Fewer Children Left Behind

The Economist reports on some heartening news for the White House:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been periodically testing a representative sample of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds since the early 1970s. This year’s report contained two striking results. The first is that America’s nine-year-olds posted their best scores in reading and maths since the tests were introduced (in 1971 in reading and 1973 in maths). The second is that the gap between white students and minorities is narrowing. The nine-year-olds who made the biggest gains of all were blacks, traditionally the most educationally deprived group in American society.

The improved results in America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress have been linked by some to Mr Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and increased funding for the Department of Education.

The education establishment—particularly the two big teachers’ unions—were quick to pooh-pooh the result. The critics argued that Mr Bush cannot take credit for the gains because his chief educational reform, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, had been in place for only a year when the tests were administered. They also pointed out that the gains are not universal. The results are mixed for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. The reading skills of black and Latino 17-year-olds were nearly identical to those of white 13-year-olds.

All this is true, but self-confounding. Mr Bush’s act may be very new. But the ideas that lie behind it—focusing on basic subjects such as maths and reading and using regular testing to hold schools accountable—have been widely tried at the state level since at least the mid-1990s. Mr Bush deserves credit for recognising winning ideas thrown up by America’s “laboratories of democracy” and then applying them at the federal level. Thirteen- and 17-year-olds may not have shown as much improvement as nine-year-olds. But that is precisely because reformers have focused their energies on the earlier grades.

Well, of course the education establishment is protesting. These results suggest that the Bush approach is feasible after all, and this would mean that their opposition to results-based testing is going to hold less and less water with parents. Sure, there are good arguments for not focusing only on teaching to the test. After all, Confucian civilization has emphasized test scores for almost two thousand years, and the resulting rigidity and lack of imagination has mean, in the modern era, a less vibrant cultural life. Japan, the current standard bearer of the traditional East Asian approach to education, has only begun to be a exporter of culture (rather than an importer) in the last couple of decades, accelerated just over a decade ago with the beginning of Japan’s period of economic stagnation. Taiwan’s recent bursts of cultural experimentation have also accompanied sputtering in the economic engine. Nonetheless, Americans will probably find some sort of balance.

What is most worrying to the public school teachers’ unions, of course, is that this implies what The Economist refers to as “inconvenient reforms”. That, of course, is at the heart of the issue. These unions, make no mistake, are more interested in their own existence, than in the welfare of their constituent members.

Lastly, in response to the charge that the results are less ambiguously positive for the older age groups, there is not only the point made by The Economist, that “refirners have focused their energies on the earlier grades”, but that this is the wise thing to do. First, 13- and 17-year-olds are at a later stage in life, when they are less likely to absorb new things at school (a slowdown in the pace of intellectual absorption combined with an adolescent resentment of authority figures such as teachers). Second, by focusing their energies on the 9-year-olds, reformers are paving the way for better 13- and 17-year-olds four and eight years later.

Why would improvements among 9-year-olds imply delayed improvements for 13- and 17-year-olds? Well, if you’re a bright, 9-year-old black youngster, the fact that you’ve done better than expected might encourage you to have more self-confidence, and disregard the tired old stereotypes, some reinforced by older blacks, that will hold you back. And when you’re 13, or 17, you’ll still retain that self-confidence, knowing that you can beat the historical trend. With so many things working in your favor, and at the same time not working against others, what you end up with, a year from the test, is a confident group of 10-year-olds. In two years, a confident group of 11-year-olds. And so on and so forth.

This former of Governor of Texas is not so stupid as some like to make him out to be, after all. But some of us had always known. Permit me a slightly smug smile here.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

8 thoughts on “Fewer Children Left Behind”

  1. I have to agree. It is not a difficult leap of logic to think that “focusing on basic subjects such as maths and reading and using regular testing” would work.

    Unless you are a disciple of Dewey, which describes all modern education; then the concept must be rejected. Mortimer Smith wrote in Planned Mediocrity in Public Schools” (in *) that modern education shifted the focus of pedagogy to the process of education, instead of content, outcomes, and ultimate values (e.g citizenship, cultural heritage, ethics). Intellectual needs became secondary to emotional, recreational, and social needs.

    But the real cause for concern by educators is over the perceived loss of power. The total control of education by the the teachers union/lobby has been challenged by this law. And that’s where the disagreement lies. I don’t think they really care much about the law itself, and probably would have supported it if only they had instituted it themselves (not recognizing that their inherent anti-intellectual bias forbade such an approach.)

  2. Laura Bush deserves some credit as well. This was a first lady who married late and had trained herself and begun a life as a teacher long before Bush’s whirlwind courtship. She did take and still takes that life seriously and viewed it thoughtfully. The buzz about the education bill was how impressed Ted Kennedy was with her knowledge. What of course he didn’t understand was that knowledge made her understand that his tired, tried & failed solutions (money, softness, emphasis on process) wouldn’t solve the problem. Like others in this White House, she had experience with the problems but hadn’t bought into the conventional solutions.

  3. Years ago I did quite a bit of ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ consulting for local school districts. It was a learning experience for me because, except as a student, I had little prior experience in the inner workings of education. Several lessons, although generalizations, I absorbed at that time seem to remain valid.

    A.) Public school teaching is the only endeavor I know of in which the quality, content and suitability of the product purchased is at the sole discretion of the ‘manufacturer’. Going to public school is an involuntary activity for most students and their parents. In all other forms of endeavor, the product is determined by the ‘consumer’, or it remains unpurchased. As a collorary to this, all school boards are significantly influenced (in large cities, controlled) by teachers’ unions. No one else has the motivation or resources to match their funding of school board elections so their candidates always have overwhelming advantage. Generally, the goals and incentives of unions have virtually nothing in common with students or their parents, and school boards reflect this.

    B.) The only available career path for teachers is to become administrators (principals, assistant principals, etc.). Therefore all administrators are drawn from a pool of talent which has been self-selected for skills which have nothing to do with those required for successful administration. The probability of selecting and promoting a teacher who has management, supervision, budgeting, planning and the other necessary skill-sets are less than choosing someone at random from the general population.

    I don’t have answers to these issues that will work everytime in every place, but vouchers and a wage scale that pays good teachers more than mediocre administrators will generally improve specific situations.

  4. The relation between school boards, bond issues, teachers, and the community have changed dramatically over time. In small rural towns, the schools were the focus of the community–that’s why so many small towns fought consolidation. Once the school was lost, much of the small town business died. In those isolated settings, communities tended to judge teachers with some knowledge of what they were doing. (Of course, how much they drank or who they were sleeping with was also generally known; I had a friend who student taught in a Mennonite community and was discouraged from wearing red dresses.)

    Of course, bad schools are also the product of a good – women’s liberation. The women who now aim at being businesswomen or lawyers or . . . used to aim at teaching in a high school. That was one of the more intellectually stimulating career paths for women at that time. Traditionally, such teachers were people who had loved school because they were good at it; for the last fifty years, teachers’s colleges have more and more attracted people who have little respect for and little ability at what we think of as “school.” (There are many exceptions – people who both love their subjects and the act of teaching. Those are generally people who gritted their teeth as they sat through the education classes; they often find that teaching is fulfilling in the way that the other career paths they had chosen is not. I’m not saying teaching isn’t a wonderful profession – just that teacher’s colleges tend to be dismissive of what is wonderful about it.)

    Those small schools with intimate relations with the community are disappearing with increased urbanization. Often laws don’t consider the nature of such schools (or the nature of boys or. . . well, human nature). For instance, my brother was on the school board for a long time; he complained that they couldn’t hire people who appeared to be good math teachers, for instance, unless they could also coach. Our school had been as proud of its choir as its band (no orchestras in schools that graduated fewer than 20 most years), but it did have football, basketball & track. To balance these with women’s sports meant that every teacher in a school of that size needed to do both.

    There are advantages to schools like that – everyone is in everything, so you get a taste of what drama, music, team sports are like. None of these move into the semi-pro category and everyone gets some training in the basics. Sure we didn’t have Latin, French was pathetic, and math only went through trig. There are trade-offs. I don’t know that I would want my kids at such a small school. But I also know that the drop out rate for students was a good deal lower than in the one my daughters attend/ed. It is respected and relatively high-powered but I suspect it has a much higher drop-out rate than did our village school as well as a greater distinction between the “good” students and the weaker ones. Few (if any) students in my graduating class aimed at the Ivies, but a high percentage of graduates from my high school class have advanced degrees (and none from a teacher’s college that I know of).

  5. I attended such a school and was a proud member of the class of 1960 which graduated 44 seniors. The vast majority of us went on to college although many of us were delayed by the military. There were some that went into teaching,two that I know of that are now pharmacists, a couple of lawyers, one doctor, several majors in business and at least one in PolySci/History. Because of the size of the school subjects offered were limited to the basic. There was not even a language option other than the standard four years of English. However, we received a quality education in the subjects that counted. There is a lot to be said for the small public school sytems-much more than can be said for the large ones.

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  7. There is at this time no standard process for improving achievement.

    My first mate who works as a teacher’s helper tells me how teachers solve the problem given the mandates and that it is a pocket book issue: they cook the books. Students who lower the averages are encouraged to quit school. They have other tricks as well.

    NCLB is a sham.

    In fact what is going on represents the usual Soviet response to increased production quotas.

    Sorry to burst you alls bubbles.

  8. “Students who lower the averages are encouraged to quit school.”

    So the increase in 9-year-old’s scores is explained by their lesser classmates having succumbed to teacher pressure and having dropped-out while the mixed results among the 13 & 17 year olds is evidence of these courageous youths standing up to teacher intimidation and embracing their privilege to a free education?


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