2007 July 30 Monday
No Child Left Behind Act No Help On Learning Trends?

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush cooked up to improve education in America, does not appear to have changed the rate of improvement in test scores.

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 30, 2007 – As Congress reviews federal efforts to boost student performance, new research published in Educational Researcher (ER) reports that progress in raising test scores was stronger before No Child Left Behind was approved in 2002, compared with the four years following enactment of the law.

The article “Gauging Growth: How to Judge No Child Left Behind?” is authored by Bruce Fuller, Joseph Wright, Kathryn Gesicki, and Erin Kang, and is one of four featured works published in the current issue of ER—a peer-reviewed scholarly journal of the American Educational Research Association.

One explanation for this result is that in the years before the act was put into place schools had already squeezed most of the learning improvements possible for dumber students. Though these academics aren't going to entertain that idea.

Proficiency levels for 4th graders improved in math but worsened in reading.

The university team focused on 12 states, including Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. They selected these states because they are demographically diverse, geographically dispersed, and were able to provide comparable test score data over time.

Following passage of the ‘No Child’ law, federal reading scores among elementary school students declined in the 12 states tracked by the researchers – after climbing steadily during the 1990s.

The share of fourth-graders proficient in reading, based on federal NAEP results, climbed by one-half a percentage point each year, on average, between the mid-1990s and 2002. But over the four years after the legislation was passed, the share of students deemed proficient declined by about one percent.

The annual rise in the percentage of fourth-graders proficient in mathematics improved slightly in the same 12 states, moving up from 1.6 percent per year before ‘No Child’ was signed to a yearly growth rate of 2.5 percent following enactment of the law. This is the one out of six federal gauges where a post-NCLB gain was observed by the research team, tracking NAEP results.

To understand what is really going on we need to look at the data broken down by race.

The full text of the study is available in PDF format.

The dismal record for NCLB outlined above comes at a cost. Time spent teaching other subjects has been cut back in order to produce the meager to nonexistent scholastic improvements.

WASHINGTON – July 25, 2007 – A majority of the nation’s school districts report that they have increased time for reading and math in elementary schools since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, while time spent on other subjects has fallen by nearly one-third during the same time, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy.

The report, based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 350 school districts, finds that to make room for additional curriculum and instructional time in reading and math – the two subjects tested for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act – many districts are also spending less time in other subjects that are not the focus of federal accountability.

About 62 percent of districts reported increasing time for English language arts and/or math in elementary schools since school year 2001-02, and more than 20 percent reported increasing time for these subjects in middle school during the same time.

Among the districts reporting increased time for English and math, the average increase was substantial, amounting to a 46 percent increase in English, a 37 percent increase in math, and a 42 percent increase across the two subjects combined.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of districts reported cutting time from one or more other subjects or activities at the elementary level, including science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch and recess. On average, the cuts amounted to about 30 minutes a day.

The report, Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era, also finds that overall, the decreases represent an average reduction of 31 percent in the total amount of instructional time devoted to these subjects since 2001-02.

I can see only one way to make substantial improvements in scholastic outcomes: teach smarter kids more rapidly. The smarter kids have the potential to learn more rapidly. With easy access to recorded video lectures, online texts, and online tests that allow them to earn college credit starting the smartest kids could learn more rapidly.

Some day drugs, gene therapies, and cell therapies will enhance the intellectual abilities of the dummies. Until genetic evidence demonstrates how deeply differences in scholastic performance is driven by genetic differences dishonest politicians will pretend that educational policies can help.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 July 30 10:16 PM  Education

John S Bolton said at July 31, 2007 11:18 PM:

I still maintain that public schools need to be privatized before they destroy civilization, NCLB is only one aspect of the official anti-Caucasianism that they establish, and freedom-for-aggression is what they push towards relentlessly.

Dr D said at August 1, 2007 2:06 PM:

There’s a (relatively) new book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1403975051/) that talks about the problems of No Child Left Behind--and what we might do instead about education.

The book is about how No Child Left Behind is taking our schools in the exact opposite direction from where they need to go in the age of computer technology and global capitalism—and how the new technologies of computer and video games can help get schools (and students!) where they need to go. From the introduction:

“Young people in the United States today are being prepared—in school and at home—for standardized jobs in a world that will, very soon, punish those who can’t innovate. Our government and our schools have made a noble effort to leave no child behind: to ensure, through standardized testing, that all children make adequate yearly progress in basic reading and math skills. But we can’t “skill and drill” our way to innovation. Standardized testing produces standardized skills.... But... here’s the good news: The very same technologies that are making it possible to outsource commodity jobs make it possible for students of all ages to prepare for innovative work.... and this book is about how we can use computer and video games to do just that....”

If you’re interested in the future of schooling, the book might be worth a look....

beowulf said at August 1, 2007 2:09 PM:

Intellectually, the cake is pretty much baked by the time a student starts school. It would be a better use of government resources to focus on low income parents. Guarantee better prenatal care-- including vitamin and Omega 3 supplements. Expand the visiting nurse program, which checks on low income families to ensure children are receiving proper care, nutrition and early childhood education (providing coaching to parents who want to do better and tips off Child Services for those parents who do not). Beyond that, one study I read showed that children in the program are 50% less likely to suffer child abuse. Even if visiting nurses don't raise a single test score, it certainly will mean a lower crime rate when those children grow up (abused children are far more likely to become violent adults).

Once the kid has started school, offering Neurofeedback and Audio Visual Entrainment are ways to increase a child's cognitive abilities. There are studies showing as much as 20 IQ point improvements for low scoring students (higher IQ students already have efficiently functioning brains, so their IQs don't increase much, if at all, from training of this sort). Further, every kid should be given psychological evaluations (just as school presently screen for vision and hearing problems). Again, even if this doesn't affect test scores at all, identifying and treating these problems early on will mean less crime in the future.

The problem is that middle class kids have parents with the resources (or insurance) to get psychiatric care, while poor families do not. Having universal health care available will mean schools can screen for psychological problems without worrying that opening this can of worms means they have to also pay for the necessary treatment.

All of this is for naught unless the state is willing to use a heavy hand to compel parental action. If a kid needs medical or psychological help and a parent doesn't follow up, then a school should be willing to go to a judge to enjoin their neglect (injunctions are issued as a negative commands, stop doing something or else go to jail). I don't like the state telling parents what to do, but I dislike horrible parents raising children doomed to lead criminal and unproductive lives even more.

Mark Seecof said at August 1, 2007 6:10 PM:

You appear to agree with many other analysts (including, a decade ago, Charles Murray) that public schools have already adapted to teach basic subjects to their respective students as effectively as possible. The fact that neither spending more money on schools nor forcing students to spend more hours in them improves results tempts us to conclude that schools are as good as they can be. Yet I am convinced that notion is wrong, for several reasons.

First, it does not square with historical experience. Decades ago US schools taught most children (including black children) to read. Our schools now fail to teach a substantial proportion of kids to read. The kids have not changed as much as teaching methods have.

Second, it does not square with my observations of elementary-school teaching methods and results. In both rich and poor districts in California and Washington, despite funding pressures (NCLB), despite (somewhat weasel-worded) state laws supposedly requiring schools to use proper methods (phonics), and despite the acclaim which accrues to officials of more successful schools, most elementary school teachers attempt to teach reading chiefly by the "whole language" method. From what I have read, this problem exists nearly everywhere in the USA.

Of course, the "whole language" method does not work. There are many reasons why teachers use it anyway. They're lazy: "whole language" requires little effort from the teacher. They're ill-trained: all teachers' colleges inculcate the whole-language method and disparage any other approach. When teachers take jobs, their union leaders tell them to ignore mandates to teach phonics (unionistas denounce such mandates as legislative sops to evil right-wing pressure groups and urge teachers to defy them as immoral!). Current teachers are not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree anyway, so they rarely discover how wrong their trainers are. Finally, we give teachers tenure then reward them for seniority, not performance. NCLB-ish funding sanctions translate only into management hectoring rather than meaningful incentives to teachers.

I think the inversion of arithmetic and reading performance provides evidence for my view. When managers do press elementary school teachers on reading and arithmetic instruction, they assign more arithmetic drill, which works well enough, and they repeat whole-language memorization drills over and over, which does not work.

Given current methods of teacher training and school management (including closed union shops filled with tenured teachers) the NCLB approach will never improve school performance. Besides the nonsensical (all kids above average!) goals of NCLB, and the purposefully useless testing regime it requires, NCLB is designed to press schools to do "more of the same." Since current teaching methods don't work, applying more of them will not work either.

Only an absolute phonics mandate could work. I don't think we could impose one without breaking the teachers' unions, but at a minimum we should send all teachers to special training in phonics, call in and destroy all old elementary-reading textbooks and materials, issue suitable new texts, and tie school funding to results of surprise on-site inspections by teams of classroom observers.[1]

I could go on for pages about fixable problems with schools, but I think the bottom line is this: we have not reached the limits of teachability even for less-bright students. We have only, arguably, reached the limits of performance for our present school personnel within the rules we currently apply to them. We could change those rules to change their performance.

[1] I would choose inspectors by lot from a pool of applicants who passed a stiff literacy test. I'd give them a week of training, then send teams of them to schools to observe actual instruction for a day (maybe two) while compiling data for a standardized report. I'd use statistical methods as well as team leaders with extra qualifications to detect flaky observers. I would pay observers very well (at least $250/day plus expenses) and try to recruit sharp retirees (many of whom would have gone through primary school before 1965, so they might have some idea about how a proper teacher works).

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