How about this. You go to work every day and you work your but off. You are doing a difficult job and there are standards for increasing productivity. If you don’t increase productivity, you could lose your job, or have your pay cut. But you’re not worried because every year you’ve increased your productivity, and you are on your way to increasing productivity again this year. However, your boss comes to you and says that now you have to increase your productivity by a factor of three or maybe even four in order for the increase to count. Now you and everyone else with any sense knows that it is impossible to do that. What do you do? Do you give up? Do you quit and find another job?
This is a choice teachers all over the country face today. For seven years schools have labored under the idiotic rulings of No Child Left Behind that call for increased “competence” every year as measured by standardized tests. As elaborated by the New York Times today, this is now getting more difficult. States were given the option to determine how they were going to raise standards to 100% proficiency in reading by 2014. Many states opted to try relatively small gains at first, then larger gains later on. Now many schools that have been steadily improving by 3-4% every year now much improve by 11-12% in order to be counted as “improving.”
Why did public school bureaucrats make such a decision? Well, there’s the obvious answer that is not written into the New York Times piece…they were idiots who had no concept of statistical measures. Typically, the largest improvements are toward the beginning, then the measures start to regress toward the mean and/or hit a right wall of improvement beyond which no improvement can happen. For instance, if you life weights to increase your strength you will experience rapid increases within a few months. However, as you continue, you achieve a level that you cannot surpass, you max out, or plateau. In other words, your muscles are just not going to get any stronger, no matter what you do. There’s only so strong human muscles can get. The same is true for any statistical measure of improvement. There’s only so much anything can improve.
Then there’s the less idiotic though more naive explanation that is included in the article. Administrators hoped that by this time someone with some sense would have convinced congress (presumably under a more…uh…educated president) to change NCLB to make it more reasonable. This is why studying history is important (though history is usually not something that is tested).
What else does this tell us? It tells us that what has been sold to us as an “objective” way of measuring academic progress is really myth. The standards for what constitutes progress are arbitrary as is the quality of the tests. The Times article points out that states like California and Massachusetts, that have challenging tests are more likely to fail that states like Mississippi that have relatively easier tests. This is not a measure of learning, but rather a measure of how things are being measured. Meaningless!
So now our students and our teachers are going to be penalized regardless of how much they work and how much they improve. They will be penalized for not improving enough! And what do you suppose they are going to do? Here’s my prediction. Look for kids turning away from school, dropping out, or just not trying. Look for quality teachers to leave the school system and do something else where it is possible to succeed.
My theory on this is that the Bush Administration and its allies in Congress have intentionally set up the public school system to fail. Their vision for America is a nation where the wealthy get a quality education and the rest get whatever they can scrounge. It’s a vision of a two tier education system for a two tier society, the haves and the have nots…and as Springsteen once said, “don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”