Federal Opinion

John Thompson: No Excuses Reformers Find Plenty of Them for NCLB 

By Anthony Cody — January 10, 2012 6 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

On the 10th anniversary of “the lost decade,” produced by No Child Left Behind, we will read plenty of explanations of why the law did little good, and often did great harm to poor children of color. Ironically, the rationale for NCLB was that educators had long used poverty as an “excuse” for “low expectations.” I am struck, however, by the low expectations that policy wonks had for themselves, how many excuses they are now making for the failure of NCLB, and how they minimized its unintended negative effects, as they blame others.

As long as the true believers in bubble-in accountability keep up their defense of the law, reporters have to follow the convention of saying that “the jury is still out,” and that NCLB “did shine a light on underperforming minority groups,” before they recount the law’s failure to increase scores on national standardized tests. On the other hand, that gives us more time to appreciate the irony of “No Excuses” “reformers’” convoluted efforts to blame everyone but themselves for the law’s failure.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a longtime defender of NCLB, has admitted that it attempted to force principals and teachers to do something that they had no idea how to do - systematically overcome the legacy of generational poverty. But Hanushek, an economist, credited NCLB for, “a new attitude along the lines of ‘we might not know what to do, but we’ve got to do something.’” As educators predicted, however, some experiments worked while others resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum, rote instruction, nonstop test prep, fabricating test score gains, and pushing out difficult-to-educate students.

Hanushek also lambasted the National Research Council’s (NRC) blue ribbon panel of social scientists who estimated that twenty years of test-driven accountability only increased student performance by 0.08 of a standard deviation. Hanushek countered that those little improvements add up, and made the weird assertion that gains came at the cost of only $50 worth of testing per student per year. He condemned the panel’s conclusion that graduate examinations (which were expanded during the NCLB era) increased dropout rates by 2%. Hanushek minimized the harm, replying that it, “assumes this consequence [dropping out] does considerable harm to the affected students.” He then speculated that the economic losses for those types of marginal students would not be great. Hanushek then concluded that the, “takeaway message might be, ‘“Never rely on the conclusions of this NRC report for any policy purpose.’”

Conservative reformer Chester Finn was more upfront about the failure of data-driven accountability, and concentrated on blaming others. Finn acknowledged, “the gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely confined to math). Reformers failed, however, because “they’ve been stumped, stymied, and constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the K-12 system as we know it.”

Interestingly, Finn advocated a commitment to education because he didn’t believe that America had whatever it takes to tackle poverty. He wrote that “cultural issues, parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational achievement. ... are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public policy.” So he advocated school reform because it supposedly had, “obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.”

Finn’s excuse for NCLB’s failure was that it ran into barriers, “erected by adult interests, bureaucratic routine, structural rigidity, and political stalemate.” He also made the conspiratorial sounding charge that, “those barriers aren’t accidents.”

On the other hand, even if lawmakers had the expectation that educators would discover a solution to one of our most vexing social problems and overcome intense concentrations of poverty and kids suffering from deep trauma, should they not have taken some responsibility for thinking through their mandates, so that they would do more good than harm? Is education the only field of human endeavor where the idealism of policy theorists runs up against the foibles of featherless bipeds? Are schools the only social institution where all of the stakeholders are supposed to be selfless and rational? Those who seek to reform health care, business, defense, and other institutions must anticipate that self-interest will play a role, but apparently Finn expected educators to just obey orders, swallow their professional judgments, and go along with NCLB’s theories.

Finn also blamed fellow reformers. Technology was one of the eight possible paths to transformational change, but it was, “pushed (perhaps too hard) by politically connected profit seekers who care little about academic achievement.” Although it was President George Bush who spun NCLB as an antidote to the “bigotry of low expectations,” Finn now asserts that the law failed because “our preoccupation with “at risk” populations and with achievement gaps defined as the distance between demographic groups has led to the benign neglect of millions of kids.” (Emphasis is Finn’s.)

If there was ever any doubts that NCLB was about the blame game, the anger of its true believers has put them to rest. But as Renee Moore, and other teachers, have explained, this scorched earth politics has humiliated our most vulnerable kids. The accountability hawks did not have to see the faces of the victims of failed experiments prompted by NCLB. For instance, I am haunted by the semester when NCLB-inspired “reforms” drove 40% of our students out of school. I particularly recall one brilliant push-out who would have had no problem acing the required standardized tests. He just felt so humiliated by the nonstop prepping and testing. Whenever I saw him afterwards, serving fast food, I could not get my student to stop beating up on himself.

We should reject the scorched earth tactics of NCLB and build on the law’s best aspect, its dis-aggregation of outcomes by race, poverty, and disability status. The single best proposal, I believe, is Diane Ravitch’s suggestion that Congress should “authorize national testing (à la NAEP), based on coherent curriculum standards, but without stakes or sanctions.” The key federal role should be providing accurate information about student performance. I would also second Ravitch’s assertion that we can work together to improve schools, and not be continually depending on punitive measures. Sanctions have their place, but if we must base school reform solely on the punitive, then our society has deeper problems than we have thought. We must celebrate education as a people process, and embrace a politics of inclusion to improve our toughest schools. Or as we used to say before NCLB, “you are not the problem, I am not the problem, the problem is the problem.” After all, shouldn’t our kids have the expectation that adults can move beyond their excuse-making to address the “Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century?”

What do you think? Did NCLB open a Pandora’s Box of discord? Did the law’s architects know enough about education to recognize how people and systems would respond to its accountability regime? Is it possible to coerce educators into having more nurturing relationships? Would educators welcome a “Consumers Report” breakdown of student performance to achieve equity?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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.