The Lie Behind Failing Public Schools
It is December, 2001. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passes the No Child Left Behind Act — the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed in 1965. This is the program overview from the U.S. Department of Education website:
“Raising academic standards for all students and measuring student achievement to hold schools accountable for educational progress are central strategies for promoting educational excellence and equity in our Nation’s schools. . . “ [emphasis added]
Value-laden words, such as achievement, excellence, and accountability are often used to gain rapid agreement to a policy while skipping the irritating task of actually having to explain what the words mean, and how they will achieved. So everyone climbed on the standards bandwagon because, hey! Who wants to be accused of “leaving children behind?”
But wait a minute! To better understand what the new “standards, assessment, and accountability” meant for public schools, permit me to change the context just a bit. Rather than “academic” standards (what ALL children must “know and be able to do”), the new law mandates “physical” standards. For example:
- All 1st grade children must be 42" tall and weigh 50 pounds. They must be able to run a mile in 15 minutes, perform 8 sit-ups/30 seconds, and 5 push-ups/30 seconds. (The extensive list of other physical standards includes measurements of arm length, leg length, head circumference, various physical abilities, etc.)
- All 5th grade children must be 55" tall and weigh 70 pounds. They must be able to run a mile in 11 minutes, perform 19 sit-ups/30 seconds and 11 push-ups/30 seconds. (Again, many other physical characteristics and abilities are included in the standards.)
Standards similar to these are mandated for every grade level. Therefore, these are physical standards that every child of a given age is expected to meet.
Students at each grade level are given a “standardized” test to “measure achievement.” How a student “measures up” on each of the many standards is combined into a single test score. Since a standardized test compares each student to the “achievement” of a hypothetical average (or standard) child, any student who scores above that average (the norm) is obviously “above average.” Children who score below the norm are below average and in need of remediation.
These standards and assessments were instituted to “hold schools accountable,” so test scores are also used to assess the “success or failure” of schools and teachers. If a significant number of students score below average, the teachers are obviously not doing their job. If this continues for several years, the school itself is obviously failing!
I hope you see where I’m going with this. If the federal government had mandated physical, rather than academic, standards, I would hope that many, if not most, parents would have been outraged. It’s obvious that children of the same age come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and athletic abilities. Multiple factors, such as genetics, ethnicity, nutrition, and environmental conditions influence their physical development and abilities. To expect all children of a given age to meet some external physical “standard” totally ignores the natural (and normal) variability of human beings! Humans may share the same general body parts, but there is no such thing as a “standard” or “average” person of any age!
In this scenario, standardized tests claim to measure physical “achievement.” However, that claim is based on the invalid premise that 1.) there IS (or should be) a “standard” person of a given age; 2.) there are valid and accepted standard physical characteristics for every age; and 3.) it is possible to express the sum total of a person’s physical “achievement” in a single score. Not one of those conditions is true, so using students’ scores on a single test to not only label a student, but to judge the capability of a teacher, and whether a school is succeeding or failing, is beyond ridiculous!
Common sense (and observation) tell us that human beings are physically different. Yet many physical characteristics are fairly predictable. Age progression software can be used to predict what a child might look like in their teens or 20s because, other than the fairly predictable effects of normal aging, the genes that express themselves as physical characteristics remain largely unchanged throughout life.
On the other hand, a child’s “mental” processes — the connections between and among the 100 BILLION neurons in the brain — change with every experience. Children begin “learning” — making these connections in the brain — before birth. Those billions of connections continue to change in ways unique to that individual’s brain throughout childhood and the rest of the person’s life.
Given: Physical characteristics remain relatively constant throughout life.
Given: Mental characteristics (connections in the brain) constantly change throughout life.
Conclusion: The brains of human beings are infinitely more variable than their physical characteristics!
Why then, does no one question the imposition of “one-size-fits-all” standards on the minds of our children? If it’s obvious to us that children’s bodies and physical abilities develop at different rates, how could any rational person suggest that their brains (minds) all develop (or SHOULD develop) in the same way and at the same rate?
Are Children, Teachers, and Schools Failing?
To fail means “to be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal.” Let’s say your goal is to fly to the Moon using only muscle power. Or to learn all the languages in the world in one day. Or to build a luxury car for less than $1. If you don’t accomplish those goals, are you a failure? Hardly — because not one of those goals is achievable!
Many seem perfectly willing to take the government’s word that teachers are lazy or unqualified, and that schools are failing. Failing to do what? The question never addressed is whether the goal set by NCLB — one-size-fits-all standardization — is, or ever has been, achievable! Is it even rational? Given the variability in human brains, as well as the natural variation in physical and mental development, the answer is a resounding no!
Similar to our expectations that children will grow and develop physically as they mature, it is also reasonable to expect healthy children to develop the ability to read, write, calculate, make reasoned decisions based on facts, solve problems in their lives, and generally develop their minds to the point where they can live a fulfilling life. What no one has the right to expect or demand is that any of this will happen in the same way at the same age or at the same rate.
Is there a failure here? Absolutely. But that failure is not on the part of students, teachers, or schools. The failure is in the fundamental assumptions on which NCLB and other standards-based reforms were and are built. The failure is in imposing mandates on schools that aren’t, and never have been, achievable! The failure is in judging the “success” of students, teachers, and schools based on their inability to achieve the unachievable! The failure, in other words, is in the one-size-fits-all standardized policies imposed on schools by NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, and now, the “Every Student Succeeds” Act.
Holding schools accountable was a huge selling point for NCLB. But one thing is certain. How can anyone be accountable for “failing” to achieve unachievable goals mandated by government policy? The failure is not in the children — the teachers — or the schools! The failure is in the policy! The real question is, “Who do we hold accountable for a policy that has failed, and continues to fail, our children and our society for decades?”