Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Foundations of a Bad Law

There is positive news in the world of education.

People are actually talking about rescinding, altering, or de-funding the No Child Left Behind act.  This was a bad law from the beginning, and I’ve written about it before on this blog. 

But what makes it a bad law is becoming even more evident as we hear how some people want to “improve” it.  If a law is built upon false assumptions and erroneous beliefs, upon unreliable and misleading data, then merely altering that law will not fix the problem.  It will just build a new floor on top of a still-crumbling foundation.  You’re just remodeling a condemned building.

A Seattle Times columnist recently wrote about refining this law.  Again I must state for the record that I am very happy people are starting to talk about this.  That non-educators are recognizing the major fallacies in the NCLB legislation is a sign of progress.  It means those of us who know have successfully gotten the message out, at least in a measure.

However, what they decide to put in its place is just as important.  Race to the Top, President Obama’s concoction, casts a foreboding shadow on the chances of its replacement being any better. 

Lynne Varner, the Times columnist, makes one statement in her column that reveals the faulty foundation of NCLB, and this foundation still exists. Unless detonated, it will erode whatever new laws and programs are put in its place.  Here’s her statement:

“States could evaluate schools on more things that just reading and math scores.  Gone would be the law’s demand that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Good.  Let’s ensure that 100 percent of students are smarter Friday than they were on Monday.  Intellectual growth is the new goal.”

Now, I commend Varner for the first part, and I understand the second part.  Yes, it was a bad idea to expect all students to be proficient in anything by any date.  As I continue to declare, you will never get all the people in any group to do anything well.  Someone will always come up short.  That’s just human nature.  So, enough with impossible expectations.

The “intellectual growth” concept is becoming the new trend.  And it is a better approach than all-or-nothing rigid benchmarks.  But it still denies a few basic truths.

Promises You Can’t Keep
The first one is found in the word “ensure.”  We need to stop promising or expecting schools to “ensure” anything.  We can promise beyond any doubt that the school won’t blow up tomorrow.  Accidents happen, and so does terrorism.  Now, we can do a whole lot of stuff to make that a very unlikely scenario, but the remote possibility remains, and always will.  So when we use words like “ensure,” that’s the same faulty NCLB foundational kind of language that got us dumb ideas like 100% proficiency in math and reading. 

Bad foundation will lead to more bad ideas.  We need to remove the language of absolute promises from anything in the educational world.  There are no assurances, no guarantees, no certainties.  Words like “all,” “every,” “continual,” and “100%” need to be banned from any educational legislation.  We can’t promise all, or every, or continuous improvement.  This is not possible to guarantee.  Now, it’s a worthy goal, and let’s shoot for it.  But let’s not ensure it, because we can’t. 

It’s like the guy in the movie who tells the girl that horrible line, “Everything’s going to be alright,” while the world around them is imploding.  The only way he can know it will all be alright is if he’s read the script before filming the movie. 

Students Who Won’t Learn
Second, being smarter on Friday than on Monday sounds nice, because it assumes that by the end of the week, students have learned more.  In my class, I know this happens for a majority of my students.  But not every one of them. 

What about absences?  Suspensions.  Students who cheat or copy or “rely” too much on other students. 
What about students who never do homework, and who don’t engage with what the class is doing? 
What about students who get distracted so easily they can’t focus on a task unless the teacher hovers over them the entire time–which will make it hard to “ensure” success for the other 31 students? 

Yes, there are students like that.  One of mine this year pretends to work when you walk near him, and uses phrases like “my fault,” and “my bad” when you call him out for not doing anything.  But then I’m over helping someone else and look back at him, and he’s talking again and not even attempting his work.  I talk to him after class, and he says he’ll do better.  He doesn’t.  I commended him the one day he actually did work most of the period.  Next day he was back to normal.

I’m not going to promise anything for students like that.  Except that I will keep pestering him in the hope that he will finally figure out why he’s receiving a free education. (This is one reason I think everyone should have to pay a fee to be in school...see the link My Proposal–The Answer).  Will he make progress in a week?  Will he be smarter by Friday?  In all honesty, I doubt it.  I know he has learned a few things, because he participates verbally, and often knows the right answer.  But his frequency of knowing the answer is decreasing because the course is getting harder, and he’s not doing any of the work.

So it’s good to set a goal for growth, rather than one-size-fits-all targets.  But this will not happen for all students.  Ever. 

How Do We Measure Growth?
Third, if we’re going to set growth goals, how we measure that growth–and what we do about those measures–will continue to be the biggest dispute of all with teachers.  I personally will continue to resist any state or national test as a means of evaluating what my students have learned, and will resist attempts to use test scores to determine my pay or my employment.  Because of the numerous variables outside of my control, such as the many I have listed already, it is categorically unethical to judge my job performance by the actions of other people.  I cannot force a student to learn.  Therefore, I cannot be held accountable if they don’t.

There are better ways than test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher.  The best is simple observation.  It doesn’t take much observation, especially when combined with dialogue and reflection afterward, to tell if a teacher knows what they’re doing.  And it’s amazing, but every single good teacher I know gets most of their students to learn.  What a coincidence.  And I’ve never seen their test scores, so how do I know this? 

I know because I’ve seen their students, because they come to me as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and they usually know at least a portion of the stuff I expect them to know.  If that’s not evidence their previous teachers have done their jobs, what is?

Standardized test scores are not only unnecessary, they are a hindrance, because they cost millions of dollars and countless man-hours to create, administer, collect, and score.  They also use up valuable class time. 

Once we have minimized the burdensome reliance on test scores, and improved teacher evaluation, there will be no need for silly discussions about merit pay. 

So, once we have detonated the foundation–an over-reliance on test scores combined with impossible expectations of endless improvement and perfection, based upon faulty beliefs that disregard the limits of what a single teacher can accomplish–then whatever new law we put in place (if one is still deemed necessary–an assumption I don’t automatically agree with), it will at least have the chance of being sensible. 

The next step, however, would be to accept that any sensible “reform” will require people other than the teacher to change, starting with parents, and followed by districts and state governments that set discipline policies.  Again, if you read the link My Proposal–the Answer, you’ll see that the true “reform” requires a fundamental shift in our beliefs about education. 

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