Education Opinion

Beyond NCLB: Broader, Bolder Proponents Explain How To Get There

By Anthony Cody — June 30, 2009 3 min read
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An interview with Dr. Susan Neuman.

A year ago a coalition of education leaders launched something called “A Broader, Bolder Approach.” This coalition expressed deep concern about the effects of No Child Left Behind, stating

The potential effectiveness of NCLB has been seriously undermined, however, by its acceptance of the popular assumptions that bad schools are the major reason for low achievement, and that an academic program revolving around standards, testing, teacher training, and accountability can, in and of itself, offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on achievement. The effectiveness of NCLB has also been weakened by its unintended side effects, such as a narrowing of the curriculum, and by the incentives that NCLB generates for schools to focus instruction on students who are just below the passing point, at the expense of both lower-performing and higher-performing students.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama frequently declared his intention to diminish reliance on standardized tests. However, in the months since his election, no clear strategy has emerged for this shift. Into this vacuum, advocates of The Broader, Bolder Approach have stepped, with a new proposal for change. On Thursday, the group released a new vision for school accountability they believe will accomplish what Obama set as his goal.

They suggest the Federal government take a new role in these ways:

Collect state-level data – from an expanded National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) or from other national surveys - on a broad range of academic subjects, as well as on the arts, student work habits, physical health and fitness, and mental health, citizenship habits and other appropriate behaviors that will enable students to achieve success in a pluralistic society and complex global economy.
Improve the disaggregation of NAEP and other survey data, where appropriate, to include immigrant generation, parent education, and national origin.
Maintain NAEP’s low-stakes character to preserve its validity as an indicator of relative state performance, barring its use as an individual-level test for accountability purposes.
Require states to develop accountability systems that rely upon scores on states’ own academic tests and other key educational, health, and behavioral indicators, along with approved inspection systems to evaluate school quality.

This week I had a chance to interview Susan Neuman, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush administration from 2001 through 2003. Dr. Neuman has emerged as a vocal critic of NCLB, and a leader of The Broader and Bolder Approach. (Note: I interviewed another Broader, Bolder leader, Richard Rothstein, a few weeks ago.)

Q: The Obama/Duncan administration, along with the media and corporate establishment, seem set on pushing us along the path of NCLB. How do you see breaking through with your approach?

Neuman: There has been a consensus that NCLB needs to change, but no clear idea of how to change it. That is why we have developed our proposal – to give a clear picture of how we can hold schools accountable, but correct the narrowing of the curriculum that has resulted from NCLB. We are glad the changes to NCLB have been pushed back on the agenda, because it gives us a chance to develop this conversation.

Q: How does your approach differ from the current NCLB approach?

Neuman: Our approach is low stakes. By making it low stakes, we make curriculum and teaching matter. Under NCLB, we have narrowed the curriculum by emphasizing reading and math over all other subjects. This has especially happened in the schools attended by students in poverty, which are under intense pressure to raise their scores. But it is deep and rich content knowledge that students need. We are seeing an illusion of kids doing better. It looks better, but we are in for a big problem down the road. There is no reason we need to ignore history, science and other content areas.

Q. What would be the difference between a high stakes test and the low stakes test you are advocating?

Neuman: What is happening now is we put teachers and schools on notice, based on test results. Then the teachers can be pressured, or the schools closed.

The NAEP operates by using a sampling system, so no particular school or teacher is targeted. But if we expand it as we suggest, we will get more data on how schools are doing on a state by state basis.

We also suggest a system of school inspectors, who would go out to individual schools every few years, and conduct on-site inspections. The inspector can look at things that can be improved at the school level. Failing schools can still be closed, but the emphasis is on getting better. The inspectors would highlight successes, as well as things that need to improve. The inspectors will work with teachers to help them improve. The best inspectors are teachers, and can work well with peers. You will have qualitative as well as quantitative information to draw on.

This system is actually more accurate and in some ways tougher than the way it is now. We have a lot of schools that have gotten by because of their population, while others have been unfairly punished.

Q: How does your vision for expanded data differ from the current trajectory?

The current system is highly flawed. Everybody has been playing a game with cut points, and the curriculum has been narrowed to focus on things that are tested.

Many states tests are of poor quality, which allows for test preparation, leading to false results and a narrow emphasis on test preparation. Our system relies on expanding the NAEP. NAEP is the gold standard of tests, because it uses multiple choice and constructed response questions , which are better at measuring critical thinking. The NAEP uses a sampling strategy, so not all students take the same tests. This makes it impossible to teach to the test.

What do you think? Would a low-stakes NAEP be an improvement over current high stakes tests? How about the idea of school quality inspectors?

Bolder, Broader graphic used by permission.

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