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The president’s NCLB double-talk (09/28/2011)
By John Edstrom

Last week President Obama more or less repealed the federal No Child Left Behind law, giving states the right to opt out of its provisions, mainly the standardized tests which determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). His right to repeal an act of Congress by executive decree is questionable at best, but that’s another editorial.

The president defended the move in a speech at the White House last Friday which he began by acknowledging that American students have fallen behind and continue to slide vs. their peers around the world in reading, math, and science. It was a good start, but about the last sensible remark the president made in the entire address.

After making the usual appeal for more money and more teachers, (and touting the provisions in his new stimulus bill which will “modernize” at least 35,000 schools), he exhorted the states to “raise their standards for teaching and learning,” and urged everyone to “hold all of our schools to these high standards.” Unfortunately, standing in the way of these high standards, are the standardized tests prescribed by NCLB to measure what standards are being met, or not.

Testing basic reading and math skills is something that has always been done in our educational system (think Iowa Basic Skills) and is not difficult nor particularly complicated. Have a child take a short, standardized test, and you will quickly and surely know at what grade level he or she is reading or doing math. It is by means of standardized tests that we know American students have fallen behind so much of the rest of the world, which Obama acknowledged at the outset of his remarks.

Yet he goes on to claim that dread of the tests required by NCLB is causing some teachers to “teach to the test,” and some districts to lower their standards. This formulation is cracked. If a test measures reading or math skills, how is teaching to it a bad thing, unless teachers have the actual tests in hand and are giving out the questions and answers, which would be cheating? (One hears many reports of that happening, come to think of it.)

If a district decides to lower its standards, that will be quickly detected by its students’ performance in standardized tests. They measure achievement and create accountability, to which there seems to be a violent allergic reaction in many public educators, whose standards seem all too often to be only measurable by money spent and people hired – “35,000 schools modernized!”

Obama laments that anxiety over test scores leads to the elimination of courses like history and science, but any mastery of those subjects depends upon basic skills of reading and math, measured and proven by the tests. If, unlike in any other system in the world or U.S. history, our system must throw out all other subjects in order to teach basic math and reading, then it is a colossal failure and should be scrapped. This is more nonsense, and the president should be ashamed to read it to the multitudes, whom he is treating like dunces.

Singling out a fourth grade teacher in Washington D.C. Obama says, “with these changes we’re making, he’s going to be able to focus on teaching his 4th graders math in a way that improves their performance instead of just teaching to a test.” But the only change made was to eliminate the pesky tests which measure whether the 4th graders can do math and at what level. If he’s not teaching to that test he’s not teaching math.

Basic math and reading skills haven’t changed for centuries. Teaching them does not require “modernized schools,” the latest text books, or armies of teachers with smaller class loads. NCLB does not prohibit innovation in teaching nor any particular methods. Its one virtue is that it demands accountability by testing which measures the mastery of basic skills.

The president claims that he will improve the system by encouraging innovation, which NCLB doesn’t discourage, but then eliminates the testing which might measure what that innovation has accomplished. For voicing this errant nonsense to a national audience he should be made to sit in the corner and wear a dunce cap.




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