2014 – When All Students Were Supposed To Be Equal

Jan 12, 2014 by

Julia Steiny – In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break. I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, “Not statistically possible!”

I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.

He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure. While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn’t lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they’d all be “proficient,” per the mandate of the new federal law. Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all? He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests. He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures. Cheek he had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership. But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions. Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone’s best work.

I wasn’t taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, “And you can quote me.”

So here we are: 2014. My, how time flies. What did we learn?

I learned two things. The first is that having good data is really useful. The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against. (They were.) NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity. If you know what you’re doing, “anchoring” statistics can verify the quality of statistics. All facts are friendly. Having good facts helps us help kids.

Ah, but do we actually want to help children? I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we’ll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement. Won’t happen.

Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014. But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law. As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems. We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can’t somehow beat their badness out of them.

Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits. Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever. There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors. No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.

Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they’re producing such bad results. Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed. For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults. When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.

Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet “F.” Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds — for the free-lunch kids — to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies. NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn’t get chewed up in the process.

Such mean behavior isn’t built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement. Let’s see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.

Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids. How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become “globally competitive” is an adult wish? What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help — long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland. Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an “F” when they deserve one. But they don’t need punishment. And neither do the schools.

It’s 2014, and the kids aren’t in significantly better shape than they were in 2001. They didn’t become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep. Punishment didn’t work. It was a dismal failure. In 2014, the question before us is: what will work? Only, let’s be honest this time.

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  1. Julia Steiny

    “Good data” is not truth, but it can lend much clarity to finding the truth. NCLB was like a doctor displaying a patient’s weight problem to a waiting-room of people and then yelling at the person. Instead of using the data to have a discussion about the dangers the numbers imply and what should be done. There’s nothing wrong with numbers except the way we use them. We’re a punitive people. Collecting less data won’t change that. I think. Thanks for your feedback, though. I always appreciate it.

    • Teacher with a Brain

      I agree that punishing schools and teachers is not productive. However, as a teacher I am concerned. When I was a grad student in the mid-70s my professor (a nationally recognized name in teaching reading) assured us that we had, finally, eliminated lockstep instruction that placed all students on the same page of the same text that taught the same standard to all at the same pace. We acknowledged, that individuals learn differently and at different paces. This was a “truth.” We see this “truth” manifest throughout life and across human competencies. No one questions that no two people are necessarily going to achieve the same degree of proficiency on the basketball court, on the track, in the stage, or anywhere else, for that matter. Some (few) of us excel, learn quickly and easily despite our teachers. Some of us struggle mightily in some “arenas” and make minimal progress. None of us achieve proficiency across all human disciplines in an arbitrarily designated period of time, or, in many cases ever.

      Life is not fair, not one iota. Some folks seem to have the golden touch: they earn PhD.s in astrophysics, paint, sing, excel everywhere; others do nothing but struggle with whatever they try. Nothing in life is “easy.” Some are born to educated, caring parents who see to it their interests are promoted, who take them places, read to them, teach them at home, who nurture them with love and security. Others are born to poverty-stricken single parents who are too young and uneducated, and are not given any support, encouragement and nurturing. Life is unfair.

      All of these kiddoes report to our public schools at age 5 and begin to be educated, and all come from wildly different backgrounds and possess wildly different talents and drawbacks. We began to expect teachers to teach grade level designated standards to all students at the same pace in the late 80s (where I live) and this was formalized in NCLB with the onus of performing something that has NEVER been done in the history of the world and that flies in the face of all we know and can see about human development on the teachers. Good teachers produce proficient learners, bad teachers do not.

      Today, at my high school, this ugly lockstep approach manifests as getting all students through A-G requirements for admission to a UC, or a CAL State, university. Everyone takes college prep classes, many students are failing and flailing in classes they are not able to handle, there is no compassion for those who cannot, because we insist everyone can and to say differently is to be a detractor or a troublemaker. How nice that sounds, everyone can. But, if you stop to consider what this does to the student who truly cannot, the pain and stress of spending your 13 years of public education in a classroom where everything is taught over your head at a pace you cannot grasp, and where you entered the room on day 1 already 2-3 years behind, this is not kind nor is is reasonable; it is cruel.

      I cannot learn everything, I cannot do everything I try to do. This is a lie. I seriously doubt I possess the mental acuity to have completed a PhD. in astrophysics, let alone a B.S. in physics. That is a hard major, the hardest and people do stratify themselves. However, there are things I do well, well enough and having a good and honest picture of my own strengths and weaknesses helped me to create a fulfilling adult life for myself and to remain gainfully employed for 35 years.

      That some students do not, cannot, learn at the pace and degree of rigor that we have arbitrarily set is NOT discrimination. We can allow students the dignity of an education that meets their needs and allows them to develop themselves to their personal best and strengths. However, we will never create equal outcomes and no amount of teacher bashing or teacher praising and encouragement will lead to that.

      If we want to improve the “lot” of our kiddoes who are born into poverty, and poverty is the culprit, then we should be taking a hard and penetrating look at the conditions that promote this “discrimination.”

      • Nice overview until we blame poverty. Poverty is nothing more then an excuse for failure. Liberalism and the welfare state has lead the charge to ruin for the education and the society. When we stopped holding people accountability and handed then something for nothing this is the outcome.

        • Teacher with a Brain

          The button was pushed.

          We have had poverty since the beginning of the human race and for a variety of reasons. Frankly, I suspect poverty is part and parcel of the human experience. % of the population that live in poverty may vary a little, but can you show me a nation that has no poverty? My issue is not who is or is not responsible for poverty, who should or should not fix it, or how to go about attacking it, etc., but rather that we need to acknowledge the extent to which poverty compromise mental, emotional and social development. Pointing fingers, arguing how the poverty got there, pitting one so-called economic system or government program against another does not change the reality of the preparedness children from different strata of society bring to school. That is here I live, every day.

          There has ALWAYS been a positive correlation between school achievement and socioeconomic status, since long before international tests, NCLB, etc. We have never eradicated the pernicious influences of poverty from and upon education. We are experimenting with this here and now and many “reformers” are insisting that poverty is not an excuse, but try telling that to the child who is being raised by a drug addict in a completely dysfunctional home, tell him or her that the lack of love, nurturing and caring, not to mention hunger and poor nutrition makes no difference whatsoever, or for that matter, the impoverished vocabulary and concept development, complete lack of experience with books, scissors, etc. Fault matters little when these children arrive in your classroom and you are told you can teach them with rigor to a level that demonstrates proficiency and is equal to that of their middle class peers. They cannot count, don’t know colors, etc. While their middle class peers count to 100, count backwards, know their colors, their first, middle and last names. Heck the low SES kiddoes sometimes don’t know their last names and who lives in their home with them. I know, I have engaged in K testing the first of the year with students in a school that pulls in lots of section 8 housing and some middleclass single family communities. I have tested kiddoes that might know what my own children did at age 2, and these kiddoes are 5.

          Additionally, let me share that research has clearly demonstrated that the achievement gap begins before or at the time of birth and that upon entry to K, most low SES kiddoes lag (easily) as much as 3 years developmentally behind their middle class peers. This means there is 3 years worth of experience and learning that is missing and this learning forms the foundation for school academic instruction. It is easy to test this in a rudimentary manner, but all of the subtleties and nuances that manifest for years as a result of an impoverished childhood are very difficult to quantify.
          Lockstep instruction, with differentiation (the new buzzword that is supposed to make everything all right) is inappropriate for easily 20-30% of our children. It cheats the advanced student and frustrates the low student. Have you ever dealt with frustration day in and day out? I know, the new term is “grit.” If we “teach” grit, then we eliminate the damaging influences of frustration. Tell me, how the heck to you teach everyone grit? Funny, since when do people just learn and do what we have taught. If you think that when I prepare and teach an excellent lesson, everyone achieves mastery and we take the next step, you haven’t lived on Earth. It is like any other human attribute and it is worth a try, but we will likely have about the same result we get teaching anything else to human beings, some get it and some don’t.

  2. Jerry Heverly

    While I’m sympathetic to the general tenor of the argument I can’t help but feel discouraged by Ms. Steiny’s reckless use of statistics, the very same complaint she is making about NCLB:

    “I learned two things. The first is that having good data is really useful. The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against. (They were.)”‘

    My contention would be that the error of NCLB wasn’t unreasonable goals but the assumption that education can be quantified. “Good data” is a chimera, a quest for truth that can’t be gotten with numbers. The irony is that she, herself, gives passing recognition to this flaw. “Attention, kindness, safety”: three good parameters. But you can’t measure them or inspire them with statistics. And to then claim that NCLB numbers prove discrimination is the most overreaching step of all.

    The punitive remedies of NCLB were the logical result of the belief that we can improve education with better numbers. We can’t. Without that realization all of Ms. Steiny’s complaints are beside the point.

    • Julia Steiny

      I certainly don’t believe we can improve education with better numbers. (And I find it tiresome to make that leap for me and what I believe.) I do believe that as we attend to the real issues that support kids — socially, economically, academically, personally — we’ll be able to see the EDUCATIONAL results in certain statistical results.