Fewer Children Left Behind - Update

In response to my post, "Fewer Children Left Behind", I received some interesting comments from a regular reader. Please read Kagehi's comments in their entirety before reading my response, which follows below:

Of all the standardized tests I've taken (and I've taken many), very few depend simply on rote memory. The increasing emphasis on reading comprehension, for example, seems to me to be a welcome development. Sure, it's only multiple-choice, but it still forces people at least to learn decision-making skills, such as how to weed out obviously wrong answers; but even getting to the point of knowing which answers are obviously wrong requires some knowledge.

I would guess that there are a lot of folks who would then cry triumphantly, saying, "Aha! See? We shouldn't do multiple-choice testing at all, as it doesn't test anything real." I have two answers to that:

  1. 1. Most, if not all, people I've known who've scored above a certain percentile on most standardized tests tend also to be more than just book smart. My empirical evidence thus suggests that the rejoinder is at least flawed.
  2. 2. The issue of testing almost always comes up primarily along with issues of funding. This is as it should be. The issue comes up because someone somewhere (usually taxpayers or politicans) want schools to justify government funding. While hard numbers might not be able to capture the entire scope of a school's quality, it at least gives those asking questions some idea of where the school is at. And, typically, politicians and voters are forgiving enough to acknowledge that just one round of hard numbers doesn't necessarily capture the entire package. Thus, NCLB doesn't withhold funding unless there's a negative trend over the course of two or three years (I forget which). This is a moving average, which gives those who hold purse strings a beter idea of performance.

Now I'm going to make the argument that liberals typically hate, and compare school results to real-world business results. In the real world, a business may have a fantastic idea for a product or service. However, if, after a reasonable amount of time, a start-up fails to reach its stated revenue goals, might investors not be justified in short-selling their shares?

The reason liberals don't like this argument is that they are outraged that schools are being compared to private enterprise. Why? Isn't the point of school to teach our children how to cope with the real world? Especially given your argument that our children aren't learning anything useful. I don't know what's more useful than learning that even though we are individuals, our hard work can play an important role in outcomes that we might not have an immediate stake in.

Schooling is an educational service. Just as SAT-prep classes have the goal of training kids to take the SAT, so too does regular school have an obligation to teach kids how to approach problems whose answers must be expressed in certain ways. Meanwhile, as certain standardized tests increasingly move toward using writing samples, so too will schools have to keep up. That would address the anti-multiple-choice-test argument.

Lastly, you bring up the excellent point of intangibles such as physical education and performing as well as visual arts.

As far as I know, physical education in the state of California consists only in making sure that kids up to and including the 10th grade are getting their exercise, and are learning the concepts behind certain team sports. However, varsity sports are not mandatory. Moreover, increasingly, parents are footing the bill for everything from some equipment (particularly padding, jock straps, uniforms, helmets, etc.), to rides to the actual games. This is already not a new development, and was happening before NCLB. Given that all this is true, it would seem that not much would change. In fact, the redirection of federal moneys toward testing might actually help athletes, many of whom enter prestigious schools on athletic scholarships but are incapable of higher level scholastic achievement.

As for the arts, as far as I know, arts were never a major part of school curricula to begin with. The most obvious example of arts funding would have to be the marching band. Most members of the band, particularly the woodwinds, come aboard with their own instruments. Those hoping to continue with the band in college also habitually bring their own instruments. (The prospect of having to share any sort of wind instrument would unnerve any hypochondriac.) Most band members these days are also paying their own way to events, much as many athletes do, and have been since before NCLB. So, nothing new there.

The other major art is probably drama. Most of the costumes used tend to come from donations, and sometimes from discarded Home Economics. Thus, not much would change there either.

In other words, this last charge from the anti-testers doesn't, in the context of NCLB, hold water. The federal government does not, in fact, contribute much to any particular school. The percentage of any public school's funds that come from the federal government is spectacularly low. Most of the funding actually comes from state tax revenues. An argument thus might be made that some of those state funds might be diverted to satisfying federal funding contingents, i.e. testing. However, any school district that is redirecting more money toward testing than it gets from the federal government as a reward for attaining such goals has got a bigger problem with crooked or incompetent administrators than with federal funding.

Now, I'm not saying that NCLB is perfect. For example, given how small a portion of each school's funding comes from the federal government, it might make more sense to restrict the Department of Education to adminitering tests and resuscitating failing schools, i.e. schools that fail to pass certain levels on the tests. This means that schools that have improved enough to sustain success levels beyond three years will no longer need the funding, and should they then backslide, they'll again be eligible for help.

Let's have a scenario, where $10,000,000 is available for distribution over 100 elementary schools. Let us then categorize the schools into consistently successful, consistently unsuccessful, transitional, and haphazard. Consistently successful schools always pass the test with more than 75% of their students. Consistently unsuccessful schools never have more than 75% of their students pass. Transitional schools are unsuccessful schools that have improved, but have yet to sustain the achievement over three successive years.

Now let's assume that 20% of schools are consistently unsuccessful, and 65% of schools are consistently successful.

Under NCLB, all 100 schools get $100,000 each during the first year. After two or three years, 20 schools lose their funding because they have not ever passed. The remaining 80 schools will get $125,000 each.

Under my plan, which we might call "progressive" (as with income taxes), consistently successfully schools will lose their federal funding gradually, and the same defunding plan will apply to transitional schools, but any school that fails in a given year will be funded to the maximum allowed by budget. Assuming again that 20% of schools cannot improve enough to pass, this means that, even without a gradual defunding plan for transitional schools, after three years, the 20 unsuccessful schools and 15 transitional schools would be eligible for $10,000,000, which would be just over $285,700 each. If, in addition, the gradual defunding plan means that, on average, the transitional schools get an average of half funding, that means that each transitional school would receive over $181,800 (for a total of $2,727,000), while each consistently unsuccessful school would receive in excess of $363,600 (for a total of $7,272,000).

What this means is that money is going to where it is most needed. The drawback to this is that there is thus no incentive for schools to get better, at least in terms of federal funding. Under the current NCLB plan, the motivation is federal funding, scant though it may be. Perhaps, then, an incentive might come in the way of construction or land grants: If a school maintains its successful status after three years, the federal government can build a gym or a new wing, or donate some land (which would be good for physical educationd epartments).

There is the cynical caveat, of course, that then teachers and/or administrators would take advantage of this by allowing a school to backslide into unsuccessful status, then moving it back toward successful, and then scoring another grant at the end of those next three years.

The answer is simple: The federal government then gets to reclaim the land or building, forcing the school either to pay rent, or to otherwise abandon its claim to usage.

These are just some possibilities, of course, but I stand by my disagreement with the party line that liberals tend to regurgitate, with respect.

I welcome, as always, your reactions.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Chicago Boyz]

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