Rona Wilensky was founding principal of New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado and served for 17 years before retiring in 2009. She is now a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. This post appeared in Education News Colorado, December 8, 2009.
According to The New York Times, a new federal study shows that nearly a third of the states lowered their academic proficiency standards in recent years to stay ahead of sanctions under NCLB. And this, in a nutshell, tells you everything you need to know about conventional school reform.
Raise the standards, raise the bar, raise requirements, raise expectations, raise the stakes. This has been the mantra of school reform for the last 26 years since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. And all of it is based on magical thinking that somehow raising any of these will actually change teaching and learning. The fact is that when standards, bars, expectations, requirements and stakes are all that is really changed, there are only two possible outcomes. Either more people will get pushed out of the system for not meeting the new higher standard, or the measure of that standard will get watered down.
Not so long ago the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education was presented with a proposal to increase from two to three the number of years of mathematics required for graduation. The proposal was in response to expected changes in state standards as well to similar changes enacted in peer districts. How could Boulder Valley School District hold its head up if it required less math for graduation than was needed for college entrance? To their credit the Board voted the increase down. Their reason? They knew that changing the way math was taught from kindergarten through high school was the only way to prepare all students to take and pass more demanding high school math requirements. In the absence OF such change, the outcome of an increase in requirements would have been either a higher drop out rate, or watered down math classes that all students could nominally pass. And as hard as it was to admit, they knew they did not yet have the resources needed to make the needed changes in mathematics education. And so they resisted the satisfaction of having done something to raise the bar until they could do something to change learning. Would that other policy makers had the same courage.
The new federal study has revealed the NCLB equivalent of watered down curriculum – lower cut scores for defining proficiency. NCLB has led to a maniacal focus on preparation for the tests, to countless episodes of cheating, and to the marginalization of recess, the arts, science and social studies. But it has not apparently led to any changes in learning. Recent NAEP data shows that there was more growth in student learning before NCLB than afterwards.
Is there any hope that reformers will learn from this experience? I doubt it. There are still groups advocating ever more loudly for more rigorous graduation requirements, higher entrance requirements for post secondary education and new standards for college completion. In the absence of the tremendous resources actually needed to change K-12 and higher education, the predictable result will be either fewer high school graduates, fewer college admissions or fewer college graduates if the standards hold, or we will see that required courses are watered down and cut off scores for alleged proficiency exams will be lowered so that the reforms will look like they have made a difference. And meanwhile, precious resources in the system will have been diverted from teaching and learning to the requirements of playing the newest high expectations game in town. As sociologist Charles Payne has put it, so much reform, so little change.