Executive Perspective

The Gap Clap Trap

by Paul D. Houston

It is easy to agree with the overarching goals of NCLB. It is hard to argue with the concept of leaving no children behind or assuring every child a highly qualified teacher.

Perhaps the architects simply had these goals in mind when they wrote the law. But four years into its implementation it is increasingly difficult to stipulate that the law is either benign or noble.

Perhaps we should stop glossing over the stated goals that no one disputes and look at how the law is playing out. Whatever the motivations by those who were present at the creation, the outcomes in some cases make no sense and in others are destructive to those very children they purport to help.

Forced Change
One example is that the law has narrowed the curriculum. Those in charge will tell you they are baffled that anyone has actually narrowed the curriculum as a result of NCLB. This is either disingenuous or delusional. The laws of physics tell us that when force is applied to an object in a certain direction it will move the object in that direction. Many policymakers are quite open about the fact that they believe they had to force the schools to change through the use of tests and sanctions. And one of those changes was to implement the truism that "whatever gets tested gets taught."

When sanctions are applied to those who do not do well on the tests, the motion is accelerated.

Another outcome springs from placing labels on schools that cause a loss of confidence in public education and acceleration toward privatizing. The reporting system created dozens of ways schools would be found wanting and only one that reports success. Districts can have all of their schools pass, but the district can fail.

When we create a system that mathematically ensures nearly every school will be reported as being "in need of improvement," it is difficult to imagine how this will lead to increased confidence in the institution. Indeed, recent polling shows there has been a further erosion of public confidence in public schools since the law was passed.

What about those highly qualified teachers? There was a looming teacher shortage before the law. Little has been done to entice new folks into teaching beyond a number of states creating alternate routes to teaching. Having a broader stream of people available for the profession is good. While being a CPA, an engineer or a military officer may provide a good background of content, it doesn't do much for understanding the variations between children or even how to supervise a playground.

The real outcome is the loss of many of our best teachers to early retirement. Experienced and motivated teachers are opting to leave the profession rather than become paper-pushing, test-giving bureaucrats. It is good to have highly qualified teachers, but it is also good to have highly motivated ones.

A Real Goal
That brings us to the centerpiece of NCLB — what its supporters have called the "the moral equivalent of the Brown decision" for poor and minority children — the goal of closing the achievement gap between racial and income groups. The requirement to disaggregate data was one of the best features of the law, and the expectation that all children would benefit from the law was a good thing.

However, as we try to "overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations" (as our recent and current education secretaries of education and the President put it), it would seem prudent to address the issue of the hard bigotry of high expectations with inadequate resources. It is not merely whether the mandates of NCLB were fully funded — it is clear they weren't — but whether the social capital is provided to schools, families and communities to overcome years of racism and neglect. This leads to the need to examine the goal of closing the achievement gap. Is it a real goal and does it even makes sense?

The problem here epitomizes the inherent problems with NCLB because it speaks to children in groups and assumes education is a linear process. While policymakers like to use words such as "all" or "every," children are educated one at a time. In our culture, we value the individual yet the education law of the land focuses on closing an average between groups as its primary goal.

Each of us has unique gifts that must be nurtured. Dealing on the grand scale tramples our individuality and moves education in the wrong direction. Someone observed, "Training makes people the same, but education makes them different." If we were truly educating each child to maximize his or her talents, we would be creating new gaps. "Closing the achievement gap" is shorthand for the need to be more responsible to those that have been overlooked in our system. We, and they, would be better served if we started focusing our language and our actions on maximizing each child's possibilities.

If closing the achievement gap is really the goal, then we must ask whether this country has as its goal all children achieving the same things and in the same ways. And if the answer is yes, is the country really ready to pay the price for achieving that goal? The result of four years of NCLB is that states are beginning to lower their definitions of "proficiency," which will certainly close the gap but will do little about elevating those we previously left behind.

The goal of a national effort in education should be to provide the support needed for every child to succeed in making his or her dreams come true. And if we want to talk about expectations, let's center them on giving our children the expectations that they must dream big dreams. Anything less is a trap that we will all fall into, and our nation will be the worse for it.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.