The new Fordham Foundation report on high-achieving students is causing a lot of chatter. Punchline: They are not excelling under No Child Left Behind. Hard to miss what an asymmetric debate this is. On one hand you have Checker Finn saying that NCLB is dumbing things down and analogizing it to a “three foot hurdle” while on the other you have Charles Murray and folks like Richard Rothstein agreeing and deriding it as a hopelessly utopian scheme because most kids can’t get over such a hurdle anyway.
One reason the debate still has a “say anything” quality to it is that here is a still a great deal of misunderstanding about how the No Child law’s mechanics actually work. But that’s a basically technical problem and here’s a primer on that.
But there is also a belief that schools can do everything at once: That they can close achievement gaps, raise overall achievement, stretch high performing students and help struggling ones all at the same time. As Rick Hess and I wrote in PDK in 2007 all of these pressures create an untenable situation for educators. And increasingly there is a belief that if we just had the right way of measuring we’d be able to do it all. If I had a dollar for each time I hear someone say that “we can do both” I’d be blogging from my cabin in Montana or Key West…
Instead, choices do have to be made. It doesn’t mean that we throw different groups of student under the bus, but any accountability system that holds people accountable for everything holds them accountable for nothing. So choices have to be made about emphasis. And considering the yawning achievement gaps, graduation rate gaps, and outcome gaps that separate poor and minority students from other students, that’s where I’d argue the emphasis should be placed. And, within those groups of students on the wrong end of the achievement gap are plenty who with better schools would also be recognized as gifted.
There are certainly steps that policymakers can take to help lessen the zero-sum nature of these choices. They can, for instance, also reward schools that do a great job with high achieving students as well as closing gaps (something they can do under No Child Left Behind now but few do in a meaningful way). Or, we can think about various non-regulatory accountability strategies, for instance giving parents more choices within the public system, to create some countervailing forces. And of course, states and localities should invest in programs for gifted kids and ways to stretch them.
But ultimately you have to put the accountability “load” somewhere. In other words someone has to be accountable for some specific outcomes for kids at some point or you have a system that does, as Congressman George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee is fond of saying, just lead to kids and schools always sort of “getting there” but never actually arriving.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t measure better than we do today – and a quiet success story of the last 7 years is just how much better the data infrastructure in states is than it was when No Child Left Behind was first passed. We can, thankfully, do a lot more now than in 2001. But it does mean that we need to separate the technical aspects of measuring from the hard choices that have to be made. In other words, this is as much a political problem as a technical one, if not much more so. And the evidence is pretty compelling that there is not an enormous appetite out there to do that and in fact powerful forces working against real action on this front. It’s part of what leads to the debate about whether or not schools are part of the problem here.
So while I’m certainly not thrilled at what Fordham is finding (although anyone who has looked at a lot of school or state data can’t be too surprised, evidence of a ceiling effect has been evident for some time) some realism is necessary here. As Rick and I (and we disagree on the policy remedies here) wrote:
…would-be reformers routinely ignore or forget this fundamental truth, inviting confusion, mixed messages, and facile talk. The ugly truth is that we cannot do everything; this means we must choose what we can and should do at a given time. It means accepting disagreement and abandoning the tempting dream that we might reach consensus on what needs to be done if only good-hearted souls would examine the right data. And it means acknowledging that every policy decision will yield both winners and losers. What we need in 2007, 2008, and beyond is not bland reassurance or misguided efforts to paper over real divides, but honest and informed debate about whose needs take precedence at a given moment, what to do about it today, and what to leave for tomorrow.