I found Dan Meyer’s blog post “In Defense of NCLB” through Chris Lehmann’s post “A Smarter Mind than Mine Takes on NCLB.” I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post today (I have a pile of essays, stories, and scripts to read), but I just couldn’t not respond. Originally, I had planned on leaving a comment and heading back to the aggregator, but as I took a few notes, I realized I’d be leaving a lot of comments. Rather than dominate Dan’s comment space, I just left a link, so this post is addressed to Dan. Please read his well-written entry first …

Dan – Thanks for raising that challenge. I always appreciate people who question and confront mainstream views because without that challenge, no innovation or progress could happen. In this case, the “mainstream” is the wail of complaint coming from most teachers about NCLB (or ESEA as Todd puts it).

If I’m reading you right, your major opposition seems to be directed against lazy teachers (of which you seem to think there are many, and in whose number you do not count yourself). I tend to agree with you–I have encountered many teachers (as both a student and teacher) I would call “lazy.” But laziness can present itself in different ways: slack grading, lack of substantive feedback, “easy” worksheet-driven lessons, or merely a refusal to think about difficult issues and ask difficult questions. At any rate, laziness has no place in any profession, and on this point I agree with you completely.

I also agree that “whining” and complaining without taking action to bring change, offering suggestions for improvement, or providing research to support genuine complaints is embarrassing and unprofessional.

And when you say that the teaching profession needs more accountability–not only to identify poor teachers but to help all teachers understand their practice and improve it–I am also in complete agreement.

However, it seems to me that you may have confused these issues with your defense of NCLB. You sound like you’re attacking all teachers who are anti-NCLB because you assume any anti-NCLB teacher must also be lazy, or just complaining, or at least not willing to have their practice examined by others. If I’m correct here, then this is bad logic. How we define lazy, how we address complaints, and how we assess teacher performance is a significant factor. My personal complaint against NCLB hinges on these issues, and I don’t think NCLB does a good job addressing any of them.

Your defense, from what I understand in both the post and your comments, is based on some assumptions with which I would disagree. It’s these areas of disagreement that demonstrate, at least for me, why “anti-NCLB” does not equal “lazy” or “anti-evaluation-of-practice.” These are the assumptions I think are underlying your position (and I may, of course, be wrong):

Assumption 1: “The test” is a valid assessment of education.

Know this: our worth as teachers didn’t change on January 8, 2002; our burden of proof just became greater.

Any test is only a valid assessment of itself. A student who can successfully complete a test indicates that he/she can successfully complete that kind of test–nothing more. That does not necessarily guarantee that the student is a successful learner or thinker, that the student can change the oil in his/her car, run a successful business, find happiness in art, become a successful performer, or any of the other things someone might define as “success.”

I agree with Philip Kovacs here:

“If we are going to improve teacher quality, which I favor, we’ll need a much more robust instrument than a test, as David Berliner and others have explained on numerous occasions.”

You give the example of driving tests as an example of testing that works:

Sub out “the quality of teaching” with “the quality of driving.” There isn’t anything so sacrosanct about teaching that keeps it safe from penalties and social pressure, the majority shareholders in why people decide to drive safely.

However, you admit here that it’s real-world concerns (penalties, social pressure) that actually make better drivers, not the test itself. Also, successful completion of a driving test does not prove you’re a good driver. The written part only measures your knowledge of the laws, not your ability to apply the laws to actual driving. The performance aspect of the test (and here we see that the government does recognize a difference between written assessment and performance assessment) might do a better job of predicting whether or not you are competent enough to be licensed, though I think most states’ tests are far too brief and easy to really predict this. Also, a licensed driver is not necessarily a good or experienced driver. (This is why we have insurance.) We improve over time, just as our students must have the opportunity to do. Finally, as you suggest, what motivates people to improve are the real-world, personal consequences of not doing so: crashes, lawsuits, loss of property, personal injury–not the test they once took at a DMV somewhere.

You say:

I’m thinking of the teachers who buy their students off with hours of free time every month, because it’s easier than teaching the whole time, who consequently gloss over complicated concepts, and then complain about standardized testing.

However, the standardized tests that I’ve seen do not test “complicated concepts.” Instead, they test the accumulation of facts or the application of general principles and formulas. I don’t see how NCLB encourages teachers to address complicated issues (which I think teachers certainly should, and should do so by raising complicated questions and by encouraging their students to raise complicated questions–not just seek answers that can be reduced to a letter choice on a bubble form).

A system based on major tests creates major test-takers, and the whole system is one designed to produce academicians. But a successful populace and healthy citizenry does not equal a nation of successful test-takers and academicians.

Assumption 2: Student performance on these tests is a valid measure of teacher success.

See above, really. Student performance on tests tells us whether or not students can perform well on a given test. Is the test valid in itself? Does the test relate directly to real-world concerns? Back to the driving test: It relates to real-world concerns (driving). It’s partially valid (driving around the block once, changing lanes, and parking does not really tell you that I’m a qualified driver).

Almost anyone can teach a child a set of facts, principles or formulas to be reproduced on a test. Success on a standardized test is not, in itself, impressive to me. Are we teaching critical thinking? Are we teaching the ability to question? To discover? To explore? To approach things from multiple perspectives? To find the resources and information necessary to ask hard questions and move towards answers? Are we teaching the importance of failure in seeking success and creativity? I could go on here, but the answer is … no: NCLB can not assess these things in its current form, and so schools are not concerned with them. After all, there are real-world consequences for not approaching education on the terms that NCLB proscribes.

Also, I should be assessed as a teacher based on a number of criteria. Yes, there should be some test in place to ensure that I’m addressing the major concerns of my discipline as appropriate for the age of the students. (This in itself is a complex question that must be continually addressed). However, the test is a small part of my effectiveness as a teacher as any written test is very limited in what it can actually test.

Again, I agree with Philip Kovacs:

Why not ask peers, supervisors, students, and the community to evaluate teachers on a number of indicators? Not only content matter but pedagogy and presence?

You call these “soft” measures, and they are, but they are also essential. What do you remember best from your own experiences in education? Most people of whom I ask this question tell me about a teacher who inspired them to want to learn, explore, make connections, and ask questions. I’ve had very few recite the quadratic equation.

Finally, if I’m going to be assessed by my administrators (and others … and I think I should be), then it must happen repeatedly over time. No one has any sense of my effectiveness as a teacher unless they spend time in my classroom throughout the school year. If you visit twice a year for half an hour each, you know nothing about my abilities as a teacher. Add that to “my” test results (who’s taking these tests, anyway? and when do we hold parents accountable for the education of their children?), and you know two things: 1) I was in my classroom talking to students at least twice during the school year, and 2) my students can, to varying degrees of success or failure, complete a given test.

This is not a valid assessment of a teacher’s success or failure.

Assumption 3: Teachers are only complaining because they’re too lazy to work harder.

And worse, they exploit their students (”won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children”) to serve a) their aversion to hard work, or b) in some slightly better cases their fear that they’re incapable of that work.

This may be true for some teachers–maybe even a majority of them. This is not true for all of them. There are legitimate reasons to seek a major reform of NCLB.

Again, I support the idea that teachers should be evaluated and held to high standards. (I’m even anti-tenure. If you suck, you should be provided help to improve. If you can’t or won’t, you should be removed). Teachers should be constantly challenged to give their best, to seek innovation and creativity, to find ways to measure their success in ways that matter and collaborate with others in the hope of providing the best educational opportunities possible for students. (After all, you can’t “educate” someone; you can only provide opportunities for their education.)

However, you’re not going to get these kinds of teachers if you don’t treat them as professionals, reward them as professionals, allow them room for innovation, or rely on research in a variety of fields to inform education. NCLB does none of these things.

Assumption 4: The overall vision that NCLB has for what education should mean and look like is valid.

I don’t equate a successful education system with one that produces a mass of successful test-takers.

This also relates to larger questions of school reform. Who says the ways schools are structured now is the best structure to have? When you “set the expectation from the first day that we work bell to bell,” I think: Are we trying to teach students that learning only happens during certain times, and in certain places? That learning is only and always a structured and regulated thing? This isn’t how learning happens for me. Are we training automatons? I’m reminded of Elie Wiesel’s words in Night:

Whenever I dreamed of a better world, I could only imagine a universe with no bells.

NCLB offers no way for us to even ask these kinds of questions, never mind addressing them.

You say you want “to know whether I’m improving my students’ content knowledge,” but who says “content knowledge” is the defining measure of education? There’s so much content out there, what should be “required”? I’m much more concerned that they are able to do something with knowledge than whether or not they can store it in their brains long enough to pass a test. (And yes, I know that the brain can only work with what it’s holding, but getting it in there–by itself–is not the end or answer, and also raises the complex issue of deciding which bits are most worth getting in there, and when, and in what order.)

A well-educated person, in my mind, is one who can see the larger currents in the sea of knowledge, can find and evaluate information, can ask important questions, can think through complicated issues that may not have a single or easy solution, can connect disciplines, intelligences, and people in working towards a successful outcome, can think and act creatively, can consider the concerns and questions of others on a global level, and can do all of these things in terms of that about which he/she is most passionate: whether that be politics, painting, or pet care. NCLB doesn’t have this vision.

However …

I do agree that too many teachers are lazy complainers, that too many teachers are anti-NCLB because they’re anti-responsibility and anti-assessment (of their own practices), and that there should be ways to censure poor teachers and reward good teachers.

And I agree, and love, your positive take on the challenge NCLB as an issue brings to education:

Or you can see this as one of the proudest and most challenging moments of our careers, when we were called to serve every student, every racial and socio-economic subgroup. A moment when one race left behind was serious enough for us to deem its entire school left behind.

I like what Todd had to say here:

“Conversations end when legislation come along because that implies that it’s all wrapped up.”

“NCLB does nothing to raise teacher quality. If it did, I’d support it. All it does is make the public feel *as if* teachers are more accountable, *as if* something is being done to improve the state of public education. NCLB has done the worst thing possible by taking attention away from reform and stopping the public discussion of how we can make our schools better. The conversation ended because testing is the answer, as far as most citizens and politicians are concerned.”

All of us need to continue this discussion. It’s an important one to have, and it’s why I’m so happy to have found the “edublogosphere.” It’s also why I’m truly thankful for the courage you show in your post and the challenge you bring. It’s a side of the NCLB debate that is not getting attention and does need to be addressed. We need change, but we need it for the right reasons, and in the right direction.

Thanks, Dan.

PS – If I’ve misconstrued you in any way, I apologize in advance.

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