HELPhearing

The Senate HELP Committee had its first hearing of this session on “fixing” NCLB on Wednesday January 21st. On the table was a discussion draft which still held to the federal view that students need to be tested to prove that they are making progress. The only difference between the two options in the draft was who would choose the testing plan; the local districts or the state. The feds still think that states need to send data to DC showing that they are doing as they are told. Senator Alexander noted in his opening comments that they have been trying for 6 years to fix NCLB and he thinks this is the year they will finally get it done. He talks the talk of local control.

As we engage in the debate on the issue of how to fix NCLB, I ask that your committee remember that the American public school system was built on the belief that local communities cherish their children and have the right and responsibility, within sensible limits, to determine how they are schooled.

While the federal government has a very special role in ensuring that our students do not experience discrimination based on who they are or what their disability may be, Congress is not a National School Board.

Although our locally elected school boards may not be perfect, they represent one of the purest forms of democracy we have. Bad ideas in the small do damage in the small and are easily corrected. Bad ideas at the federal level result in massive failure and are far harder to fix.

Yet the discussion draft they are considering does not seem to walk the walk on local control. He says the only role for the federal government is to make sure that there is no discrimination in the delivery of education. The problem with that statement is that it leaves the door wide open for all kinds of federal intrusion into local education in the name of “discrimination elimination.” How we define that term becomes the key to that interference. How we prove that we aren’t discriminating becomes the tool to endless testing. Focusing on that data becomes the means of perverting education.

Definition of Discrimination

Discrimination defined simply as providing a different kind of education to one group of students versus another, based on any definable difference between the groups, becomes the tool for redistribution of wealth from one school district to another. It is what progressives call “educational equity.” Wealth can be anything from actual dollars to highly rated teachers. Discrimination based on different delivery allows the state to dictate very fine terms for how education will be delivered which opens the door to a state curriculum, scripted lessons, video modules and master teachers. And if the feds are defining discrimination, it absolutely opens the door to a national curriculum to control all of these aspects in order to assure uniform delivery.

Supporting More Testing

Proof of discrimination based on test scores, which they appear to be clinging to with every last breath, gets us all to continue focusing on “reducing the performance gap.” The proof that we are discriminating is the difference in scores between one group and another. There is plenty out there to read about the problems with standardized tests and we have written about it many times on this blog. It has seemed inconceivable to the folks in DC that a performance gap may be perfectly normal, expected even, and that focusing efforts to reduce or even eliminate it may actually harm education.

Consider this letter to the committee from Christine Zirkelbach, a mother of a child with special needs. She doesn’t want her child to be held to the same expectation as other children. She thinks it will actually harm her child.

I am the mother of a special education child who will be graduating from high school this year.  I consider myself fortunate that my son is old enough to have missed the worst of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top….

The fundamental problem with the federal governments interpretation of “No Child Left Behind” is that is assumes all children need to, or should, be able to get to the same place.   That is not how the human race works, nor should it.  What every child does deserve, is a square deal, a chance to succeed on individual terms, [emphasis added] not federally mandated terms, based on each child’s abilities and willingness…

Under No Child Left Behind, we have created a system where you need a high school diploma to be a custodian for the MTA, and you need to pass High Stakes Exit exams to prove that you are “college ready” in order to earn that diploma.  How does that make sense?  And, if the federal government is pushing a system where students cannot earn a diploma to get a good, 40 hour a week job with benefits, how exactly is that “No Child Left Behind”?

A New York special and general education teacher, Jia Lee echoed this mother’s sentiments in her testimony delivered to the HELP Committee.

The Latin root of assessment is to “sit alongside.” Until we have teachers and policymakers “sitting alongside” and getting to know our students and our classrooms in deep and meaningful ways, we cannot fully understand the state of public education. No corporate made multiple-choice test will give you that data…

Furthermore, multiple choice, high-stakes tests have reliably padded the profits of education corporations, draining public tax dollars, but have been unreliable in measuring the diversity of students’ capabilities and learning…

Teachers’ working conditions are inextricably linked to students’ learning conditions…

Perverting Education

Here is another term people need to start getting familiar with – Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

All this focus on standardized testing to get data points about the state of education or the delivery of education will succumb to Campbell’s Law. There are already numerous examples of this. One that many people should be familiar is the Atlanta Superintendent, Beverly Hall, once named Superintendent of the Year for the apparent miracle she presided over in turning around the Atlanta Public Schools, who is now heading to jail for her role in encouraging teachers and principals to alter, fabricate or falsely certify student scores on statewide exams. The pressure placed on schools to raise the numbers, by whatever means, is so great it encourages unethical behavior.

Sharon L. Nichols of the University of Texas at San Antonio and David C. Berliner Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University authored a paper – The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing. In that paper they found evidence of ten effects on the practice of education itself that can be attributed to the focus on standardized testing.

  1. Administrator and Teacher Cheating
  2. Student Cheating
  3. Exclusion of Low-Performance Students From Testing
  4. Misrepresentation of Student Dropouts
  5. Teaching to the Test
  6. Narrowing the Curriculum
  7. Conflicting Accountability Ratings
  8. Questions about the Meaning of Proficiency
  9. Declining Teacher Morale
  10. Score Reporting Errors

Add to these ten factors, the change in focus for education materials and you have the added impact of changing non-public education systems as well as their sources for lesson plans and text books that focus on anything other than achieving better test scores dry up.

A similar term that also applies is Goodhart’s Law which says, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Goodhart was a banker and saw this effect in the banking system. “As soon as the government attempts to regulate any particular set of financial assets, these become unreliable as indicators of economic trends.” This is because investors try to anticipate what the effect of the regulation will be, and invest so as to benefit from it. As soon as the government focuses on test scores as an indicator of the state of education, the state of education will change as teachers and districts attempt to maximize scores.

Zirkelbach said,

Standardized testing has caused good people to become involved or implicated in cheating scandals, either to save their schools or to prove that there have been “improvements” that did not happen.  Standardized testing is a political tool used to beat up students, parents, teachers and schools.  There is no validity as the cut scores are set to serve a political agenda.  They are either lowered so that states reach the benchmark needed to keep their NCLB waiver, or raised to prove that schools are failing and that more testing is required.

Standardized testing takes money out of schools and out of the classrooms.  One of the greatest ironies of NCLB is closing “failing schools” and opening charters, with smaller class sizes, when a major component of the  solution for “failing schools” would be more teachers and aides to reduce class sizes.  Charter schools “counsel out” students to keep their scores high.  Special education students are left to flounder in public schools with reduced funding and reduce resources.

 Can local school boards fix the problem?

Senator Alexander pays great homage to local school boards and says that they can fix the problem. But as you can see above, they first must agree with your definition of the problem and then seek to adjust their policy to change the indicators you are looking at. None of this really gets at what the local board might do if they were left to really decide what is best for the children in their area.

The reality is that it is no longer the elected school board members who are setting policy and running the show, it is the Superintendents. In turn, they have been conditioned to look to the state the tell them what to do and the state is still responding to your definitions of the problem and the metrics. So long as there is a federal policy, name it whatever you want, there will be no local school boards free to improve education  at the local level.

Even if we get rid of NCLB, we will still have a problem with having local control.  Only eleven states have elected state education boards. Most of the rest are appointed, usually by the governor. So long as the Governors all belong to the NGA, we face the potential of getting rid of unwanted federal control only to be replaced by unaccountable NGO control at the state level.

It will be a long road back to local control of education. Every journey begins with single step. Step one in this case must be the elimination of ESEA where the federal government gets to decide what good education looks like, how equity is defined and how states will prove, to its satisfaction, that they are towing the line. The next step will be either a greatly reduced or eliminated state role in education.

 

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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