Monday, January 12, 2009

An NCLB Epiphany

Michael Petrilli, a self-proclaimed "true believer" in the No Child Left Behind Law and former Bush administration official who worked on implementing the law itself, has an interesting piece in the National Review where he concludes that "NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair."

In short, Petrilli has come to the same conclusion that educators across the country have been screaming about for years now. Namely, that requiring "highly-qualified teachers" sounds great on paper, but isn't so sensical in practice, that mandating state-defined proficiency leads to a race to the bottom, that focusing on accountability through testing leads to a narrowly focused curriculum/test prep factory, and that there aren't enough good schools around to ensure that every child could go to one if we allowed for school choice.

Amen, Michael.

That being said, he still holds to five ideas that he says are central to NCLB and that he does still support, even if the law doesn't.

1. All children (even the poor ones) have the ability to learn
2. Accountability helps schools and individuals improve
3. Good teachers are needed for good education
4. Giving parents choice has positive benefits
5. Improving education is a "national imperative" in which the federal government can have a productive role

I agree wholeheartedly and without reservation to 1, 3, and 5. I suspect that one would have a hard time finding anyone in the educational world (even the non-"reformers") who disagree with 1 and 3. Even 5 would get you a pretty good degree of agreement. It's the even numbers up there that present some potential sticky points.

As I've written on this site over and over again, "accountability" is a great word that it's hard to argue against, but doesn't really mean anything. Does it mean testing? High stakes testing? High stakes for students? Teachers? Schools? What does it actually mean? It's well and good to say that people should be accountable for teaching and learning. In theory, I'm for that. I just haven't seen a good system yet for making that happen in a way that doesn't lead to the problems that even Petrilli outlines.

As for school choice, again, Petrilli put his finger right on the issue: even if we give everyone a choice of where they'll be going to school, there aren't enough good schools for every child to be in one. If there were, then every child would already be in a good school. It's just basic logic on this. So instead of starting with the idea of school choice, let's start with the idea of making the schools better. Then everyone benefits. And I don't think anyone would disagree with that goal.

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