Tom Sager
tom (at) tomsager.org

February 28, 2012

Position Paper

No Child Left Behind


Vote Tuesday, April 3
 
I will do whatever possible to terminate the Rolla School District's participation in No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or any of its successors; and, failing that, at least release our schools from some of the more onerous provisions of these laws.
 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a monumental 10-year-long failure. Standardized testing is a measure of little other than how proficient a student is at taking tests. Standardized tests are certainly no measure of creativity or the ability to analyze and think critically. In fact, a stress on standardized testing can lower a child's ability to think critically.

Diane Ravitch writes, "Now we know the results of this absurd law. More than 80% of our schools have been labeled failing schools. By the year 2014, nearly 100% of our schools will be considered failures."

Every year I get a letter from the Rolla School District with absurd statements such as, "Of the ten accountability groups at [Rolla Middle School] none met [adequate yearly progress] requirements." And Rolla has an excellent school system. Just imagine the damage NCLB can do to a poor school system!

Fred Grimm writes in the Miami Herald, "The NCLB mandate for standardized tests requires the nationís public schools to administer some 50 million tests annually, costing some $700 million a year, most of that money going to corporations that create and publish the tests, score the results and provide 'interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports.' Since I was a school boy, testing costs have risen by 3,000 percent.".

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. A much greater crime of NCLB is that it steals time from other far more important educational activities so that teachers can "teach to the test" in order not to be labeled as failing teachers, failing students and failing schools. Because this time and effort gets lumped together with everything else, it is impossible to even estimate the true cost of NCLB to our school district. NCLB was supposed to bring accountability to our schools; but what kind of accountability is this? A bunch of ignoramuses with a 13% public approval rating mandating that we adopt procedures that our schools cannot even guess at the cost.

The preferred congressional solution to the 10 year long failure known at NCLB seems to be even more testing at even more expense. I've never seen a poll on the approval rating of our teachers, but I can guarantee that it would be far, far above the Legislature's 13%. So why doesn't Congress just go test itself; and dock its own pay if it fails to make sufficient yearly progress?

You may enjoy viewing my No Child Left Behind cartoons: No Child's Left Behind and Test Congress, Not Schools.

EVALUATION BY STANDARDIZED TESTS PITS STUDENT AGAINST TEACHER

When I was in elementary school, there was a sixth grade teacher named Mrs. G. Mrs. G was of the "old school" and had zero tolerance for childish nonsense during school hours. When I found out that she would not be my sixth grade teacher, I breathed a sigh of relief. I once watched Mrs. G. catch a kid with a water gun. When he refused to hand it over, she yanked it out of his hand so hard I thought she had taken his trigger finger off. If a boy tried to hide from her in the lavatory, she would march right in and drag the kid out. We were all scared of her. If we had been able to get her fired by doing poorly on a test, we would have answered every question wrong.

A few years later, I ran into Mrs. G. and was surprised that she knew who I was, even though I had not been in her class. We had a pleasant conversation. She asked about my brother and about how I was doing in high school. Looking back over half a century, I don't think she was a bad teacher at all. I'm glad the authorities back then had the wisdom not to give 12-year-old children the power to get their teachers fired. I wish the authorities today had such wisdom.

WHAT TESTS CANNOT EVALUATE

We pay lip service to educating "Renaissance People" with wide knowledge and the ability to "think outside the box." However, our stress on evaluation through standardized testing tends to create narrow intellects lacking in creativity. Here are two exercises that illustrate the limitations of testing:

Exercise 1:

Recently the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) printed an op-ed entitled, No Need to Panic About Global Warming, which argues, "There is no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy." A few days later the WSJ printed a rebuttal letter entitled, Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate, which argued, "It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses."

Are we teaching our students how to critically analyze and evaluate the competing arguments in these two articles? Are we teaching them how to check the validity of contradictory statements alleged to be facts?

These two letters are pregnant with discussion and research topics. Here are a few:

1. What is a pollutant? Is CO2 a pollutant? Why or why not?

2. Should scientists who speak on public policy disclose their affiliation with corporations and institutions, especially those with a vested interest in the outcome of their research?

3. Science is by nature uncertain. When should the validity of a scientific hypothesis be considered settled beyond a reasonable doubt?

4. What part do mavericks with "extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other ... expert" play? Think of Velikovsky, and Fleischmann and Pons as well as Copernicus and Galileo.

5. What weight should be given to non-scientists or scientists who speak on matters outside their field as opposed to those considered expert in their field? What is an expert?

6. What ought policymakers do in cases where experts believe that an action or lack of action might spell disaster for civilization? Should a policymaker accept a 1% chance of destroying civilization? 2%?, 5%?, 10%?, 50%?, 90%?

Exercise II

Look at the cartoon at http://tomsager.org/RNR_NoSmokingOrdinance.html. This cartoon is also pregnant with discussion and research topics.

1. What are the four Rolla city council members who voted against the smoking ban really arguing?

2. Which, if any, of the arguments do you agree with? Which, if any, do you disagree with? Why?

3. How is the cartoonist expressing his approval or disapproval of these positions?

4. The cartoonist draws an analogy between arguments for and against the smoking ban with arguments for and against the right to choose an abortion. Do you feel this analogy is valid? Why or why not?

5. The cartoonist also draws an analogy between reading and smoking. How do you feel about this analogy?

6. Does this cartoon make you more or less likely to take up smoking? Why?

Discussions of these two topics, especially if moderated well, could lead to increased understanding of both science and public policy, and most importantly, the interface between them. In this day and age when politicians, corporate executives and journalists so shamelessly manipulate scientific knowledge to further their own interests, this kind of education is invaluable. No amount of standardized testing could even begin to impart these skills which are so necessary in our modern world.

And what about those who are good students but simply poor test takers? What about those who are geniuses in one field but do poorly in others? Consider Ramanujan, quite possibly the greatest mathematician the world has ever produced. Ramanujan did poorly in tests on non-mathematical subjects and as a result had to leave college and take a job as an accountant to support himself. He died at age 32, probably from illness related to his years of poverty.

How many Ramanujans are irretrievably lost because of our insistence that testing is the highest measure of the student, the teacher, and the school; and our insistence on punishing those who do poorly by this measure? What kind of accountability is this?

paid for by Tom Sager

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