We all know our public education system is far from what it should be. While the George W. Bush Administration deserves credit for recognizing the problem, the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind policy continue to undermine public education. Instead of creating a more intuitive approach, NCLB has alienated teachers through the law’s perverse incentive system that emphasizes arbitrary test scores over an enriching classroom experience.
It is important to recognize the federal government got some things right. In my six years teaching in a low-income, rural school district in South Carolina, Washington helped in a number of ways. Federal dollars improved our buildings, provided us with digital blackboards in every classroom, and funded free breakfast and lunch for poor students. With its hamstrung budget, the state where I worked was in no position to provide these services, and the federal Department of Education rightly intervened. In these instances, money was the answer. Perhaps federal funding is the most persuasive answer the federal government can now proffer concerning public education.
One problem at the federal level is the prominent role of Washington “educrats.” Many such bureaucrats have had little-to-no experience in a public school classroom. Yet these policymakers dictate the terms of public education across the country. In my teaching days, I sometimes taught students about an important distinction Thomas Hobbes made in his revolutionary book on governance, Leviathan. Hobbes stressed the difference between sapience (wisdom derived from experience) and prudence (wisdom derived from books). The prudent educrat is wise and well-versed in educational theory, to be sure. But the chasm between education theory and practice is too broad to bridge with books alone. As NCLB is reexamined at the federal level, only teachers can make up the shortfall in experiential wisdom.
I learned more in my first week at the head of a classroom than I did in four years of learning theory. My perspective makes it easy to see how education policy rooted in theory alone can lead to bizarre results. For example, educrats divide children into demographic subgroups (black/white/Hispanic/Asian, male/female, special needs), and insist every child be tested at grade level. Sounds like good policy, right? Wrong.
Without regard to socioeconomic status and other factors, a one-size-fits-all approach to education is an unrealistic goal that ties teachers’ hands and prevents more individualized instruction. NCLB isolates the most marginalized groups of students and virtually ensures their failure. The federal mechanism to measure such outcomes is dubbed “adequate yearly progress.” Say the letters “A.Y.P.” to any teacher and in a few minutes you’ll probably wish you hadn’t.
Another bizarre twist: The federal government sets education standards but leaves the means of measurement up to each state, which has negative implications for less wealthy states. Let’s compare New York and South Carolina. In a relatively prosperous state like New York, standardized tests can be graded quickly, allowing a student’s promotion to the next grade to be tied to their test score. This incentivizes many New York students to aim for high marks. South Carolina’s test scores, on the other hand, are not returned until fall of the next year. All other things being equal, can you guess which state’s test scores show higher achievement?
Even if test scores of all 50 states were returned on time, comparing the outcomes of two states’ exams still leads to murky results. Study after study shows that the questions on the South Carolina test are written at a higher level and are more challenging than the Texas test. Texas, in turn, ranks higher than South Carolina according to federal standards. It’s unclear how much of this is due to a disparity in performance versus the discrepancy in testing difficulty.
I don’t mean to suggest we “throw the bums out” and replace the education bureaucrats in Washington with current or former teachers. But as the federal government takes a second look at education reform, Washington should defer to those of us entrusted to translate policy into educational experience.
Ryan Cleary is a former public school teacher and 2014 J.D. candidate at Touro Law School.