NY Times editorial -- and a comment by William A. Barrett

Insurance Fraud

Really Leaving No Child Behind

Published: September 7, 2007

New York Times web edition



Also see comments below.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 set ambitious new goals when it required the states to improve public schooling for all students ó and to educate poor children up to the same standards as their affluent counterparts ó in exchange for federal aid. The country still has a long way to go to reach those goals. And they will never be met if Congress, which must now reauthorize the law, backs away from provisions that hold schools accountable for how well and how much children learn.

The countryís largest teachersí union, the politically powerful National Education Association, would like to see the law gutted. Fortunately, the chairman of the House education committee, George Miller, Democrat of California, has resisted those pressures. Even so, his proposed changes in the lawís crucial accountability provisions, put forth in a draft version of the House bill, may need to be recast to prevent states from backing away from the central mission of the law.

Some critics warn that one provision might allow schools to mask failures in bedrock subjects like reading and math by giving them credit for student performance in other subjects or on so-called alternate indicators. The proposed formulas are confusing, and the idea should not become a route to evasion.

But the draft contains several good ideas.

One of the most needed changes would close a huge loophole in the current Federal Title I program, which is supposed to give federal aid for the specific purpose of providing extra help to disadvantaged children, extra help that is crucial for closing the achievement gap. Congressís original idea for Title I was to give the money to states and localities only after they had provided their schools with high poverty rates with funding levels comparable to other schools in the system. In practice, many states have continued to shortchange those high poverty schools while using Title I money to make up the difference. That needs to stop.

The draft also seeks to end the shameful but all-too-common practice of dumping inexperienced and unqualified teachers into the neediest schools.

Under the new legislation, states would be required to equitably distribute qualified teachers throughout the school system. Another important provision would require the states to create far-reaching data banks that would allow administrators to track both student and teacher performance over time, judging teachers based on how much their students actually learn.

The draft also puts meaningful targets in place for improving graduation rates. But it might allow the states too much discretion in choosing how to report them ó a bad idea given the well known tendency of the states to inflate graduation rates. Another worrisome provision would allow the schools to test English language learners in their native languages for as long as seven years, as opposed to the current three. A student who entered the country in say, third grade, might actually get all the way to 10th grade before being tested in English.

If all of the nationís children are to get the education they deserve, Congress needs to strengthen the No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Millerís draft contains some important reforms that deserve to become law, but much of that good will be undermined if states, schools and teachers are not held accountable for the quality of education they provide.


Comments by William Barrett

This editorial, Sept. 7, is unworthy of the Times, as it portrays only one side of the NCLB issue -- the one favored by the right-wing Bush administration.It has all the usual "industrial" quality-control ideas expressed in a heavy-handed way.

There are many problems with the NCLB law and the way it's administered.Space doesn't permit me to go into them all, but here's a short list. Notice that none of these have anything to do with protecting labor union rights, which is the only issue that Ms. Spelling brings up in nearly every speech:

-- the tests are designed and administered by the states, to varying standards, yet the law demands punishments as though all the tests were equivalent.They aren't, by a long shot.

-- NCLB demands an ever-improving overall test score, and thatís just totally unreasonable.By raising the bar each year, NCLB is just setting up the schools for failure.We are already seeing too many fine schools being rated "under-performing" or "failing".There's an underlying assumption here that our public schools are just not performing, or the teachers are lazy, etc.I don't buy that assumption for a minute -- it's unproven.

-- Each class of students is different, so comparing one grade level test score from year to year as a measure of "teaching effectiveness" is almost meaningless.

-- Are these tests calibrated?I don't think so, on the grounds of how on earth one could possibly calibrate them?What is the standard?Saying that we want our kids to read and write makes for fine political speeches, but not much else.

-- As Banesh Hoffman ("The Tyranny of Testing") points out so ably, the multiple-choice test has severe inherent limitations.It is unable to assess much more than a few superficial ideas.Superior students will often be bamboozled by two or more answers which can all be arguably correct -- which one did the tester have in mind?I've analyzed several of the sample science and math questions printed in our newspaper, and can show that they do not really measure what they purport to.For example, a question about falling bodies can be answered with some easy substitutions, with no need to understand anything about the physics, or even solving equations.I suspect that most of the questions are like that, testing only a few superficial topics and failing to assess the "real stuff".They are fluff, disguised in a scientific-sounding framework, pretending to assess the real scientific concepts.

-- It's obvious that a test at best evaluates the current state of a child's understanding of certain topics.Assuming that the test results can also be used to evaluate the school is a fallacy.NCLB ignores this central problem.

-- It's now the case that too many teachers are "teaching to the test". They know that much rides on those tests, and their natural reaction is to find out as much about them as possible, then drill the students on those topics.Or, at least, on how to find the shortcuts to answering multiple-choice questions correctly.All else of value in education goes in the trash.

-- No one seems to pay any attention to the variances of the test scores, only the averages.The variances are surely very large, and they impose a severe limit on what can be concluded from test scores across time, across schools and across states.This is elementary statistical theory, and something that our secretary of education Spelling seems not to grasp.

-- There is of course the problem of English learners, from our growing immigrant population.NCLB seems to ignore this.The tests require a good grasp of English, and are incomprehensible to a child recently arriving in our country.Why does a school have to take the hit for this?

-- Schools are scored on the total number of children enrolled, yet any parent can opt out of the test by signing a form.An opt-out counts as zero against the school, yet the school is powerless to do anything about it.

-- Why is it now the case that the public school systems are totally responsible for a child's development and education?What happened to the parent's responsibility, the community's, the child's peers (gangs vs. friends vs. study groups)?We know that the school system works hard to combat drugs, attention-deficit disorder, etc., but it cannot really solve these problems by itself.

-- It follows from all this that the superior students will be left to drift for themselves.Well, some will probably make it to college anyway, if motivated.Or they will just drift out into a gang or into drugs, out of boredom with the teach-to-test drill work.We have not yet seen the consequences of this waste, but we will, in ever-decreasing college enrollments, higher attrition rates, etc.Schools need to provide for the superior students, too, but the crunch demanded by NCLB means that these students will inevitably be short-changed.

-- Demanding that schools hire only qualified teachers will set up yet another bureaucratic mess that is supposed to determine when a teacher is "certified".And where are the higher salaries that this will require coming from?

-- How is that Washington can now dictate so much in our public schools, and do it so cheaply?They have public school systems, which are supposed to be locally controlled and locally financed, running through hoops just to get another 5 to 6% in federal money.And worse -- the "failing" schools are supposed to be taken over by the state.If the federal government now has the power to declare a local public school "failing", why doesnít it take it over, and maybe spend 0.01% of the cost of a bomber to fix it?

In general, the NCLB system appears to have been designed by corporate quality control engineers, who assume that a school is just a factory, with raw goods coming in and finished goods going out.You can hold a factory accountable for its output quality.But you can't treat a school system that way, especially not a public school, which is required to accept all the children in its region.Children are not "raw materials", they come with great variability in skills and attitudes, and they are influenced by many factors that are not under the school's control.

Also, the art of testing a child's grasp of a subject is far inferior to the sort of testing that one can make on inanimate objects, such as cell phones or computer chips.The latter don't learn anything from the test, and are totally designed and manufactured from simple components, and it all follows precise physical laws.

Children just aren't that way.

My preference is for the federal government to increase its support for the schools, come up with a uniform reading/writing test if the Congress so wishes, but then to let our local school boards, teachers, parents and children to work out what's best for the children.

Let's put an end to this draconian misuse of multiple-choice tests as a way to "punish" and "correct" schools.

I should point out that I have a physics PhD, and have served in several research and industrial centers, and have also some twenty years of university-level teaching experience in physics, math and engineering.†† My web page, http://www.wbarrett.online, describes my training, career, research interests, and subjects taught.

William A. Barrett, PhD

San Jose, CA