Education Letter to the Editor

The Limits of Efficiency

October 01, 2004 2 min read

To the Editor:

The suggestion by Commentary authors Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz that inequalities inherent with the No Child Left Behind Act would be mostly rectified by adding a simple equation for “efficiency” to the legislation’s determinants of “success” is wrong from a political, socioeconomic, and educational perspective (“Efficiency: The Missing Metric,” Sept. 8, 2004).

The unwritten assumption is that the No Child Left Behind Act is a legitimate, viable law that will be much closer to producing desired outcomes once the problem of efficiency is addressed. Yet numerous articles and letters in Education Week and elsewhere have pointed out the uneven playing field that exists both educationally and socioeconomically in the nations’ schools, a circumstance that precludes the law’s “one size fits all” rules from being applied fairly or to any good purpose.

Rather than adjusting school performance models to include socioeconomic conditions in the schools, as the authors suggest, the correct solution would be to exclude from the law’s punishments altogether those schools with student populations largely or exclusively from below-average socioeconomic status. In addition, all neighborhood schools that are allowed neither to exclude poor-performing students nor to lure above-average students with accelerated-learning programs should also be excluded from the law’s sanctions.

In Chicago and New York City, as well as most major public school systems across the nation, there now exist many specialty schools (“gifted centers,” “college-prep high schools,” and the like) that can pick and choose students based on test scores, grades, attendance, and similar factors, and can exclude virtually anyone they wish. In Chicago, these schools have grown exponentially, while the number of gifted (above-average) students has remained mostly constant.

Neighborhood schools with no specialty programs, in contrast, must accept anyone that comes through the door, from an ever-decreasing pool of above-average students, including students “rejected” by the specialty schools. This fact transcends the “efficiency model,” because even those high-performing, poor students qualifying for free lunches (one of the key variables in the efficiency equation), can, and most often do, opt out of the local schools and enroll in the specialty schools. The same is true for most high-performing, non-native English-speakers, and special education students.

In general, pre-existing socioeconomic conditions combined with unfair school recruitment policies doom neighborhood, nonspecialty schools to underperformance in any educational efficiency contest.

The No Child Left Behind Act, from its origin to the present day, is much more about punishments than about rewards; until the former are eliminated, no economic equation will help poor schools or justify the policies encouraged by the law.

Tom Sharp

Chicago, Ill.