NCLB needs to be changed or for that matter tossed out completely. But, I digress. The Obama administration (Arne Duncan specifically) has plans to revamp NCLB to make it less punitive and "to fix accountability and get it right." Kudos to you Mr. Duncan, but what does that look like in reality?
The press release from the ED.gov site says that
"NCLB highlighted the achievement gap and created a national conversation about student achievement. But it also created incentives for states to lower their standards; emphasized punishing failure over rewarding success; focused on absolute scores, rather than recognizing growth and progress; and prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their goals. The administration's proposal addresses these challenges, while continuing to shine a bright light on closing the achievement gap."
NCLB did have some good things—looking at all students rather than averages and to drill down to how specific students and student groups were performing. Accountability is a good thing when done correctly—don't you want kids to be learning what is in the standards and doing it at a reasonable pace? And more importantly, it made educators ourselves look at what we do and why we do it.
But it did a lot of bad things, too. The punitive parts of NCLB that made it easy to blame teachers and administrators for the failure of our students were the hardest to swallow. I was heartsick when I had to tell teachers that they were not highly qualified to be doing what they had been doing just fine for 20 plus years. This because of rules a committee without a single educator on it created its own idea of what being a highly qualified teacher means. I was equally upset when one student group not performing well made a whole school become a "failing school". I also saw the lowering of standards in some cases and definitely the teaching to the test mentality as a result of the NCLB legislation. The worst thing that NCLB did was to make teachers afraid to make students think. Thinking and problem-solving were only valuable if they appeared on "the test" and if not, teachers don't have time for those things because they have to teach information that will be on "the test."
It is too easy to simply rail at the legislation as unfair and unreasonable. What do we have to offer instead of NCLB that can reform schools? I am pleased that the Obama plan includes giving schools credit for improving not just meeting arbitrary goals. I think a school with only 25% reading proficiency one year that goes up to 35% the next year deserves a pat on the back, not a finger in the eye because it didn't get to the magic 50%. I am all for rewarding schools that make student achievement increases as long as it doesn't take money away from other schools who are still struggling to improve. I am not sure how I feel about rewarding teachers and principals specifically for student improvement. Sometimes a really good teacher gets a really tough class and she may not have as much numerical success as other teachers with easier classes. Also, I know that the leader of the school is important, but I can see how teachers would resent the leader getting a pay raise or other compensation if they felt like they did all the work in the classrooms.
I wish we could say reimagine schools instead of reform. We are still using a 19th century model for education. It is the ONLY institution that we have today that has remained unchanged for more than a century. We need to think about how to get students to learn and retain information in terms of 21st century skills, not 19th century ones. This is our next task for reimagining our schools.