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An Intriguing Alternative to No Child Left Behind

If the No Child Left Behind law, focused on raising test scores, proves to be a dead end, what do we do next? I rarely read or hear intelligent discussion of this question. The Pentagon has battle plans from A to Z. Why do those of us who care about schools keep bickering over the current system, rather than expand the debate to realistic alternatives?

Thankfully, one of the most thoughtful and imaginative education scholars, Richard Rothstein, has come to the rescue. As usual, I am getting to his new book, “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,” a few months later than I should have, making it the latest selection of my Better Late Than Never Book Club. It is a must-read for anyone who wonders, as I often have, how we might replace or augment standardized testing with measures of what is happening in the classroom beyond just the few days in spring when our kids take the state tests.

Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a former national education columnist for the New York Times. He spent much of his career as an analyst of school district spending. No one knows more than he does about the strange ways we use our education dollars. In the past few years he has become an articulate national spokesman for the view that our urban public schools cannot succeed unless health, social and employment issues are addressed in those communities with the same passion and persistence that the teachers I write about put toward classroom learning issues.

In Rothstein’s new book, written with researchers Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder and published by the Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College Press, he argues that with expanded national tests, more money for economically disadvantaged states and a corps of about 50,000 state-supervised school inspectors, we could finally judge the work of public schools in ways that would satisfy nearly everybody, and identify the most effective reforms.

Rothstein, Jacobsen and Wilder support their recommendations with surveys of what Americans value in schools, analysis of the failings of No Child Left Behind and a particularly interesting -- and honest -- assessment of the school inspection system in England. They want to reduce the federal role in assessing schools and enlarge the number of student characteristics assessed.

“Our conclusion is that a little more than half of the weight of an accountability system should be devoted to matters that might broadly be called academic -- basic knowledge and skills, critical thinking, appreciation of the arts and literature, and the acquisition of occupation-specific technical skills -- while the balance should be devoted to citizenship, social skills, and other physical and emotional health behaviors that we expect young adults to exhibit,” the authors say.

The inspection system they want to create might start with voluntary school accreditation organizations that already exist, but with stiffened spines, professional training and a focus on teaching and achievement that accreditation visits these days usually lack. A good international model, they say, is the English inspectorate, which is managed by an independent government department, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Until recently that organization contracted with a dozen or so firms to provide about 6,000 inspectors, usually retired school principals or teachers, to observe classroom teaching, interview students about their understanding of what they had learned and examine random samples of student work.

That sounds good to me, but since Rothstein disdains polemics, I knew he was going to balance the information on his side of the argument with disclosures that would raise doubts. It is no surprise to learn that the English have budget shortfalls just as we do. These have often cut into the time the inspectors have to do their jobs. There have also been recurrent debates in England over how much notice the schools should have of planned inspections and whether the inspectors should give advice to a school after toting up its strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, the book says, the inspectorate had a major overhaul in 2005 and “it is too soon to evaluate recent changes.”

The authors are similarly candid about what has always struck me as the big problem with assessment by visitors: the cost. Rothstein wants not only inspections but more sampling tests by the federally controlled National Assessment of Educational Progress so that we would know if some states were letting their learning standards deteriorate. This would all cost about $5 billion a year, he estimates, more than we are spending now on the tests that are used to rate schools but only 1 percent of the total elementary and secondary public school spending in the United States. Rothstein and his co-authors also make an impassioned, persuasive argument for the federal government to provide extra funds to poverty-stricken states so that they can afford to upgrade their teaching and their assessments of teaching. Just how much this would cost, the book doesn’t say.

I think the authors are wrong to dismiss No Child Left Behind as “an utter failure.” The 2002 law has its flaws, to be sure. The authors devote a great deal of space and energy to pointing them out. But the best teachers I know, most of them in the inner city, believe it is better than what we had before: a system that let the states decide whether they wanted to require testing that would determine whether disadvantaged students were getting the educations they deserved. The authors do not explain why this alleged utter failure of a law still has such popular support that no major politician has ever won an election because he or she demanded it be overturned.

Perhaps it is just as well that they did not belabor that point. No Child Left Behind no longer represents the future. Its name will be changed. Some of its provisions will be revised. Rothstein and his co-authors are looking ahead, trying to save all the energy we have been expending arguing about testing and examine instead how our teachers are doing by watching them at work.

It is possible that some state or city will soon try a well-organized inspectorate. There have already been some attempts, cut short by politics and budget woes. The clarity of Rothstein’s analysis will, I suspect, inspire new and better efforts. Money will be a problem, as it is for the English. But this is a worthy experiment, made more likely by the care and balance of this fine book.

By Washington Post editors  | May 22, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  No Child Left Behind  
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The book does sound interesting, so thanks for sharing the title. You discuss NCLB and mention that teachers in urban schools like it because: ...."to require testing that would determine if disadvantaged students were getting the educations they deserved."

I personally think the emphasis should be on whether or not these students are "getting the educations they deserve," and that can't be determined solely by testing within NCLB, so I applaud the notion that other factors should be looked at.

Some of those factors not mentioned should be
How do the libraries in urban schools compare with wealthier suburban schools?

How many books per child?
How new (publish date) are the books in the library and how new are the textbooks?
How many textbooks are available? Enough to take home? Some suburban schools provide extra textbooks so that the students have them at home, and a class set remains in the class. I read reports of urban schools and textbooks are never delivered, or are extremely outdated.
Do the students have access to the school libraries during the summer?
How are the school libraries staffed (throughout the school year)? Are they staffed on a full time basis, with a librarian, versus a check out volunteer?
How many public libraries are within easy access of the school's community?

What is the guidance counselor load?
What is the PTSA like? Are many parents involved or just a few?
How much funds are raised via the PTSA to support field trips and all of the extras that many suburban schools enjoy?
What are the health facilities like, and how many per resident in the community?

Yes, students in urban schools deserve the education we have in the suburban locals.

Yes, accountability is important. But the test scores do not tell (solely) us if these students are getting the education they deserve.

Posted by: researcher2 | May 22, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

My kids attended one of those "wealthier suburban schools" in the DC area and I volunteered, for a very short time, at the library. I immediately realized that the library was empty most of the day, the librarians sat in the office drinking coffee and were the last in the door in the morning and the first out in the afternoon. That was also before the internet. Kids really using a library used the public libraries; they were all full of kids most evenings. Urban kids have many resources available, but don't necessarily use them. Don't duplicate resources between school and community libraries.

Posted by: momof4md | May 22, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Also, at that same school, some of the guidance counselors were weak to the point of actual incompetence. In four school systems, in three states, I never met a guidance counselor who actually seemed interested in academics, whether college-prep or vocational, let alone possessing anything beyond superficial knowledge. They were all much more interested in social-emotional issues.

Posted by: momof4md | May 22, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure services are being duplicated, which is why I am posing my questions. There have been issues with DC libraries, and the schools' libraries were not staffed often, and many did not have the books, or access to the books, that the suburban schools did.
Your experience is odd, in my opinion. The schools I have had children, and the schools I have visited, the library was the heart of the school. The librarians were involved not only in their library, but kept up with what the classes were doing, assisted teachers with materials, assisted students' with research, hosted bookfairs after hours, hosted book clubs after hours and much, much more.

There are many studies that show urban schools don't have the library resources in the schools or in the communities that the suburbs have.

At the ES level yes, guidance counselors are often focused on the social and emotional, and that can carry into the high school as well. My concern is one where I wonder about the student load of the counselors. Do urban high school counselors have the same student load? Are they as able to assist with the college app process?

Posted by: researcher2 | May 22, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Rhode Island has had an excellent system of surveys and inspections (called SALT) for years. Of course, under NCLB, the results are ignored in favor of test scores.

Posted by: TomHoffman | May 22, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"The authors do not explain why this alleged utter failure of a law still has such popular support that no major politician has ever won an election because he or she demanded it be overturned."

Matthews does not explain why no major politician has ever won an election because he or she demanded that NCLB be kept as it is.

The debate has been between ending NCLB entirely, or finding ways to fix it.

So, I question why Matthews says that it is popular. By that logic, the income tax is popular because no major politician has ever won an election because he or she demanded it be overturned.

Posted by: ceolaf | May 22, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

You got me ceolaf. That is an excellent rejoinder. I still think the accountability core of NCLB is pretty hard to beat politically, and that is why politicians don't attack it much. But a reasonable person like you can assert that is not the same thing as popularity.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | May 22, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

And just what would the price tag be for 50,000 full-time inspectors? Let's assume at per-inspector cost of $80k for salary + benefits. Multiply that by 50,000 and you're talking $4 billion. Is hiring all those inspectors REALLY going to give us the biggest bang for all those bucks?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 23, 2009 3:44 AM | Report abuse

The main problem with NCLB is that it, in effect, forces districts to fire teachers without proper evaluations. What schools should be doing is firing teachers whose performance is substandard, not closing schools and firing everyone. This requires more labor be performed in evaluating teachers, but it would be cost-effective in the long run since the disruption of closing and opening schools, and the loss of many effective teachers, would be reduced. This is one reason I am in favor of merit pay, as long as it is based on observations, not student test scores.

I have heard that the big obstacle to this model is state legislatures, who have put in place laws that make firing teachers very difficult. In other words, if a school district wants to change the firing process in a contract negotiation, they are often limited not by the negotiating power of the union, but by the details of state laws. Does anyone know if this is true? That seems like an underreported topic.

Posted by: timothy_in_dc | May 23, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Even if NCLB needs its accountability measures tweaked - which I think it probably does - this suggested model still does not address the real issue. Our worst schools will still be underfunded and poorly staffed.

While I admire the continued focus on data, I think that the overall result is clear: our major cities have terrible school systems. Regardless of what data we look at, this will be the case.

As far as I am concerned, we can stop arguing about what data to collect and how to collect it. The key question is how we get resources to our struggling schools and how we ensure that these resources are used in the right way.

Posted by: teachercertified | May 23, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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