos through the dispassionate eye of science. Using medicine as their model, they aim to employ rigorous research methods to determine what works, and then to use the force of law and regulation to ensure adoption of these methods throughout the land. After all, they say, we don’t allow doctors to wing it when they are practicing brain surgery; we expect them to use best practices in order to save lives.

The stamp of what-works advocates is clear throughout the No Child Left Behind legislation, but especially in two of its most controversial provisions: the Reading First program, and the “highly qualified teachers” mandate. The former requires schools to use funds for a narrowly defined type of reading instruction—namely, that which has been found by rigorous research to be effective. The U.S. Department of Education has dutifully implemented the program in this narrow, prescriptive way, leading to much gnashing of teeth and complaints of bullying. But for leaders of the what-works coalition, such as the former federal reading czar, G. Reid Lyon, anything else would amount to malpractice.

Then there’s the “highly qualified teachers” provision of the law, which demands that all teachers be able to demonstrate their subject-matter knowledge. This, too, is said to be based upon rigorous research, though even admirers of the mandate must admit that the evidence is somewhat flimsy. (Most studies linking subject-matter knowledge to teacher effectiveness have examined math or science at the secondary level; their applicability to elementary school, much less to subjects such as art, geography, or economics, is unknown.) But again, the what-works coalition borrows from the language of medicine, insisting that we wouldn’t allow doctors to practice if they didn’t have the relevant credentials. Surely we need teachers who are similarly well-qualified.


The whatever-works camp holds a very different worldview. These reformers look out across the education system and see its failings in terms of incentives, power, and politics. They decry the daily decisions made by school boards and district leaders that benefit adults instead of children (especially poor children). They abhor the red tape and bureaucratic inertia that keep educators from innovating. They don’t particularly care what happens inside the “black box” of classroom instruction; they just want children to be well-educated at the end of the day. They seek to right the system through the classic management model of “tight-loose”: Be tight about the results you expect, but loose as to the means. Put differently, the whatever-works camp combines accountability for student learning with flexibility around everything else. Using the entrepreneurial sector as its model, this camp aims to create a marketplace of schools, free to experiment, compete, and improve. After all, there’s a reason that America has the strongest economy in the world, they assert, and if we can empower educators with significant freedom (in return for getting results), they, too, will rise to the occasion.

On the one hand, the federal government is saying to do whatever works to boost student learning, and on the other hand it’s saying to do things in a certain prescribed, preapproved way.

The stamp of whatever-works advocates is also clear in the NCLB legislation. The very heart of the law is its accountability system, built into the Title I program, which was designed to create incentives for schools to boost student learning and close achievement gaps. Most important, the design of “adequate yearly progress,” with its disaggregation of test scores by racial groups, was meant to help local communities overcome the political barriers that keep resources and attention from flowing to needy children. In the spirit of “whatever works,” and in return for this increased accountability, the rules around the use of Title I funds were relaxed dramatically, and many more schools were given permission to use their federal dollars for “schoolwide” reforms. New “transferability” provisions were included in the law, too, allowing states and districts to move federal funds from one program to another. Just show us the results, Congress seemed to say, and we’ll leave you alone.

Is it any surprise, then, that educators feel whipsawed between competing demands? On the one hand, the federal government is saying to do whatever works to boost student learning, and on the other hand it’s saying to do things in a certain prescribed, preapproved way.

The result is frustration and anger. Imagine a poor, rural Title I school that is doing whatever works to get great results. In this case, it hires a former engineer from the local coal mine to teach 8th grade mathematics. She’s a natural, and her students’ test scores go through the roof. But because she didn’t major in math, she’s not considered “highly qualified.” How is that school’s principal going to feel when the feds come knocking, telling him to replace the teacher or risk being “out of compliance”? Or consider an elementary school whose reading results are soaring but which dares to use a reading program not on the state-approved Reading First list. Should the school’s principal be punished for insubordination, or celebrated for innovation and inventiveness?


What does all of this mean for the next version of the No Child Left Behind Act, due to be reauthorized in 2007? Surely both camps will try to consolidate their gains, further push their agenda, and avoid surrendering ground. The what-works camp will seek to expand its influence beyond reading to other areas, such as math. (This is especially true if the newly named National Mathematics Advisory Panel can identify rigorous evidence to support certain approaches to teaching math.) They will seek to close the loopholes in the law’s highly-qualified-teachers provision that allow veteran teachers to show their stuff without having a major or passing a test. And, of course, they will defend Reading First to the bitter end.

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Should No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts stress proven remedies or site-specific flexibility? Join our current discussion: “NCLB: What Works vs. Whatever Works.”

The whatever-works camp will attempt to expand the zone of flexibility. Beyond fighting to remove the highly-qualified-teachers mandate, and perhaps even Reading First, it will push for additional flexibility for local schools. Look for renewed calls for the “Straight A’s” plan, a 1990s creation that would have given states, districts, and schools near-complete discretion over how they spent their federal funds, so long as student learning rose. The whatever-works camp will try to expand on the transferability provision, perhaps allowing all of a state’s federal funds to flow through a simplified Title I formula. It will try to make it easier for schools to earn waivers from federal laws and regulations. And, perhaps most importantly, expect this camp to push for a larger role for charter schools, whose “accountability in return for flexibility” design epitomizes the whatever-works approach.

Sure enough, the big issues of accountability, adequate yearly progress, and funding will grab most of the headlines during reauthorization. But keep your eye on this more subtle battle between what works and whatever works. While the odds are that the basic outlines of the law won’t change much, the competition between these two camps is wide open. The direction in which this two-headed llama moves will have a big impact on the day-to-day operations of the nation’s schools, and the amount of freedom and flexibility educators enjoy.

Vol. 25, Issue 43, Pages 36,44

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