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.
Washington Post editors
| May 22, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: No Child Left Behind
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