NCLB: Impossible

What Doesn’t Work

by Doug Noon

For several years I have looked forward to the day when education policy would move beyond the utopian delusion that all students will would be proficient by 2014, a day that still appears to be a long way off. There’s a new ed.gov website set up for teachers, to help “…all students read and do math and science at grade level by the year 2014.” Doing What Works is supposed to be a practical companion to the What Works Clearinghouse research repository, but they apparently didn’t get the memo that proficiency for all by 2014, or by any other year, is an oxymoron:
… by ignoring the inevitable and natural variation amongst individuals, the conceptual basis of NCLB is deeply flawed; no goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution. A standard can either be a minimal standard which presents no challenge to typical and advanced students, or it can be a challenging standard which is unachievable by most below-average students. No standard can serve both purposes – this is why we call ‘proficiency for all’ an oxymoron - but this is what NCLB requires. (Rothstein, ‘Proficiency for All’ - An Oxymoron, 2006)

Policy-driven “what works” education research is what Jacqueline Edmondson calls ‘functionalist’ research,’ aimed at maintaining the present “reality of schools.” It ignores economic and other forms of systemic disadvantage, treating them as inevitable conditions that require creative technical solutions. The harm in this approach to closing the ‘achievement gap,’ says Edmondson, is that “student difficulties appear to be individual shortcomings rather than social concerns.” The limited focus of functionalist research does not admit questions about ideology, narrowing lines of inquiry to those which can be understood only in terms of the status quo. She advocates for teachers to engage in critical policy study, something I’m going to begin looking at more directly, here.

My interest in this is both practical and ideological. Other than vague references to ‘innovation’, teaching practices get no more than a hand-wave from anyone pushing a policy agenda these days. The promoters of data-driven “laboratories of innovation” have no plans for making anything new or different happen in the classroom, except what can be easily measured with standardized tests. They needn’t bother, either, as long as politicians and newspapers keep the pressure on – blaming teachers and repeating slogans like, “All children can learn” until people are ready to believe that even severely disabled kids must be tested:
McKean: “He learned how to feed himself at school. With a spoon. And he learned how to drink out of a cup. He learned how to push his own wheelchair. His head control has gotten extremely better, because his head is a little bit bigger than an average sized kid.

Jackson has a form of hydrocephalus. It’s a neurological disorder that has caused some severe developmental disabilities. Jackson also has intestinal problems. He has to wear a diaper.

Jackson can turn pages in a book. He can say “yes” and “no,” and in sign language he can say about eight things. He’s still learning. But his mom doesn’t expect reading and math to be part of his education.

So she was annoyed to learn that last year, Jackson had to take a standardized reading and math test. He was in fourth grade.
In it’s current politicized form, school reform has little to do with learning or teaching, and more to do with bureaucratic power and control . Critical thinking and innovation in the classroom can, and should, include activity besides what might work in our present - broken - policy environment.

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