NCLB’s Classroom Effects

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 26, 2008 2 min read
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The Center on Education Policy has released a new study that delves deeply into the classroom-level effects of the No Child Left Behind Act. Investigators examined six schools in Rhode Island at various stages of program improvement under the NCLB Act and interviewed dozens of teachers, parents, and administrators.

Several of the findings are what you’d more or less expect, and they’re issues that have already been debated ad infinitum: There is increased pressure to cover subjects on standardized tests, more attention paid to reading and math at the expense of other subjects, and a greater use of test data to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and teachers’ professional development.

Where this report really seems to add something new is in its depiction of what teaching looks like under the law. For example: Teachers in the elementary and middle schools, on average, spent 30 percent of their time on close-ended questions, i.e., those with only one answer, compared with 12 percent on open-ended questions that facilitate conversations. Interviewees attributed this to the push to get through a ton of different topics covered by the state’s content standards and assessments rather than a limited selection in great depth. (It is hard to say whether, in Rhode Island’s specific case, this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing. The report doesn’t give an indication of what type of teaching existed in these schools BEFORE the law was put into place. As Education Trust has pointed out, some challenged schools have traditionally given students little, if any, instruction at all.)

I do think, though, that everyone can agree in general that spending time on close-ended questions is not going to help develop some of the critical higher-order thinking skills we want students to develop. So, what does it take for a school to be able to develop a really powerful instructional program— i.e., great teaching to great curricula—that gets kids to achieve to standards, but isn’t dominated by instruction that reflects close-ended multiple-choice formats?

A number of groups have called the curriculum issue the one that has basically been ignored in the NCLB era. Not long ago over at Flypaper, for instance, Mike Petrilli suggested that more investments need to be made improving the capacity of our current teachers in delivering a powerful curriculum. But this is obviously one area the federal government just can’t get into given the legal prohibitions against dictating curriculum.

So aside from some of the more well-known models, such as Core Knowledge, I’d like to know what states, districts, and teachers are doing in this area.

Maybe I’ll find some answers next week when I’m in West Virginia sniffing out some interesting professional-development initiatives related to the “21st Century Skills.”

From all of us at Teacher Beat and Education Week: Happy Thanksgiving!

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.