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November 01, 2011 3 min read
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| VIEWS | Bridging Differences

NCLB: End It, Don’t Mend It

Most people now recognize that No Child Left Behind is a train wreck. Its mandates have imposed on American public education an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing.

• It has incentivized cheating, as we have seen in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

• It has encouraged states to game the system, as we saw in New York state, where the state tests were made easier and more predictable so as to bolster the number of children who reached “proficiency.”

• It has narrowed the curriculum; many districts and schools have reduced or eliminated time for the arts, physical education, and other nontested subjects.

• It has caused states to squander billions of dollars on testing and test preparation, while teachers are laid off and essential services slashed.

By 2014, on the NCLB timetable of destruction, close to 100 percent of public schools will have “failed” in their efforts to reach the unreachable goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math. Has there ever been a national legislative body anywhere else in the world that has passed legislation that labeled almost every one of its schools a failure? I don’t think so.

Despite the manifest failure of NCLB, the Obama administration proposes not to scrap it, but to offer waivers if states agree to accept the mandates selected by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Happily, the latest version of the NCLB reauthorization does not include the teacher evaluation provisions that Mr. Duncan wants. That’s good, but not good enough, because many states are already well down that path, not only the 11 that “won” the Race to the Top, but others that wanted to make themselves eligible.

When, if ever, will policymakers realize that they should find ways to support teachers, not to demoralize them? There is just so much top-down beating-up that can go on before teachers and principals rise up in protest, especially when so many at the top are not educators.

—Diane Ravitch

| VIEWS | Sputnik

The ‘Shut It Down’ Mentality

One of the solutions often proposed for schools in which students perform poorly is closing down the school. It’s one of the four options required for schools to receive School Improvement Grants in the current administration and has been an option for consistently low-achieving schools under No Child Left Behind.The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act maintains school closure among seven options for persistently low-achieving schools.

“Shut it down” sounds like a logical, if extreme, option when all else has failed, but a study by John Engberg from RAND and his colleagues presents some disturbing data about school closure. (“School Closings No Fiscal Savior, Study Cautions,” this issue.) They found that students in schools that are closed due to poor performance actually do substantially worse on reading and math tests in the new school to which they are sent for at least a year, and then recover and end up doing about as well as they were doing at their original school. In other words, after all the expense, acrimony, and heartache involved in closing a school, the students involved do not benefit.

This does not mean that schools should never be closed. Schools often have to be closed due to declining populations or economic factors. Sometimes a school has such a dysfunctional environment or bad reputation that it needs to closed, and every once in a while, closing a school might impress other low-performing schools, in the sense that Voltaire suggested that it is sometimes good to execute a (losing) admiral “to encourage the others.”

Yet the Engberg et al. findings caution those who want to use school closure broadly. A school building does not cause low achievement. Bringing new leaders and new staff, and new programs with strong evidence of effectiveness, seem more likely to benefit struggling schools.

—Robert Slavin

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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