Beyond the NCLB Act: 
Let's Get Off the Moral Path of Judgment

I read this report on the NCLB Act with an eye to discerning the moral perspective they brought to their task.

"Although the Commission members came to the table from a variety of perspectives, we were united from the outset in our firm commitment to the goals of the law: to harness the power of standards, accountability and increased student options, so that every child becomes proficient in core subjects and to eliminate the achievement gaps that have left too many students behind."
p.20 Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children by the Commission on NCLB

In other words, this commission reviewing the NCLB Act was united in it’s commitment to the delivery metaphor of education.

They unquestioningly accepted that

  1. education is a matter of teacher’s delivering units of knowledge, skill and/or information into children’s heads,
  2. that those units can be counted, and
  3. therefore teachers can be held accountable (judged by the authorities) for the presence or absence of those units.

This is a perspective that appears to be fully consistent with the history of education and the story of school that put us on the moral path of judgment.

The report on the NCLB Act does not matter that children are complex individuals with a diversity of needs that cannot be met in any standardized way.

The logic of the industrial assumption that all the components must work together like a well oiled machine is much more important than something like the needs of specific children.

What would really be interesting is if a commission like this could be convened to start from the moral path of nurturance instead of the moral path of judgment.

How would the law measure up to a bi-partisan commission investigating educational performance from the assumption that schools have an obligation to nurture children instead of judge their future economic worthiness?

What if we expected schools to help children become good people, not just good test takers and workers?

The NCLB Act and "Accountability"

But then the question still arises about holding teachers and schools accountable for those results.

Here's what the authors of report on the NCLB Act had to say about holding teachers accountable:

"[Teachers] know what children need to learn and how to impart that knowledge, and they demonstrate their ability to raise student achievement through fair, credible and reliable measures of effectiveness.

Those teachers who are not able to demonstrate student learning gains and do not receive positive evaluations from principals or their peers would receive additional high-quality professional development designed to address their specific needs and on-site support in developing practical strategies to improve student learning.

If teachers do not improve after they receive this support, they will no longer be eligible to teach students most in need of help."

p. 22 Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children by the Commission on NCLB

The NCLB Commission expects there to be an all-knowing prophet (presumably the authors of standards) who can dictate the knowledge that all students will need to succeed in the future.

Notice that they only define the needs of students in terms of knowledge.

And if the teachers can't effectively deliver the knowledge dictated to them by the all knowing prophet then they are deemed ineligible to teach.

This is a clear commitment to the moral path of judgment.

The judgments of the system must be trusted to meet the needs of children, not the judgments of teachers who actually know and love the children.

Conclusions on Beyond NCLB

The vision that they present is misguided by their dependence on the industrial metaphor of education as a quasi-economic activity that can be managed using strict performance measures of academic skills like a business measures profits.

In the presentation of their vision for the future of the NCLB Act in American schools they make no reference to meeting the real needs of children, only the needs of abstract economic and social systems on the dubious assumption that rigorous competition for academic test scores are a meaningful predictor of future national success.

There is no mention of the real human or natural communities children are embedded within and the role of those communities as important factors in the education of children.

The closest this report on the NCLB Act comes to acknowledging community is to talk about business and the role that students will eventually play in the economy.

If they use language that might suggest nurturance then it is used in the way an industrial agri-business CEO would talk about the plants they cultivate; as mere commodities.

The authors of this report on the NCLB Act make no acknowledgment that there are larger systems in which learning is embedded.

Schools are discussed as if they are isolated from the rest of the world.

To give credit where credit is due they took a good approach to investigating and reviewing the law.

If it is indeed going to be reauthorized then their recommendations should probably be heeded.

Better Than Beyond NCLB

What would be more ideal, however, would be a plan to shift what the law assumes is worthy of measurement.

What they should be looking at in elementary age student performance are measures of how well they can establish and maintain cognitive order, cognitive complexity, purpose, optimism, cooperation and agency under a variety of circumstances.

More concretely they should look at how many opportunities children have for solving self-selected problems and pursuing their own chosen goals.

What they should be looking at in terms of teacher skills is cooperative leadership and the implementation of increasingly democratic decision making processes.

How well does the teacher transition students from Other directed activities to Self directed activities?

How well does the teacher enable students to develop internal cognitive resources for planning, empathy and judgment to identify problems and goals that are meaningful to both the student and the communities in which they are embedded?

Both teachers and schools should be assessed based on the claims they make about what results they will achieve with their students.

If claims are made about test scores and achievement gaps then that becomes a relevant measure of success, but if no such claim is made then those measures are irrelevant.

And the results that are measured need to be made part of the records of both the teacher and the school, not just the student.

School performance should be measured by the level of integration with both the human and natural communities in which they are embedded.

The more integrated the children are with their communities then the more ability to function in those communities they will develop.

My Teaching Practice

In my own early teaching with 6-12 year olds I did not make any claims because I did not have the ability to measure any specific outcomes.

Even today I would not make claims about reading and math, but my students improve their ability to establish and maintain positive states of mind (although I don't have access to measures of that outcome, yet).

While I would not make claims about reading and math skills, I would welcome periodic assessments of those skills and have progress noted, if possible, since it would likely be substantial.

The reason that my students would make progress in those two areas in particular is that those two activities are great sources of optimal states of mind.

Reading is probably the most common access to optimal states of mind in literate cultures.

Math has a bad reputation, but it is also pervasive in our society and when children learn it in the context of real human communities where it is a valued tool for getting things done, then it is quickly mastered.

The NCLB Act and its later iteration as the Race to the Top are fatally flawed for proceeding further down the moral path of judgment instead of directing the system to make a switch to the moral path of nurturance.