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Arne Duncan’s Mistaken View of Education and NCLB

25 September 2009 23,330 13 Comments

Yesterday(September 24, 2009)  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered his first major speech about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 1965. The law’s last reauthorization took place in 2002 and resulted in what is known today as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In his speech, Duncan acknowledged that NCLB has significant flaws and promised to work with Congress to correct the problems. But based on this and his previous speeches as well as the actions of the US Department of Education under his leadership, I must say that Arne Duncan’s view of education and NCLB is mistaken and I am afraid this mistaken view will result in another, and possibly worse, version of NCLB.

Duncan believes that “the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards,” according to the Press Release of the Department of Education. And his solution is to have states adopt common standards or national standards and hold schools and teachers accountable for meeting these standards. In fact, the Department of Education is already using over $4 billion of the stimulus funds to “encourage” states to adopt national standards. And coincidentally the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have a joint initiative to develop the so-called common core standards in math and English. The initiative released its first draft this week.

The real problem with NCLB is its definition of education, as I have pointed out in my new book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. Instead of restating what I have said, I lift a chunk of text from the Preface of my book:

NCLB practically defines good education as being able to show good scores in a limited number of subjects. Thus as schools conform to the standardized curriculum and attempt to provide “good education” so defined, children are deprived of opportunities to develop talents in other areas. As well those children who do not perform well on the required tests at the required time are discriminated against because they are considered less able and “at risk.” Theoretically, different schools can teach more than what is mandated. In reality schools must ensure that they do well in areas that affect their reputation and standing, which means the subjects that are counted in standardized testing. It is also theoretically possible to develop standards for a broad range of subjects and activities and require all schools teach the same curriculum nationally or statewide, like what China used to do. But even in the case of China, only subjects that count in the high-stake College Entrance Exam are paid serious attention to. In the U.S., such an effort is not even possible. The Clinton Administration supported the development of national standards for nine subjects but most of them failed to be accepted because of disagreement over what should be included in each subject.

As a result of adopting national standards, schools will produce a homogenous group of individuals with the same abilities, skills, and knowledge. Such a result will be disastrous to America and Americans because as globalization and technology continue to change the world,

America needs a citizenry of creative individuals with a wide range of talents to sustain its tradition of innovation. Americans need talents and abilities that are not available at a lower price elsewhere on earth. American education, despite its many problems, has at least the basics that support the production of a more diverse pool of talents. However these basics are being discarded by NCLB and similarly spirited reform efforts.

The spirit of NCLB also denies the real cause of education inequality—poverty, funding gaps, and psychological damages caused by racial discrimination—by placing all responsibilities on schools and teachers. While schools can definitely do a lot to help children overcome certain difficulties, their influence has limits.

In a way, the reforms that aim to save America are actually putting America in danger. NCLB is sending American education into deeper crisis because it is likely to lead increasing distrust of educators, disregard of students’ individual interests, destruction of local autonomy and capacity for innovation, and disrespect for human values.

Moreover, as I have pointed out in an op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press and several blog posts that national common standards will not close the achievement gap. Instead, it distracts us from truly educating our children for the future.

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  • Jason Kalis said:

    Dr. Zhao,

    Thank you for all of the work that you do bringing the debate over standardized curriculum into the spotlight. Having experience in both traditional high schools and a career education center, my view of how we deliver content has evolved. In my current position, I see students daily who label themselves as “not good” in school. Yet, in an environment where their knowledge is applied to real-world tasks, these young people excel. (I wish I had time to talk about the Automotive Tech students that designed and began building a prototype of a hydrogen generator for a Corvette.)

    Our students are not standardized, and our one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and assessment will never provide useful data that can be used to inform instruction.

    All the Best,

  • Greg Proffit said:

    Not that schools should promote thuggery or resign students to lowly servants’ status, but the movie Slumdog Millionaire teaches us a great deal about the contextual nature of knowledge and that brilliance runs its course well outside of the academic classroom realm. Dr. Zhao’s work echoes much of what Renzulli and Reis (Schoolwide Enrichment Model) propose for American education: help students to identify their interests and develop their talents. I just received Zhao’s book (2009) Catching up or Leading the Way. I can’t put it down! I’m so glad that he has added another voice appealing to a rethinking of the NCLB paradigm. Hats off to ASCD for having the guts to put it out their for its members! Thanks to both.

  • Dominic Giegerich said:

    I saw you at the SAI conference in Des Moines Iowa, and all I can say is your talk shook me out of my proficiency induced coma.

    Thank you for the information that isn’t just “feel good” statistic manipulation.

    My question is how do administrators stand up and do the right thing when school boards, parents, counselors, teachers and students don’t get it?

  • Kenyon Kummings said:

    Just read your piece in the latest version of the AASA Journal The imagery you provided regarding how nationalized standards can and will morph into limited opportunities for a real education, tracking of students, and even higher stakes testing, is eye opening and frightening.

    In response to Dominic Giegerich’s question, it seems that the dye has been cast. The challenge will be how do we navigate what is to come, and still facilitate opportunities that will exercise student creativity and innovation.

    Just received your book. Looking forward to finishing it, so that I can loan it out and spread the word.

  • Yong Zhao said:

    Thanks for all these great comments. To respond to the question about what to do to reverse the tide, I think we need to bring the information to the political and education leaders. To help them understand the situation and hopefully some of them will change.

  • A Solution to the Problem of National Standards icanology said:

    […] Yong Zhao lays out the problem of national standards and testing beautifully in his blog post Arne Duncan’s Mistaken View of Education and NCLB. […]

  • Lynn Rasmussen said:

    Thanks for articulating the problem so beautifully. Now we need solutions.

    I worked on the highly-networked and values- and data-driven Obama campaign. I have been disappointed that the logic for “reform” of education has been so industrial.

    The logic of national standards is simple: If we don’t have data, then we don’t know how we’re doing and we don’t know who to help and where to put our resources.

    The hallmark of industrial thinking is standardization, but despite our efforts, children don’t cooperate. The system creates behind and behind is a miserable place to be.

    The Obamas are wildly successful products of the current system and want that for everyone. The familiar old teacher/student, grade levels, subjects, grading,and testing paradigm.

    At the same time, President Obama says that real solutions come from community, from the ground up. The day after the election, last year, I woke up with icanology, a real solution. We hope to have the prototype/beta up a year after its conception, by mid-November.

  • Christine said:

    Dr. Zhao,
    I found the link to this post while trying to articulate my arguements against Arne Duncan’s drive to increase the duration of our children’s school day by referencing the amount of time spent in school in other countries, esp. India and China. I feel the goal of standardizing education has always been wrong but had not thought about the definition of education itself being incorrect. It seems we may have differing opinions on some of the actual underlying causes of educational disparities but I always welcome learning from an intelligently thought out conclusion. I look forward to reading your book and seeing where it may take my own thoughts on this topic. Thanks so much for your passion and working for our kids.

  • StickWithANose » Global Competition & Schooling said:

    […] China as a key justification for his reform push, but as Michigan State’s Yong Zhao correctly notes the reforms Arne’s pushing are moving us in the wrong direction. NCLB practically defines […]

  • Jerry Westerman said:

    Yesterday I had the chance to hear Prof. Zhoa speak at a professional develop conference I attended. I have not read his book but plan to do so soon. I strongly agree with him regarding the negative implications of too much emphasis on standardized testing. Below are my thoughts regarding the movement toward market principles in public education, which have stressed the need for testing.

    Through my career in teaching I have long felt that our country has slowly been abandoning public education for policies that in the long run tear down our once envied public education system. It is that system that has helped so many move up the ladder of American society to a better life. My entire career in education has seen countless efforts to improve education by applying market place theory to the public service that is public education. I have said in the past to many colleagues that I don’t understand this approach for the following reason. A market economy is based on the principles of supply and demand. This means those who make the best products while keeping costs low will win in the market place. This also means that someone, somewhere will lose in that market place. Applying this theory to a public service such as public education also ensures that someone, somewhere will also lose. Education is a long process not a short-term end product. Final success is determined by individual successes based on each student’s interests and talents. None of this can be accurately measured year by year on a test. Some students move ahead early while others catch up later. All students come from a home environment that has a huge impact on their learning from day to day. This will always affect student learning in positive and negative ways. Some will move from a public high school directly to college. Others to job training schools and others immediately to the work force and eventually back to a community college or job training school with new appreciation for the opportunities in American public education.
    This is how our system assures that all can win in education because there is always the opportunity to go back to school.

  • Duncan on 21st c. education « 21k12 said:

    […] it distracts us from truly educating our children for the future.”  (See Zhao’s article, “Arne Duncan’s Mistaken View of Education and NCLB.” […]

  • Juan de Jesus said:

    Enjoyed your comments at the SACS Latin America conference in Atlanta. You articulated the issues so well. I think an op-ed piece for the back page of Education Week would go a long way. Focusing on equalization of basic skills will not give students as edge! We’re using models from the past as a response system to the future.

    As you said, the data does not lie. you might enjoy this presentation by the TX State demogrpaher to TX’s superintedents. The clients are chaging as well!

    Saludos from Mexico City

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