20 Years Ago, NCLB Kinda, Sorta Worked. That’s the Problem
In fall 2002, schools entered the No Child Left Behind era. The previous January, President George W. Bush had signed the Act into law. While it’s tough to remember amid all our polarization and after NCLB’s travails, Congress adopted the law with massive, bipartisan majorities. But that political success gave rise to a more complicated reality.
The final bill ran hundreds of pages and included new provisions on testing, reporting, school improvement, teacher quality, and more. The heart of the bill, though, was the requirement that states test all students regularly in reading, math, and science; annually report student proficiency by school and district; and adopt federally mandated interventions where proficiency (for any demographic group) fell short of state-designated performance targets.
Oh, and states had to adopt an education plan that would ensure 100 percent of students were “proficient” by 2014. (Though states first had to define what “proficiency” meant.) As Checker Finn and I observed many years ago when explaining NCLB’s stumbles, “While nobody doubts that the number of ‘proficient’ students in America can and should increase dramatically from today’s woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things.”
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Ultimately, NCLB attempted to do three things at once, and these three proved to be an awkward fit. One was to provide an overdue X-ray showing how schools and groups of students were doing in reading and math. A second was to provide a rudimentary accountability system that could help spur change in schools or systems where inertia ruled. A third was to set a “moonshot” target for school improvement.
Individually, each of these approaches had merit. The way the law linked them together, though, was unfortunate. An X-ray can provide invaluable transparency. But when the X-ray results were used to decide whether schools were failing, they were corrupted—and turned into a metric to be gamed. Performance-based accountability can be a very healthy thing, but tying it to an arbitrary (and unserious) moonshot target promoted cynicism rather than commitment.
What happened? Well, NCLB kinda, sorta worked as it was designed—and that was the problem. States and schools did the things they were supposed to. They adopted standards and set proficiency targets. They focused more intently on math and reading. Test scores increased in the first half-decade after the law was passed, and schools paid more attention to kids who had previously been overlooked and left behind.
Proponents had hoped that NCLB would raise both the “ceiling” as well as the “floor”—that schools would embrace excellence even as they did more to promote basic mastery of reading and math. That proved to be a hollow hope: The accountability incentives led state policymakers to adopt lax standards and school leaders to seek ways to game the test results. While short-run test scores went up, so did time spent on testing and test prep.
Meanwhile, the time devoted to non-tested subjects like social studies, civics, the arts, recess, and gifted education went down. Indeed, even as scores were going up, it wasn’t clear whether students were really learning more—or just learning more of the stuff on the reading and math tests and less of everything else.
Back when NCLB was crafted, there was broad agreement on the need for more transparency into how schools were doing and that schools should be more accountable for every student. That consensus splintered over time, as a fixation on test prep, benchmark testing, and test-based teacher evaluation (along with cheating scandals and game-playing about “proficiency”) fueled the impression that the tail was wagging the dog. And then, within a decade, most of the nation’s schools were judged to be failing under the law. The problem was that parents at many of these schools didn’t believe it. They decided the problem was with NCLB, not their schools.
Today, after years of populist backlash against testing and “big data,” support for testing and transparency is still far more fragile than it once was. That’s a problem, especially as we seek to understand and address the disruptions of pandemic. And it’s a reminder that the legacy of a policy, good or bad, can long outlive the political moment that shapes it.
There’s a broader lesson here. Policy is a powerful thing. When federal officials press schools and educators to do something, there’s a good chance they’ll do it—but perhaps not as intended. Laws may “work,” the trick is to ensure success is more than a kinda, sorta proposition.
Students Need to Learn Good Habits, Even When They Don’t Seem Logical
NPR had a story the other week about Yale economist James Choi, who examined 50 popular personal finance books to see how their tips aligned with traditional economic advice. (You can find Choi’s study here.) Choi concluded that much practical advice departs from economic logic, but this doesn’t mean the popular advice is necessarily wrong. In fact, the personal finance types often did a far better job of accounting for the role of temptation. I found the whole thing a powerful reminder of why educators misstep when they give short shrift to human nature and the importance of good habits.
A couple of Choi’s examples really illustrated this point. For starters, Choi explains that economists generally dismiss the idea of “earmarked” savings. To an economist, whether you’re saving for a car, vacation, or house, it’s all just money—there’s no value in creating a particular fund for this or that. The problem? If the money is there to spend and it’s not set aside for a specific purpose, it can be tempting to spend it on a whim. That’s why many of the more popular finance authors tend to encourage “mental accounting,” with different buckets for different goals. Choi notes that, while this advice may not be economically logical, it’s sensible and can help people resist their impulse to spend.
Choi also points out that many economists actually advise 20- and 30-somethings with a steady job not to save money. The thinking is that they’ll eventually earn a lot more money, so it doesn’t make logical sense to scrimp now when it’ll be easier to save later. As Choi says, “I tell my MBA students, ‘You of all people should feel the least amount of guilt of having credit card debt, because your income is fairly low right now but it will be, predictably, fairly high in the very near future.’” Economists call this “consumption smoothing.”
But Choi found that most popular authors ignore the economists and advise all their readers to live within their means and save steadily. While academics regard such advice as wrong-headed, it’s not hard to see where the supposedly sophisticated, economically logical advice could lead us astray. After all, people tend to be good at wanting things and not so good at self-discipline.
“Consumption smoothing” presumes that people can turn habits on and off: that they can go for a decade or more without saving, and then turn 30 (or 40) and decide, “It’s time to save big bucks and put away those credit cards.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who operate that way. It seems fairer to say that those who’ve developed the habit of saving money tend to keep on saving, and that those who haven’t, don’t.
Indeed, Choi observes that the importance of learning to save “is almost always missing from economic models” and, in a bit of droll understatement, acknowledges that this is “a potentially important oversight.” Even Choi, who tells his MBA students to live it up and worries about someone “unnecessarily depriving yourself in your 20s and even 30s,” concedes that, “there is something to this notion of being disciplined and learning to live within your means at a young age.”
It strikes me that Choi’s observation is true more generally: Good habits can be valuable, even when they may not be strictly logical. Heck, the emphasis on developing self-discipline and self-regulation is a big part of what’s always appealed to me about social and emotional learning. Clarity around behavior, homework, cellphone use, and classroom conduct can also help students cultivate the kinds of habits that will stand them in good stead.
That said, is it theoretically, logically essential that students learn to limit their time online or turn in homework when it’s due? Of course not. Like a pedigreed economist, you can argue that students will eventually learn those skills when they really need them. And there are students who, for various reasons, will be OK even if they never develop regular work practices or study skills. Logically, is it really worth all the time and energy to cultivate good habits?
I strongly suspect the answer is yes. And I fear that would-be reformers who want to relax the guardrails around homework, discipline, devices, or classroom conduct risk making the same mistake as those ivory tower economists. Habits matter, in practice if not always in theory. Those working to minimize the consequences for missed homework or misconduct trust that students will generally make good decisions, habits or no. That’s a theory sorely in need of a reality check.
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