Consensus near on the failures of No Child Left Behind
Marshall Helmberger

Finally, there’s good news on the education front. More and more, educational specialists are recognizing that the nation’s overemphasis on standardized testing has been unproductive, and even harmful, and policymakers and business leaders are beginning to take note.

The educational regime brought to power by No Child Left Behind is finally unraveling. That’s evident in the increasing number of waivers granted at the federal level, including the waiver granted here in Minnesota last year. Almost two-thirds of the states have now been granted waivers from NCLB, which is allowing states to develop alternative methods of gauging school success.

In Minnesota, the new Multiple Measures system gauges schools on several factors, including proficiency, student growth, closing the achievement gap, and graduation rates. Some of these measures will still be judged based on test scores, but schools aren’t going to live or die on the results. The new system still helps school districts identify schools that may be struggling, but such schools won’t face the perverse financial penalties that were a part of NCLB.

And let’s be clear— the emphasis on standardized testing embedded in the NCLB Act had nothing to do with improving student achievement. It was intended as a means of judging the success of public schools, and it set up every school to eventually fail the grade. Anyone in education knows that you don’t make kids smarter, or give them valuable skills, by more testing. The relentless focus on tests, as many have pointed out, was actually harmful to student learning in many cases, in part because it forced schools to spend too much time on tested topics, and not enough on the long list of other skills that we expect our schools to impart on our young people, but that aren’t assessed on most standardized tests. The rise of standardized testing also correlated with a worsening trend of student disengagement, which has become a serious problem in many public schools.

The NCLB model, of course, has been criticized for years. But finally we seem to have achieved a critical mass of people arguing powerfully for alternatives. In an op-ed in the Star Tribune earlier this month, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that Minnesota’s congressional delegation was right to oppose NCLB when it came to a vote more than a decade ago. Despite all the money, energy, and time spent implementing its provisions, NCLB accomplished nothing detectable in terms of improved student achievement, better graduation rates, or better preparedness for college or careers.

“Consider also the damage caused by inappropriate testing on the lives of too many of our children,” wrote Cassellius. “Think about the third-grade students who go home in tears, believing they are failures for life because they performed poorly on a test. Look at the effects on fourth-grade children who have special needs, or who are not yet proficient in English, yet who are forced to take the same test a second and even a third time and suffer that stigma. No parents want that for their children. And ask teachers throughout Minnesota how these high-stakes tests have stifled students’ love for learning and have replaced it with weeks of rote memorization and entire school years of remedial coursework.”

Rejecting NCLB does not mean that schools should not be held accountable. It simply means that the narrow-minded assessment methods and ultimately punitive nature of NCLB did more harm than good.

The crumbling of the NCLB mindset was predictable. Trends or fads in education come and go, and NCLB was simply another example.

But NCLB came at a particularly bad time for the American education system, because it ran directly counter to other societal and economic trends that were putting a premium on the kinds of skills that the NCLB model undervalued.

Author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman addresses that point in a recent column he wrote following an interview with Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner. Wagner has produced a new book, “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” in which he argues that our current approach to schooling doesn’t give kids the skills they’ll need to be successful in the 21st century.

As Wagner noted in his interview with Friedman, these days, with knowledge and information available instantly through things like Google, what you know is less important than knowing what to do with the information you have. “The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge,” states Wagner in his interview with Friedman.

Standardized curriculum and multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble exams simply don’t measure these kinds of skills… the skills that will really matter if we want the next generation to start solving the growing list of economic, societal, and environmental challenges we face.

Wagner argues that young people these days won’t have the traditional job opportunities that their parents and grandparents had. In many cases, today’s young people will need to invent their own jobs, and that takes creativity and the kind of entrepreneurial skills that just don’t get taught in many schools.

At least not today. The bad news is that education in the United States has spent ten years pursuing a dead end. The good news is we’ve figured that out, and are beginning to chart a new course. It’s long overdue.


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