Monty Neill is deputy director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in Cambridge, MA (www.fairtest.org ). The full-length version of this article appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Rethinking Schools .
With more pressing issues on its agenda and no consensus about how to proceed, Congress probably will delay until after this November's elections the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a framework of standards, tests, and consequences initiated by the 1994 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The outcome of those elections might create significant political shifts that would affect any new version of the widely criticized federal education law.
Many organizations that have long sought changes in the law are taking advantage of the delay to begin thinking more deeply about what alterations are necessary if the federal government is to play a positive role in improving public schools. Examples of this include the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, signed by national education, civil rights, religious, disability, parent, labor, and civic organizations, and proposals by the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, which I chair) based on the Statement. These push for fewer but richer state assessments (tools for evaluating students' progress). They argue for establishing rational expectations to replace the impossible demand that all students score "proficient" by 2014, and call for high-quality professional development. The groups propose a focus on assistance to replace NCLB's emphasis on sanctions.
Over the past few years, public dissatisfaction with NCLB has become more visible, as indicated by polls and the shifting positions of politicians who originally supported the law. Meanwhile, paltry results combined with the narrowing of curriculum and instruction make clear that major changes to NCLB are vitally necessary.
Progressive educators in particular have sharply criticized NCLB for encouraging the reduction of schooling to test prep. However, a comprehensive proposal to overhaul the federal law to meet the requirements of progressive education, civil rights, and social justice has not fully emerged. If the federal role is to be helpful and not harmful, we need such a proposal, backed by significant social sectors mobilized to win in Congress.
What Makes Schools Fail?
One place to start is to unpack the notion of the "achievement gap." That "gap" usually is defined as different standardized test scores by different racial groups, a definition that assumes scoring highly on a test indicates a person has met state standards and is, in turn, well educated. Some standards advocates have conceived of them as being flexible, allowing variation, and emphasizing the ability to think and apply knowledge. In practice, however, "standards" means standardization -- one size to fit all -- via standardized tests. In no state do these tests indicate an ability to engage in higher order thinking.
The threat of sanctions, coupled with the use of "interim" or "benchmark" tests -- periodic mini-tests designed to predict performance on the big test -- and scripted curricula, has pushed schools populated with low-income students increasingly toward becoming test preparation programs. The well-documented consequences of massive teaching to low-level tests include narrowing the content covered in tested subjects and squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, so that many graduates lack knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college or be effective citizens.
When policy focuses on the "achievement gap" and thus on test scores, it mostly ignores the importance of resources available to a school and the educational approaches and experiences within it. Defenders of this approach argue with some justification that the nation has paid too little attention to outcomes, to what children actually learn in school.
One fundamental problem of this approach has been defining outcomes as test scores. Another is that attention to the quality of resources and teaching is inadequate. NCLB authorizes extra funding for schools deemed "in need of improvement," but the actual support is minimal.
Further, study after study has made it clear that non-school factors, poverty in particular, overwhelm what most schools can do. Michael Winerip summed up a recent Educational Testing Service study in the New York Times : Just four family factors explain most of the difference in outcomes. They are the percentage of children living with one parent, the percentage of 8th-graders absent from school at least three times a month, the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents do not read to them daily, and the percentage of 8th-graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day.
Redefining the Achievement Gap
Gloria Ladson-Billings uses the term "education debt" -- the lack of adequate educational opportunity accumulating since slavery and segregation -- rather than "achievement gap." The education debt includes the school-based debt. It also includes the housing debt (such as the racial covenants that ensured African Americans could not move to many suburbs after World War II), the medical care debt (pervasive historical and current unequal access to medical care), and the employment debt (African American families earn three-fifths of what white families earn, while US income inequality grows rapidly).
When the "standards" approach gained sway in the 1990s, some policymakers at least recognized that the country couldn't focus on "results" without also focusing on resources and teaching -- what was termed "opportunity-to-learn" standards. A very weak version of them appeared in President Clinton's education reform law, but Republicans promptly gutted even that when they took over Congress. The consequences are no functional standards and no real accountability for providing the resources schools need. Yet schools continue to be attacked for failing to accomplish what they have not been given the resources to accomplish. When teachers and principals try to meet the irrational demands of NCLB (and parallel state requirements) by focusing more intensely on the tests, they are then criticized by Education Trust and similar groups for "teaching to the test."
In sum, the narrow focus on test scores has facilitated endless scapegoating of educators for the deep social failure to address conditions in schools and more broadly in society that overwhelmingly influence learning outcomes. Rather than address the education debt, policymakers and the media focus on the achievement gap -- the "failure" of schools to produce equal test scores despite historical and current unequal inputs and opportunities.
A New Role for the Government
To the extent language shapes thinking and policy, the nation needs a different language, one that emphasizes the educational debt rather than the achievement gap. Discussion must shift from a fixation on the supposed "motivation" problems of educators to an analysis of the capacities schools must have to fully serve all their children; from outcomes defined as test scores to the education of the whole child. The country must change the conversation from passing tests to teaching and learning.
More than language, the nation needs policies that redefine the proper role of the federal government as assisting schools to improve themselves. In that context, significantly more funding is a minimum requirement since Title I [the federal program designed to distribute funds to districts and schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families] now serves only about half the nation's eligible children.
In addition to pushing for more funding, educators, civil rights groups, parents and communities must unite on a few key principles for structuring what will replace NCLB. To further that discussion, here are some brief proposals.
First, a new law would establish that the primary purpose of federal funding is to facilitate school improvement. This would replace test-based accountability as the primary approach, though accountability for improvement processes and ultimately for results would be part of the structure.
Second, the law would recognize that the heart of improvement is school-based collaboration among educators to build their capacity to serve all children well. Thus, a significant share of Title I funds, particularly for schoolwide programs, would be allocated to pay for time for educators to work together on curriculum, instruction, assessment, evaluating student needs and how to meet them, and related core activities.
Third, Title I funding would be used to strengthen the capacity of districts and states to assist schools, which should be their main function. Much of this assistance might be to encourage more successful schools helping less successful neighbors serving similar populations, as Designs for Change has proposed for Chicago.
Lastly, a new law would restructure accountability. Title I schools should be expected to develop and implement improvement plans. Inability to make reasonable progress (given assistance) as indicated by multiple forms of evidence of student learning, should lead to stronger interventions.
Clearly, this is just a beginning. For example, I've not addressed how the federal government can improve the portion of ESEA aimed at helping English language learners. And I have not proposed adequate means through which the federal government can persuade, leverage, or pressure states into ensuring all their schools have sufficient resources to provide students with a high-quality education.
Nevertheless, it provides impetus for public
discussions about the aims and nature of education, discussions
that can displace the current corporate-dominated discourse that
has brought us high-stakes testing, educator disempowerment, narrowed
learning, and declining democracy in and around our schools.
The Joint Statement and FEA materials are at www.fairtest.org/k-12 .
For the debate over standards, see Deborah Meier (ed.), Will Standards Save Public Education? (Beacon, 2000); and Meier's ongoing dialogue with Diane Ravitch (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences )
On the "education debt," see Ladson-Billings' 2006 AERA presidential address, "From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in US Schools" (www.aera.net ).