Monday, July 21, 2008

No Child Left Behind-- The First Bush Failure

With the election fast approaching, I’m running out of time to pick on my favorite whipping boy, George W. Bush. So today I offer you a trip down memory lane to a time before the Patriot Act, before the Iraq invasion, before the mortgage meltdown, when crude oil was $27.00 a barrel and gas was $1.70 per gallon and the world’s glaciers were all bigger than they are now. Bush’s approval rating back then was well above 50% and it looked like he might luck out and be able to go down in history as just another mediocre president. I offer you a nostalgic look at Bush’s very first failure, that little gem called, No Child Left Behind, and we’ll answer the question, “What happens when an American President with a junior-high-school mentality decides that other people need to become smarter?”

No Child Left Behind, like all government initiatives, is laden with unnecessary complexity and written in management-speak and in-group lingo so as to make it intentionally obtuse and nearly impossible to understand. Its benchmarks are deliberately vague and ambiguous, as are its stated objectives. This makes it hard to cite its most egregious flaws, but I’ll attempt to pull out the worst of what is, overall, quite pathetic.

A school can be sanctioned if more than 40% of the students fall below the 40th percentile. When the rule makers wrote this astounding mandate, some well-intentioned statistician should have stepped forward and explained to them what constitutes a percentile. The 40th percentile of any group is, by definition, the bottom 40% of the group according to whatever is being measured. The membership or makeup of that group can change as individual people improve or slide back, but the bottom 40% will always fall below the 40th percentile. If 45% fall below that mark, then it’s no longer the 40th percentile. It’s the 45th percentile. And there will always be a bottom 40% unless the group is perfectly homogenous. Percentiles don’t exist in homogenous groups since they are a component of variation. A statistically (and mathematically) ambiguous and illogical rule like this helps explain why the students tutored under No Child Left Behind now rank #25 in the world in their mathematics proficiency. Furthermore, I personally believe that the sub-prime foreclosure mess was enabled by a deplorable lack of basic arithmetic understanding in a huge portion of our population. A math illiterate makes an easy financial victim. This stuff matters.

No Child Left Behind also measures sub-groups, like boys, or minorities, or students with IEP's (special education students) — all of whom must be tracked and shown to be improving. One of the ways, certainly not the only way, but in fact a major way that students are identified for special education is their failure to succeed. After the school follows the federal law and identifies these students as failing to succeed, then we punish the school for their failure to succeed. The sad fact is that many truly good schools have been put on the President's watch list for failure to meet all the criteria for special education student improvement. One way to game the system and improve special education scores would be to put students who scored better into the special education programs to boost the average. Wanna guess if any school has tried that? I don't know specifically if it's been done and I hope it hasn't. I suspect, however, that the schools on the watch list for failure to improve special education scores have been too diligent by only allowing truly disabled students into their programs. As a result, their standardized test score averages don't improve very much.

There’s also some sort of rule requiring schools to write goals based on standardized test scores. The goal might be something like, “The percent of 8th grade boys falling below the 40th percentile in Math will decrease in the 20XX - 20XX school year." Or "The average reading score of 4th grade girls will increase for the 20XX school year." Something specific and measurable has to be turned in to the watchdogs. However, it's not too hard to pick out from the current 4th and/or 8th grade classes an area where the students don't succeed well, and then compare that with the current 3rd and 7th grade classes to see if they typically do better. Bingo. There's your goal for next year. This I'm also sure isn't done anywhere. Wanna bet?

It’s all just a game. So let’s look at some results after six years of this Bush initiative. The overall high-school dropout rate across America is now 25%-- the highest since the Great Depression. Admittedly, that rate is artificially elevated by a 70% dropout rate in some inner-city minority student populations. Amazingly, this dropout pattern actually serves to elevate average test scores in some problem schools. Once a slow learner drops out, he or she no longer drags down the average, and by No Child Left Behind standards, things actually look better. I wonder if some young people are ever motivated to drop out because they resent being mere pawns in a heavy-handed government game plan? Seems like a reasonable possibility.

There’s another set of drop outs, however, that cripple the whole public school system. These are the good and competent educators who leave specifically because of No Child Left Behind. Anyone who has been in education for more than ten years can tell you about someone they know personally, another teacher, or in some cases even an administrator who has taken early retirement or made a career change solely to avoid putting up with the absurdity and jumping through the government hoops mandated by No Child Left Behind. It demoralizes the very people needed to make it succeed, and the hideous thing is that it seems to do this by deliberate design. The entire Bush initiative has a paternalistic, justify-your-job tone, similar to what you typically see coming from a corporate HR department when someone is being set up for termination. The implication is that everything deficient in education is the fault of the teachers and administrators.

So what about the finished product? What about the student? And what about the student’s place in America? Human resource hiring managers across America will universally tell you that an American public high school diploma is no longer sufficient for anything above a minimum wage job. That’s leaving a lot of children behind.

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