Education Opinion

NCLB Fails its Big Test: The Achievement Gap Unchanged

By Anthony Cody — May 04, 2009 3 min read
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This week some educational bombshells have exploded, and we need to take some time to examine their implications.

But first, a bit of my own history, to provide some context for my perspective. I chose to teach in Oakland because I had experienced the civil rights movement as a child. In 1968, as a fifth grader in Berkeley, I was reassigned to a South Berkeley school that had been predominantly African American in the city’s voluntary desegregation program. My parents were deeply committed to social justice, and I emerged from high school active in the civil rights struggles of that era – fighting the Bakke decision that undermined affirmative action.

When I got my teaching credential in 1987, I knew I wanted to teach science where I was needed, and went to Oakland. The concept that education is a civil right is not new to me, or to many teachers of my generation, who entered the profession for that very reason.

When I first encountered No Child Left Behind, I was worried. I did not believe annual standardized tests were the best way to measure student learning, and I feared the law would actually deprive those who performed poorly of the best teaching possible – that which is creative and responsive to their interests and aspirations. My fears were borne out. I saw the school where I worked, which had a wonderful staff and diverse student population, hammered year after year because we could not manage to get all six subgroups to rise simultaneously.

But the law gathered some important defenders – especially in the civil rights community. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) both joined with Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller and President George W. Bush to promote the law. They believed that the law would force schools to improve, and that provisions that highlighted the performance of racial and economic subgroups would finally close the achievement gap between whites and disadvantaged minorities.

This week we got some shattering news.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a series of tests that provides us with our most accurate barometer of student performance, revealed that the achievement gap has not, in fact, been narrowed under the last eight years of NCLB. The New York Times article noted that:

Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s.

This week from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA came another blow. A report was released which concludes that NCLB has done more harm than good. Their description states:

The report finds that NCLB is failing on three fronts. First, there is little evidence that high stakes accountability under NCLB works. It has not improved student achievement and the sanctions have had limited effects in producing real improvement. The law also is not very good at accurately identifying schools needing improvement and far outstrips the ability of states to intervene effectively in the schools it sanctions. Third, the law has failed to connect in a meaningful way to the educators who must implement it -- they do not see the accountability goals as realistic and consider the sanctions to be misguided and counterproductive for improving schools.
The most important finding is the damage the NCLB is doing to our educational system. Under NCLB, the system "works" when education systems operate within only a basic skills framework and with low test rigor. The cost to our nation is revealed in an educational system stuck in low-level intellectual work.

While President Obama has pledged that reform of NCLB will move us away from an emphasis on standardized tests, Secretary Duncan has joined the chorus calling for national standards and investment in vast data systems. This makes me think national tests and even a national curriculum might not be too far behind. I fear that these reforms do not move us away from standardized tests. They may make those tests more efficient and pervasive.

It is instructive that it was the real structural changes of the 1970s and 80s – the school desegregation and affirmative action programs I participated in as a fifth grader, and defended as an activist in my teens and twenties – that had significant effects on the achievement gap. There was a democratic ideal, the concept that when children learned together we would learn to work together, and that this would help build a stronger society. Over the past decade, however, even as we have implemented NCLB, our schools have become MORE segregated.

The authors of the Civil Rights Project report provide a powerful prescription for change in their conclusion.

Schools cannot be improved against the better judgment, and without the enthusiastic participation, of those charged with making the improvements. While this commitment cannot be coerced through sanctions, it can be motivated through guidance and mild and positive pressure that mobilize internal ideals and standards of competence and care. For educators, such standards need to be developed through professional socialization in teacher-preparation programs and sustained by way of good instructional supervision, learning communities at school sites, professional networks – and the soft power of accountability systems that are redesigned to inspire educators. Accountability systems inspire educators when they connect to broader educational values and give the stronger teachers enough flexibility to model best practices. Soft accountability is powerfully augmented when parents are mobilized to support their children‘s achievement and press for high-quality schools. We submit that after about fifteen years of state and federal sanctions-driven accountability that has yielded relatively little, it is time to try a new approach. The hard work of broader-based movements, nourished by government and civic action, will have to replace legal-administrative enforcement and mandates as the centerpiece of such an equity agenda.

So what do you think? Has NCLB done more harm than good? What approach should we take to tackle the unmet challenge of closing the achievement gap?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.