Education Letter to the Editor

Responding to an NCLB Critic

March 30, 2005 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Your Feb. 23, 2005, issue carries a Commentary by Stanford University professor of education Nel Noddings (“Rethinking a Bad Law: One Scholar’s Indictment of the No Child Left Behind Act”).

Professor Noddings does not like the federal No Child Left Behind Act. She contends that its implementation is too costly financially and its likely consequences too thin to justify the investment. She further asserts that the law represents poor public policy because it imposes negative sanctions on failing educators, relies on high-stakes testing that threatens psychological damage to children, restricts curricular offerings, particularly for low-income students, and corrupts the public school culture by motivating educators to cheat when scoring and reporting test results mandated by the law.

There are three principal problems with her opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act. First, her arguments stem from raw personal opinion, devoid of virtually any empirical support. Second, her essay offers no alternative for rendering public education effective, except spending more money on ex ante conditions and a self-serving imploration for added funding of university research. Third, even if unwittingly, Professor Noddings’ unreasoned opposition to the law gives comfort to education apologists who for decades have opposed serious accountability and permitted low-income students to fail in school and lose in life.

How does she know the legislation costs too much to implement? There is no factual evidence to support her position. To be sure, selected school superintendents and teachers’ union officials claim the act has unfunded costs. State officials repeatedly request that it be fully funded, whatever that means. But these are self-reports, not scientific cost studies. The only credible No Child Left Behind Act cost study was commissioned of Howard Fleeter and Robert Driscoll by the Ohio Department of Education.

Their results suggest added costs in implementing the law. However, they acknowledge two huge assumptions embedded in their analyses: (1) Current Title I-funded activities must continue and cannot be refocused to fit the No Child Left Behind law’s purposes, and (2) the law’s teacher-professional-development costs have to be in addition to what is spent now. Such assumptions severely curtail the utility of these analyses.

Ms. Noddings has other factually unsupported assertions. What is the damage being done to students’ psyches by testing? If there is such damage to children, however unlikely, is it any worse than the damage ultimately triggered from being promoted to the next grade regardless of academic performance? Why are negative sanctions for schools with sustained records of failure bad? Would it be better to ignore their failings and simply continue to pay adults who routinely contribute to students’ failure? What is the link between a restricted range of curriculum offerings and the No Child Left Behind Act? Simply because the law emphasizes reading and mathematics does not mean that it prohibits other subjects.

The United States is only now emerging from a four-year recession during which public-sector revenues were squeezed. Is not this economic condition a more likely explanation of restricted curriculum electives, if there indeed are such?

Ms. Noddings concludes with an unusual twist of logic. She asserts that the No Child Left Behind Act promotes a culture of corruption because educators are called upon to test students and report progress. What of the converse? Is it not possible that the absence of appraisal conceals corruption, obscures a school’s failure to perform?

Of course, if having to comply with laws is corrupting, then we can all join with Professor Noddings and revolt against the Internal Revenue Service. On this coming April 15, we can claim that having to declare our income is corrupting to our culture.

There are good reasons to prefer that the No Child Left Behind Act be amended. For example, measurement of “highly qualified” teachers is fraught with peril and perhaps should be eliminated. Failure to insist on value-added examinations in determining “adequate yearly progress” is a flaw. One could go on, but the point would be the same. The No Child Left Behind law is far from perfect. Change is needed, and assuredly will happen in time.

But as Congress considers amendments to the legislation, one hopes that its members will insist upon a greater factual and scholarly base than that supplied by Professor Noddings.

James W. Guthrie

Professor of Public Policy and Education

Peabody College

Vanderbilt University

Nashville, Tenn.


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