No Child Left Behind – The Problem Is Not The Policy, It’s Us

Everyone not chattering about the job numbers is chattering about this morning’s New York Times article on No Child Left Behind and the waivers that are increasingly freeing states from its requirements.  In general some waivers were necessary – and some were issued during the Bush Administration, too – because the law was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007 and 2012 is now half over.

But when you read stuff like this line in The Times story, you can’t help but wonder how much of all this is “everybody knows” and how much is based in facts:

“[No Child Left Behind] has been derided for what some regard as an obsessive focus on test results, which has led to some notorious cheating scandals.

Perhaps, but were there cheating scandals before No Child?  Yes.  In fact, it’s been a problem since the beginning of efforts to increase accountability in education. Before we get to that, here’s a quick primer on how the law actually works:

First, states have to establish standards – that was a requirement of President Clinton’s 1994 version of the law.  Some standards are good and useful for educators while others are vague, too voluminous, or an exercise in trivial pursuit.  States then have to test students annual in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Again, some tests are good, some aren’t.  But – and this is key – what the law requires is that an increasing percentage of students reach the “proficient” level on those tests.  What it means to be proficient varies by state and is often not rigorous at all (pdf).

What the law does not require is that 100 percent of students are proficient.  It doesn’t even have a hard deadline of 2014 because of all the various provisions to give schools credit for making progress.  And all students don’t have to take the tests – there are provisions for the normal absenteeism that occurs, students with serious disabilities, English language learners and so forth.

So what the law actually requires is that – over a 16 year timespan since 2001 – about 92 percent of students achieve the “proficient” level on their state tests in order for their schools to make what’s called “adequate yearly progress.” And the law’s big policy shift was requiring that same level of performance for minority, poor, and other traditionally under-served student groups so schools couldn’t hide behind averages that masked persistent low-performance for some students. Whether the tests have any consequence for students is a state by state decision, the federal law is silent on that.  And the law doesn’t use the term failing.  Schools not making progress are deemed ‘needing improvement.’ That little detail makes it all look a little different given that even average or good schools can need improvement on some measures.

More than a decade after the law’s passage there are a bunch of things that I think should be changed or refined.  When the law was passed states did not have the data systems they do now, for instance.  But here’s the more basic question: When have we ever had a widespread increase in accountability in education without it being a three-ring circus, policymakers walking back from the brink, and a general bemoaning of things?  And how much of all that owes to specifics of policy and how much to broader capacity problems in the system?

Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools.  None of the people cheering or jeering today’s article would put up for a moment with having their own kids in schools that couldn’t generally meet the proficiency bars states have established. That’s something they quietly agree on. This is about other people’s children and what’s good enough for them. And that, rather than any one feature of the policy, is probably the root of the problem.

57 Replies to “No Child Left Behind – The Problem Is Not The Policy, It’s Us”

  1. Thanks for your informative and perceptive comment, Andy.

    The sad news is the Administration is agreeing to waivers that allow vague and actually unenforceable conditions in the future in return for relief today from pressure for educating disadvantaged kids.

    Though this article is full of error and ideology, as you point out, it is right about one thing: the pressure from NCLB to educate kids of color and poor kids is severely weakened.

    I guess we’ll have to wait for 2 or 3 years of NAEP data to see the real impact. But will we have the will or capacity to put Humpty Dumpty back together again then?

    It’s hard not to be pessimistic.

  2. This is a thoughtful defence of a law I have repeatedly attacked. I am rather embarrassed if I mistakenly took the goal to be 100% (clearly impossible) rather than 92% (challenging, but conceivable) proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014. Still, one would like to see nominated a state where the law is working well, and pretty nearly as intended, to improve outcomes for students, without unacceptable costs having been imposed. Perhaps my practical experience with the harmful consequences of the law has been largely a result of California’s implementation of it rather than with the specifically federal requirements. Nonetheless, if the law creates incentives for school districts to prefer and steer resources towards some students (say, those currently testing as “basic” in their proficiency who, with a little more help, might raise their scores into the proficiency range) at the expense of others (typically those at the bottom and the top of the distribution), we run a grave danger of reducing the support for our public schools from those families whose children are suddenly being discriminated against because their objectives for their children no longer align with the school’s and district’s institutional interests.

  3. The degree of shift varies by state, but I believe that the waivers raise proficiency standards and reduce the cell sizes for subgroups. More schools will be held accountable for their performance gaps. How is the the pressure to educate students of color and economically disadvantaged students reduced?

    From an LEA perspective, I see the external expectation on us increasing noticeably.

  4. Very nice. The goal isn’t even really 92%, though. Safe Harbor waters down the goal of 100% proficiency to the point of meaninglessness. Schools can (and do, according to some of my work in California) raise subgroup achievement by a couple of points a year (in many cases, a handful of students) and avoid accountability ad infinitum. But the general point is a good one.

  5. The best description of the current “reform” is that it is indeed like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” No phrase is more apt.

    What’s happening today is that the better motivated parents are being given opportunities to move their children out of low-performing schools. However, these kids are often herded into all black test-prep-drill academies or poorly run charters that hardly prepare them for college. And of course, the truly disabled, non-English speakers and the neglected are left back in overcroweded, dangerous traditional schools.

    It’s interesting that few people talk about authentic reforms which would include universal preschool, small, SAFE, ORDERLY classes with two teachers (like the schools attended by the “reformers'” children) subsized housing in ALL communities, open enrollment (i.e. public school vouchers) and private school scholarships offered by private individuals and corporations.

    Today another teacher and I are going to the home of my eight-month-old grandchildren to help with “language development.” Although the twins seem fine to me, their mom and dad (my son) are afraid they will fall behind in language, as twins often do. “They should be making more consonant and vowel sounds” stated my daughter-in-law, who spoke “with someone at Memorial Hospital.” So my friend and I will go over and speak, recite and sing to each baby. Everything that can be done for them will be done.

    The point of that story is that the education of a child is a very complex undertaking and one that begins at birth. Most parents know very well that what happens to an infant in the first few years is crucial to his later success in school. This is heavily supported by research. Simply put, a child who experiences arrested brain development due to early illness, neglect, malnutrition or abuse is unlikely to excel in school, no matter how excellent his teachers.

    The message that “reformers” are sending to parents – that schools alone can educate a child- is fraudulent and dangerous. All parents should be made very aware of their own importance, as well as the importance of the informal education that takes place in the home.

    But one good thing about the pendulum of “reform” is that we know soon enough that something doesn’t work. Soon, it will be evident to everyone that the privileged, healthy, well-cared for child usually does well in school, while the neglected, hungry, abused, ill child usually does not. It’s not rocket science.

  6. As always, well said Linda. I particularly agree with your following comment: “The message that “reformers” are sending to parents – that schools alone can educate a child- is fraudulent and dangerous. All parents should be made very aware of their own importance, as well as the importance of the informal education that takes place in the home.”

    Having been both a teacher and a student, I am continually amazed that people think teachers alone (without the help of parents, administrators or the students themselves) can create a perfect student. In addition, as Linda pointed out, there are so many reasons that a student may struggle in school, including things far in the past such as his or her early childhood environment.

    I say this not to be a pessimist, but solely to be a realist. And I know that, as a realist, holding schools 100% responsible for academic performance of students is ridiculous and creates all sorts of negative, unintended (?) repercussions for the students and teachers in these affected schools.

  7. Thanks, Attorney.

    I don’t think too many people DO believe that teachers alone can create a perfect student. Something else is going on now and we can only hope the taxpayers catch on soon.

  8. What did President Obama, the No Excuses on Education president have to say with the poor employment report:

    Obama, campaigning in Ohio on Thursday, argued that he had inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and that it takes time to turn an economy around.

    Following his example on Central Falls High School teachers from 2 years ago, Obama should be fired.

  9. Power To The Students:

    Less than two weeks after graduating from high school, Diana Rodriguez is staying busy. The Queens teenager is up at 6 a.m. to go for a morning run, work her two summer jobs, and take driving lessons a few months before she is set to start college.

    It’s a heavy workload — but it’s not the biggest responsibility the 17-year-old has taken on. This spring, she led classmates at Grover Cleveland High School in a fight for the school’s life.

    The school was one of 33 the city planned to close and reopen using an overhaul process, known as “turnaround,” that included changing the school’s name and replacing half of the school staff.

    Rodriguez was enraged. Already the senior class president, she sprang into action galvanizing her classmates to protest the turnaround plans.

    “I wouldn’t stand for it,” said Rodriguez. “You can’t mess with my education – education is a right.”

    That was Rodriguez’s rallying cry as she joined other students in schools facing closure across the city in a group called Student Activists United.

  10. Details details. THe one thing you can be sure of…the one factor that never changes…is that the Teacher’s Union will be utterly opposed to any meaningful reform of any type.

    Even the Dems realize that the Union has become a reactionary and greedy embarrassment. Their challenge is to cut the Union’s power and reform K-12….all while not irritating the Union which would put the Dem’s PRIMARY source of campaign funding in jeopardy. It’s known as sleeping with the devil, and the Dems have only themselves to blame for it.

  11. Minority,poor and other traditionally under-served student groups are often not underfunded but seemingly overfunded.I recently heard New Jersy Govener Chris Christie say that in some poor and minority school districts in northern part of the state they were spending well in excess of $20,000 per student per year which is more than twice the national average and with horrible results.I know that the same applies in the DC school district.The rural school districts are often funded at about a third or less of the urban poor and minority districts with better results.

  12. Monopolies don’t work. Their products aren’t always terrible, but they are far less responsive to customers and changing requirements. We’ve given our Microsoft government schools far too much control over both themselves and our future. They have created several generations of economic illiterates, which coincidentally enables them to defend their taxpayer-funded protectorate. Implosion is the only cure.

  13. NCLB is only part of the problem. What this article doesn’t address is the content that students are not being taught, which is reading, writing, and arithmetic. I teach college composition, and the abysmal state of writing skills for a large number of incoming freshmen speaks volumes about what is not being taught, especially in public schools. Almost without exception, my best and brightest students are those who come from private schools or are home schooled. A push for accountability is not in and of itself a bad thing, but accountability will never be worthwhile unless what is being taught is actually increasing students’ skills and real capabilities, and the current public education model, heavily union influenced, ain’t it.

  14. I enjoyed this article and many comments.

    If we assume 60M school-age children, then the NCLB goal assumes 4.8M children cannot read, write, or perform basic math. Tests may not be the answer – but 4.8M remains a very big part of the question.

    Who is to blame? That question is a problem. It searches for scapegoats on whom we can all shower scorn, and then go back to ignoring a problem we have dumped on others.

    What is THE issue? Another misguided framing of the challenge. There are many issues and many myths that need to be confronted in my opinion. Here are just a few:

    1) Without Parents you have no Village:
    Teachers and Schools can’t “fix” the 84% of black children in Chicago born to unwed mothers with no father to be found to help model standards, expectations, good habits, manners, self respect, and most important a nurturing safe family.

    I am now in favor of ANY 2 adults legally and morally committed to ANY child’s success. I do not care if they are Gay, Straight, Atheist, Illegal Alien, Conservative, Liberal, Vegan, Born Again, Hippies, etc.

    2) Money is probably not a big part of the answer
    In real terms the facts show dramatic increases in education spending since the 60’s, with smaller average class sizes. $20,000 a year is more than enough to educate children – most people pay less than that for a year of college.

    I live a half mile from an Amish schoolhouse – I am willing to bet they only spend a couple thousand per student and I bet they get at least NCLB results.

    And all those students come from the following “traditionally under-served environment”: no electricity and indoor plumbing, no TV or Internet, no Air Conditioning, no cars, home sewn clothes, no shoes in the summer, etc.`

    3) The real world we are preparing students for, keeps score – get over it.

    4) If Teachers want the professional respect they so rightly deserve – they need to stop protecting those who devalue their profession. There are no tenured heart surgeons. The Rolling Stones get paid more because they are better than the band at the local bar. Even some politicians can get voted out of office. If you fail as a teacher – you are not a bad person – just a poor teacher – get a job doing something else.

    5) We may have more of a 90/10 problem than an 80/20 problem. Perhaps we should focus on measuring schools on dimensions that recognize the most challenging schools – triage as they say in emergency medicine. Not as an excuse – but as a way to focus our efforts. I have heard Arne Duncan talk about several thousands of High Schools that produce a huge percentage of dropouts.

    6) College preparation is not the goal of NCLB. We have a big enough challenge just getting reading and math to a level where a student can graduate from high school – a pathetic low standard in this global economy – but at least we have to achieve that. Criticizing NCLB because it does not ensure creative thinking is like throwing out the Drivers Test because it does not ensure the ability to compete in the Daytona 500.

  15. No Child Left Behind had good intentions, but does not appear to have worked. It should be repealed, especially the extra funding part that went with it. No reason to continue to reward our educational system for its failures

  16. NCLB was a good goal, but unfortunately left the implementation up to state officials that know nothing about child development and everything about data. Data is meaningful as a tool, but reveals very little about students or teachers or the situations in which they find themselves. As a teacher I see high school students who cannot read, write or speak on what I would consider age level, but who test out as proficient. We have dumbed down advanced classes to make them more accessible for ethnically desirable demographic groups, which means we are lowering the bar for everyone.

    I personally despise these programs, which are often in upscale suburbs, that expect children to be reading by first grade. Studies show that most boys aren’t mature enough to read fluently until they are nearly seven. And yet I see age inappropriate rules, expectations and assignments put out my my district and those that surround us. It is as if the Victorian ideals of the tabula rasa and molding children into tiny versions of adults has returned. This attitude plays out with everything from sports, where parents spend money for special training, to age related situations where parents hold their children out of school for a year so that they will be more mature and therefore (hopefully)smarter than their classmates. This constant gaming of the system has to end.

  17. Here’s a thought. How about we move toward once again making educators (both teachers and administrators) accountable to parents? What parent doesn’t want their child to be well educated?

    Even school districts that are relatively small (compared to behemoths like, say, Los Angeles) are still too big. In a relatively small one in the LA area (separate from the LA school district) I thought I should get involved, as my son was in public school.

    I remembered going to PTA meetings with my mother (she was a teacher) – it was a large meeting where parents questioned teachers and administrators on curriculum, discipline, etc. It was serious input, and if they parents weren’t satisfied with the results, they’d be back at later meetings to demand answers and results. I went to a PTA meeting at my son’s school – it was 6-7 parents talking about bake sales; it was a booster club.

    I went to a couple of meetings of the school board. There were questions and comments from parents, but it was clear that it was really just a chance for them to vent. The board would do what it chose, subject only to what was best for their future political opportunities (which, with the exception of 1-2 sincere board members, was why they were there – the school board was the most convenient starting point for a career in local politics).

    Plus, it paid well. I tried to find out how much board members were paid for meeting monthly to vote on proposals prepared by staff. I was only able to dig out the grand total in salaries, because the individual salaries were “confidential.” (Confidential? Weren’t we, as taxpayers, paying them?) Averaged out to about $200,000 per year for a part-time job. I’m sure the money came in handy when financing that next step up the political ladder.

    Fortunately, the education my son got in the particular schools he went to was good – other schools in the district, not so much. Plus my son was smart and conscientious by nature – he would have been OK almost anywhere (almost – some schools might have been so dangerous as to make it impossible for any kid to get a good education).

    So, that’s my rant. Anecdotal, I know, but I think it indicates where we’ve gotten to. Parents are told, “Don’t concern yourselves. We’ve got this, we’re professionals. We know how to educate your kids.” Sometimes true; sometimes not. Unfortunately, parents have too little latitude to do anything about it when their kids are not be educated well (or at all).

  18. “Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools.”

    That is why the political system is a poor choice to host education. All education should be privatized, and would then be directly accountable to the students and parents.

  19. Anything that exposes underperforming public employees to criticism is to be praised. I’m retired but I was a rather successful State leader of a very large union of public employees, who like others mostly want a chance to do a good job for fair rewards. Absent competition, any halfway democratic government is going to be riddled with special interest requirements and programs, which imho are at the root of poor service in many ‘public’ businesses, schools in particular.

    It’s actually a good thing for the public employee to have some of the weaknesses of the systems that they work for exposed to the light of day.

  20. “…universal preschool, small, SAFE, ORDERLY classes with two teachers (like the schools attended by the “reformers’” children) subsized housing in ALL communities…”

    And just who is going to pay for all that? You’re talking about BILLIONS of dollars nation-wide. And why should people already struggling with mortgage payments be forced to subsidise others?

    “Although the twins seem fine to me, their mom and dad (my son) are afraid they will fall behind in language, as twins often do.”

    My wife had triplets in 1996, and made it a personal rule to talk to the kids incessantly, explaining everything even to babies only days old, and NEVER use baby talk. Now, sixteen years later, the kids have larger vocabularies and use better English than some of their high school teachers. It really is up to the parents–you don’t need “experts.”

  21. Henry:

    Yes, authentic reform will be costly, but economists tell us that supporting an uneducated person or criminal for life costs us a LOT more than helping an impoverished family. Longitudinal studies have shown that providing high-quality preschool for poor children is cost effective because more of these children become working members of society later on.

    Subsidized housing: We already spend billions on this but much of it is in impoverished neighborhoods, which compounds the problems in those areas. In England there are many “estates” spread throughout the country, with duplexes and fourplexes mixed in with middle-class homes. Also, our country has a strong Judeo-Christian culture, which means many of us were brought up to believe it is right to share what we have with those less fortunate.

    Twins and Triplets: Yes, it’s up to the parents. That was my point. But believe me when I say this is not common sense for all parents. Many are not aware of how important it is to “talk to the kids incessantly.” What do we do to help parents who let their babies watch TV for hours each day, knowing that the children are likely not developing as well as they should? Do we just say “Oh well” and pay to support them once they get to adulthood; or do we try to offer help to the parents at a critical time in the lives of their children?

    Read “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore. How much do you think it will cost to keep the two brothers in prison for their murder convictions? How much would it have cost to have paid for their mother to complete coursework at Johns Hopkins? How much to provide day care for the boys while their mom worked? Which course of action would cost more? (paying for prison or paying for tuition and child care) Why?

    Another excellent book is “The Invisible Thread” by Laura Schroff. How can we help the Maurices in our country? Should we help them? Why or why not?

    Henry, almost all of us “who are already struggling with mortgages” are already paying a huge amount to support an increasing number of adults who are in prison or otherwise unable to care for themselves. We know that 25% of our children are in poverty and we know that many of these children don’t graduate from high school or make it into the working world. It is imperative for the strength of our country to find a way to improve the education of these children. We need to get rid of the status quo of “education by zip code.” Although charters can help a small percentage who seek something better, teachers are concerned about ALL children. What can we do for them?

  22. There are some things in this life that are beyond the reach of the most benevolent government. Show me a home headed by a single mother in poverty, where no husband or father is in sight, where learning is not valued, and where a host of other social pathologies reside, and I will show you children whose life chances have been compromised profoundly, the subsequent efforts of the schools notwithstanding. It is fascinating to listen to discussions of educational practice: they focus on leadership, on money, on policies, on the “system,” on everything except the one variable that we all know to be critical: the role of parents and the family. So let us agree to hold the “school system” and the “political system” accountable. But let’s further agree to start with parents. And families. Or is that too hard?

  23. Anyone who has had to work within this law knows that it is a travesty. The tests are a joke, and have only succeeded in having classrooms where kids are taught how to answer simple questions requiring hardly any thought outside of filling in a circle on a scantron sheet. So kids are labeled “proficient”–but proficient in what exactly? Most people don’t have a clue what the answer to that is. What we have done in the process is “dumbed down” education for all students, and have ‘left’ our best and brightest students far, far behind. I truly think we have set this country back an entire generation due to the damage done by NCLB, and that comes from firsthand experience in public education. Thankfully, most now see the horrible error in judgement that this law was from the beginning, as we are finally beginning to spend time and money on reclaiming our gifted and talented students from the doldrums of this insanely stupid piece of legislation. While this article makes some logical points, what it also does is miss the point that we are all better off that this law is slowly being phased out, albeit one piece at a time.

  24. From the headline I thought this was going to be an article about American parenting and the decline of American work ethic, especially intellectual work ethic.

  25. Some people don’t realize that we spend much more than $20k/year per child. Many of the so-called underprivileged kids are born out of wedlock to young women (who keep having kids without being able to support them). We, the taxpayers foot the bill for:

    pre-natal care
    medical expenses
    food stamps
    welfare money
    school lunches (and breakfasts)
    extra school resources (reading specialists & guidance councelors)

    At what point do we address the root cause: the baby-momma problem? When one segment of society is PAID to raise their children and they do not fulfill their side of the bargain, AND continue to produce children, that is more of a problem than testing.

  26. Much like the saying “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others”

    “Standardized testing is the worst form of education measurement except for all the others”

    NCLB is an imperfect law and policy framework but for all it’s flaws it DID introduce an accountability metric that “appears” to be working somewhat.

    AND I know all the hand wringer quotes:
    “but we teach to the test now” yes … and what would you propose to replace the test??? a survey perhaps?

    “but we don’t know how much the kids are really learning” yes perhaps but outside of testing how can we ‘best’ measure ‘learning’??? maybe a group project?

    “but we can’t test soft skills or humanities accurately” yes… and humanities coursework will help us make more iPhones? No?… exactly what should we be teaching then? My money is on the skills useful in the 21st century… psst it’s called STEM

    At the end of the day we the American Public realize how large the mammoth funding bill we are paying for public education… AND we the public in our own way WILL require some accounting for this huge sum. Education of the future WILL be held accountable. The most likely avenue will be standardized testing. I don’t “like” this answer but it is the reality we live in.

    To all the public Educators out there I have a question: Knowing “NOW” how much scrutiny is to be applied to public education after the calls for more funding for “underfunded public education”.

    — Would you still push for more funding if it meant MORE laws like NCLB to audit the effectiveness of the money thrown at public education???

    Good Question no?

  27. My wife taught HS to ghetto kids. I used to help her grade papers. I remember some of the freshmen and sophomores who were reading at the fourth grade level. It was very upsetting. We used to sit around with the other teachers and try to “figure out” what to do about what was going on. NCLB seemed like at least a step in the right direction, to help deal with the lack of accountability at the lower levels. But as so many here point out, this not a problem “society” will solve. So many of my wife’s students had criminal records, parents and siblings in jail, and obvious psychological problems that we knew that we were in way over our heads. These were phenomena of horrific dimensions by the time the child first set foot in a school. In some cases we are not dealing with an “education” problem as much as a social breakdown problem.

  28. Linda, your comments really resonate with me- thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience! I am a mom of 3 bright children and we are a military family. I am the parent who is motivated to “do more” to make sure my kids are in good schools. However, I see the kids whose parents are not motivated to do this at school. This results in the teacher spending 80% of their time with these kids to try to get them up to “standard”. Having 2 teachers in the classroom at the elementary level would help immensely with this problem. Why is it a problem? Well, ask yourself what the rest of the class of 7-year-olds is doing while the teacher is working intensively with the other students who are behind. The districts we have lived in that are wealthier districts have all had 2 teachers. The district we are currently in is a lower-income district and does not. I think it is obvious that there are more kids in lower-income districts who need extra time and help to develop their language art skills. However, the help needs to start before kids reach Kindergarten. Providing pre-school options and even daycare options for working parents is essential. Ensuring a safe, nurturing environment for children in those formative years could go a long way in preparing them to be successful when they start school. The military does an excellent job providing subsidized child-care and pre-school for working parents; this model could be used as an example of how to implement such a system. As much as I believe parents are a huge part of the problem, and could be the solution, I still think there are things our society can do to help. After all, we will all have to live with the results in the end.

  29. Thanks, Janet.

    One huge benefit that schools in wealthy areas have are parents like you who volunteer in the classroom. These parents are rarely mentioned in our discourse on education but many are well-educated people who essentially lower the teacher/student ratio. This is likely one of the reasons that wealthy suburban schools often get the same results as expensive private schools. In my grandchildren’s classrooms I often see two or three parents working with small groups, freeing the teacher to concentrate on a small group herself. I can’t recall seeing a single classroom disruption.

    Yes, I’ve heard that military schools are a lot more successful with low-income children than regular public schools. Why do you think this model is not used in urban schools?

  30. Many posters are correct that teachers alone cannot fix education; teachers cannot force children to learn. The problem is also clearly not funding – out of the top 20 industrialized nations, Americans spend near the top per student for public education (2nd) but get results near the bottom (18th). More government funding since the 60’s has NOT made the situation better.

    A huge part of the problem is a dysfunctional culture of poverty and a lack of value in education. Many public schools are nothing but day care centers for delinquents. Teachers cannot replace cruddy parents (or lack there-of). Education is often dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

    Furthermore, social programs tend to do more harm than good, because they ENABLE disfunctional behavior and failure. When is the last time there was a social program that actually resulted in better performance and better behavior?

    My proposal is simple: accountability and competition for BOTH teachers and students. If teachers don’t perform, fire them. If a student doesn’t want to perform, and fails to respond to a performance improvement plan, fire them so they don’t ruin school for the rest of the kids. Restructure social programs so they stop incentivizing failure and victim-itis (e.g. stop rewarding illegitimate babies). Some WILL be left behind, but the great majority will get a better education. Life is NOT fair, stop ruining public education for all by trying to make it so.

  31. And to answer Linda’s question about why military schools are more successful with low-income children: because parents are held more accountable by their chain of command, and the schools can “fire” the students.

  32. Been thinking about some of Linda’s comments, particularly the ones about how it is cheaper to support an impoverished family than to support an uneducated person or criminal for life. Unfortunately, they are too often one and the same. many types of support to “impoverished families” ARE supporting uneducated/criminals.

    Social programs are very tricky and usually fail to produce self-sufficient, productive members of society – and the proof is that for about 60 years now the poverty rate hasn’t changed much despite trillions of dollars in federal, state, and local social spending of all different types.

    if you subsidize failure, you get more of it.

    as for placing subsidized housing in nice areas, I cannot think of a single social program that more infringes on the property rights of productive citizens. it lowers the property values and makes the “nice” area more like the “bad” area.

    Years ago, a friend used to live in an expensive apartment building in the DC area, which had to set aside units for subsidized housing. The low-life’s in the subsidized units would leave empty grocery carts in the hallways!

  33. Yes, my politician son tells me that residents would “fight subsidized housing to the death” and do; so I know that’s true. Despite this, there are laws that require some subsidized housing in each community but these laws are universally ignored. I’d like to see them obeyed.

    I am not speaking of a huge (or even a small) apartment building in someone’s neighborhood. No one wants that (myself included) for reasons that you give. I am thinking of small dwellings (let’s say a duplex) per square mile. In addition to this, residents would have to apply to live in these apartments so preference could be given to law-abiding families who are just down on their luck. This would also serve the purpose of getting poor kids out of impoverished, dangerous neighborhoods and schools.

    Because I go into the homes of impoverished people for my charity, (Society of St. Vincent de Paul) I am well-aware of government programs that actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For example, I am thinking of one mother of six who gets money from Social Security because four of the children are “disabled.” I have placed the word in quotes because the kids seem normal to me. From my teaching days I know there is an effort to have children labeled as “disabled” in order to get the money. So this really is a problem that should be fairly easy to correct.

    That said, we can’t just turn our backs on the poor. For one thing, we can’t afford to. The money we are now shelling out for imprisoned and dependent adults and children is really hurting us. Other countries have done a better job at assisting their impoverished citizens and I believe we can too. If someone asked me, this is what I’d do for the young, able-bodied mother with the six kids:

    I’d give her a choice of attending community college full time or taking a government job full time. She would be provided with child care at the college or job. Her “disabled” children would be required to attend school (special programs if necessary) and would not be permitted to be “home schooled” as they are now. (Basically these kids have dropped out with the financial encouragement of the government.)

    I just heard this morning that the United States is still number one in “innovation” so our public school system has worked well for many of us. But it has failed our poorest children. It’s in our nation’s best interest to find a way to help these kids – ALL of them.

  34. Linda, I agree with some of what you have said. However, where I strongly disagree is where you offer someone who has made poor choices a free college education or a government job. Government jobs SHOULD have some value and service to taxpayers, not just be another form of welfare. Government already tends to be inefficient and has too many hiring quotas with no respect for performance, let’s not make it worse. And why does this person get to go to community college for free when some kids who did not get knocked up have to work their butts off to go to college?

    Our first mistake was subsidizing “disability” without verifying it.

    As for other countries, they have different cultures when it comes to accepting failure and incompetence. Norway is made up of Norwegians and Japan is made up of Japanese, and they tend to expect more from their students.

  35. As for subsidized housing, just remember that not only does the taxpayer, via the government, government subsidize the housing, but the local productive citizens also do. In America, I HATE subsidized housing, and mass transit, because they lower my quality of life and bring dangerous scum and villains into where my family lives.

  36. Clarifiaction to last post: the local productive citizens subsidize subsidized housing not just in taxes, but in reduced quality of life and safety.

  37. Joe, do you have any poor people in your family? Although my family is predominantly middle class with a few rich people, we also have some members who are very poor. All of these poor people (every one of them) is a decent person who has suffered job loss, illness or disability. Two of them were born with mild retardation. They are not “scum” and “villains” and they do not lower the quality of life in the towns and cities where they live. Most live in middle-class communities, probably because they are white and have better-off relatives.

    I can’t fault you for thinking as you do because it’s what you read in the media and see on TV. And, yes, there is a subculture of poverty in our country where individuals have been on welfare for generations. However, if you would work with the poor as I do, you would see that the majority of them are poor because of job loss, poor education and illness or disabilities;… “but for the grace of God…” These people need our help.

    Still, I do agree with you when you say, “When you subsidize failure, you get more of it.” We need to find a better way to reward the kind of hard work and effort that lead to success.

    The bottom line is this: 25% of our children are in poverty, the highest in the advanced world. If we don’t succeed in helping these children, we know that many will grow up to be dependent in prison or at home. Other countries have succeeded in reducing the number of children in poverty and we can too. I know we’ve tried but we’ve gone about it in the wrong way.

    One poor family I know consists of a grandma and grandpa living on a small pension and raising three orphaned grandchildren. They can take care of the children’s basic needs but wish they could move into a “nicer” (i.e. safer) neighborhood. Would you object to a family like this?

  38. Linda,

    To answer why military schools are more successful- I’m not really sure. I know the military offers full daycare at reduced rates based on household income. I used this option when both my husband and I worked and it gave us a relatively inexpensive, safe and enriching environment for our kids. The daycare had educational benefits such as age-appropriate enrichment activities and even a pre-K program to prepare kids for school. If more urban areas had affordable childcare like this, I think it would better prepare the kids for Kindergarten and school in general. The daycare centers are all part of the military so they are federal government and are subject to inspections and standards. Unfortunately, it seems that many areas do not offer affordable childcare and that does not leave working parents many options. Obviously some parents choose to stay home with their children at these ages, but for lower income or single parents who have to work to survive, perhaps this could set their children up for a successful education? Additionally, affordable before and after school programs are also a benefit that the military offers. Some schools offer this as well, but many do not or are not able to accommodate all children . These programs also free parents to work full time jobs while their kids are school age.

  39. Linda, there are so many ways to look at the things you are saying. For example, you say 25% of our children are in poverty – why are so many poor people having children that they cannot afford? Because they aren’t accountable for making bad decisions that harm the rest of society.

    Why should I take bread from my children’s mouths to fed someone who makes bad decisions?

    In the case of the grandparents you cite, you don’t provide enough information. Why are the grandchildren orphaned? Are they well behaved, productive children? Why are they entitled to move somewhere they cannot afford to live?

    I am sure that there are poor who are victims of circumstance, and those are the ones who probably deserve help.

    However, there are also poor people who are the victims of bad decision making. There are also a lot of “poor” milking the system for disability and food stamps (now EBT cards).

    Furthermore, there are a lot of scum and villainy, at least among American underclass. The violence in American inner cities is shocking. They kill each other like flies and it spills over into “normal” areas.

    As for my attitudes, it has nothing to do with media. It has everything to do with seeing first hand violent crime in an American big city, and the dysfunctional behavior enabled by social programs. It comes from seeing American children complain about academics when elsewhere kids are striving to get good scores on state exams so they can get the education Americans just throw away. It comes from seeing taxpaying professional people pay for public schools that they can’t send their children to because they are too dangerous and the curriculum is so dumbed down.

    I wouldn’t presume to judge your family in any way. And I would hope that the poor who are in poverty due to circumstances beyond their control get some help.

    But there are too many excuses.

  40. Janet, thanks for your response. You sound like the kind of mom who wants to help other people’s children. You’ll be richly rewarded for doing so.

    Joe, well let’s agree to help some of the children of the poor. Most of them are innocent.

    Have you ever seen the celebrated British documentary “7-Up?” In it is a poor mixed-race child named Simon, who is in an orphanage because his father is absent and his mom can’t care for him. When the British people first saw this documentary, they sent loads of gifts to this poor child who had so little. Once they saw a real child and his suffering, they were moved to help him. The same can be said for the American people. We are among the most generous in the world so once our people see that the vast majority of our impoverished children are totally innocent and desperately in need of our help, they will want to extend a hand. These children are part of our country, so when they prosper, we all do. We must think of them as “our children.”

    I DO understand your point of view and agree with it in part (No one wants a criminal in the neighborhood) so I hope you’ll consider mine. The grandparents I referred to took on the care of three grandchildren when both parents died. In my experience I have found that very poor people are mostly like the rest of us, only without money.

    You might enjoy the “Up” documentaries (the subjects are now 56 years old) as well as the books A Hope in the Unseen, The Other Wes Moore and The Invisible Thread (Schraff).

  41. Linda, I appreciate your thoughtful response. If politicians were as thoughtful, perhaps they would make social programs a “hand up” to improve skills and behavior instead of a “hand out” to buy votes.

    As it stands today, in my opinion, our public schools and social programs tend not to make things better, and in some cases make things worse.

    The key, though, is parenting. Your example of Simon begs the question WHY could not the mother take care of Simon?

    No government can replace the value of good parenting, but at least they should “first do no harm”.

    In some countries, good parents will not let their children play with children who do not get good grades. In America, I suspect such parents would be called “snobs.”

    In some countries a fistfight is extremely uncommon and creates public uproar. In America children are shooting, stabbing, and beating each other and even their teacher. Why are such children in school? They have no respect for education, themselves, the lives of others, and the rights of the taxpayers paying for the school system.

  42. Joe:

    Simon’s mother suffers from mental illness. He goes to live with her when he is a teenager but the viewer gets the feeling that he is more of the parent because of her disability.

    I agree with much of what you have said, but we can’t afford to turn our backs on the children of which you write. Their failure becomes our failure and weakens the nation.

    Yes, parents are primarily responsible for the care and education of their children and no government program can take their place. However, we have learned from other countries that good government can make a positive difference for the children whose parents are inadequate.

    Janet Maddox gave us some good ideas on what can be done now:

    We can adopt the successful program used in the military. Place two teachers in every classroom, ensure a safe envionment for everyone, and encourage parents like Janet to volunteer in the classroom. Perhaps people like her can even be paid a small stipend for doing so. And of course high-quality child care would make a huge difference for disadvantaged youngsters. The HighScope Perry Preschool Study (preschool through age 40) showed us that high quality preschool provides great longterm benefits (in terms of education and employment) for the participants.

    I hope everyone reading this blog works in some way to improve the life of an innocent American child in need.

  43. I’ve been reading Linda and Joe’s comments on this thread, and I have to say that I agree with each of you, in part.

    Linda: I agree that many children come to school suffering from significant disadvantages. Society can’t simply turn its back on these problems, or expect them all to be fixed by the school system.

    Joe: I agree that we need to take a step back and ask: “WHY do these children have so many problems?” Instead of just trying to fix problems from the back end, we should look forward to trying to prevent these problems in future generations of children. For instance, I think society should make an effort to discourage ill-prepared young adults from having children that they know they can’t support (emotionally or financially). Nowadays, in America, poorer and less-educated people have more children (and have them earlier in life) than highly educated, wealthier people. That’s nuts.

    Enjoying the comment thread and each of your perspectives. Looking forward to reading more in future posts on Eduwonk.

  44. Yes, I think almost all of us would like to see people discouraged from having children until they can care for them. But few of us would approve of China’s methods.

    Does anyone know of a country that has successfully discouraged ill-prepared young adults from having children? If so, what do they do? Thank you.

  45. Linda: I don’t know much about foreign country’s birth rates or patterns, but I sometimes get frustrated by the current education and social policy response of trying to FIX the students who are living in poverty, who often have young, uneducated mothers, rather than trying to PREVENT the problem in the first place. Maybe better access to birth control? Maybe a change in government subsidies? Maybe wide-spread cultural changes?

    I don’t know the solution, but I do know that it is very difficult for children to succeed in school when they come from a low-income household with uneducated, ill-prepared parents. Schools can struggle to fix the problem, but they’re never going to make up for poor parenting and other life struggles faced by these kids before they even arrive at school.

  46. We identified the problem decades ago: Poverty.

    Now we have to do something about it.

    We choose not to.

    It’s that simple.

  47. I agree with both Joe and Linda. As a society, we unfortunately have to make up for a lot of terrible parenting – it’s not the kids’ fault they were born into such bad circumstances. We taxpayers get stuck paying for awful decisions made by irresponsible people.

    I would give free medical exams and free, long-term birth control to every woman who wants it. That’s way cheaper in t he long run than inept mothers giving birth to kids they keep but can’t possibly care for emotionally and financially.

    The maddening thing, though, is that so many of these girls/women WANT to have babies. They want something to love or they think the sperm donor will stay with them if they have his baby. A few days ago, I was discussing this issue with a woman who has a 22 year old daughter. This daughter knows at least eight similar age women who have had babies out of wedlock – on purpose. These are white girls from middle-class families. Our popular culture glamorizes single motherhood, or at the very least admonishes us not to be “judgmental”, even though anyone with common sense and life experience knows that this situation is most often terrible for the babies born to these mothers.

    The bottom line – this is a cultural problem, far more than it is just a matter of eliminating poverty, although we need to do that, too. I’m liberal on some issues, but the idea that irresponsibly bringing babies into the world is actually “personal liberation” should dismay thoughtful liberals as well as conservatives.

  48. At a number of schools serving poorer children, you will find 6 and 7th grade girls getting pregnant , usually by a guy atleast 5 years older than they.

  49. I agree with John Webster’s analysis of the situation and that it’s not just “poverty” that’s the problem, but culture as well.

    On one hand, we don’t want to be judgmental and return to the days where teen mothers were ostracized and kicked out of school, etc. On the other hand, let’s not glamorize the choice to have children when you can’t support them or raise them well.

  50. I spent some time in Kenya on US Navy r/r. I saw many people starving and dying from AIDS in the streets. In talking to my host he put it pretty plainly, “We cannot do many things for many people.”

    The “tensile strength of the political system”? What is that supposed to mean? It is sloganeering. Parents DO NOT WANT IT. Now, if I were a conservative I would claim government intrusion. If I were a liberal I would claim that it violates civil rights.

    The ONLY defenders of this kind of testing are the MASSIVE MONOPOLIES that make hundreds of millions of dollars per year if not billions on NCLB. Entire careers are built on this junk.

    Imagine in 10 years we will have a president who will end mandatory national testing “as we know it”. Parents are NOT convinced that testing is good for their child. Mr. R, your side simply has NOT convinced them that repeated testing and data gathering is education and is good for their child.

    Why, forty years ago there was no testing and the schools were better and the streets were safer and mom stayed at home and the family went to church and the freeways were not crowded and there was no poverty and gas was cheap. Everything was better back then. What has happened to us? Why are we testing so much?

    Whoops. There I go with that forty years ago dream. I sound like a conservative.

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