Posts Tagged NCLB

Why the Every Student Succeeds Act Will Never Work

Published by — Can we really expect education to improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate?


Given the battlefield that is our current Congress, congratulations to them are in order for agreeing on anything.  Together, miraculously, they revamped the old 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB was loathed from the get-go.  It was a set-up for failure, since it was and is still statistically impossible to have all children proficient by 2014 or any other date.  NCLB’s set of increasing threats and punishments for under-performing schools produced widespread cheating scandals.  Art and hands-on projects were cut in order to devote time and resources to improving test scores instead of actual learning.  The hostile “accountability” measures backfired so strongly that many states got waiver agreements from the feds to pull the law’s punitive punches.

NCLB’s recently-passed replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), does two things of note.  First, it devolves to the states the power to design their own accountability systems.  This is an improvement, but we’ve been here before.  Some states set such absurdly low thresholds that nearly all of their kids are “proficient,” while simultaneously bombing on the national NAEPs.  Like grade inflation, deeming all kids proficient when they’re not is a kind lie, with unkind consequences.  States will need several years to create and then impose their own systems so everyone will have time to figure out how to spin their kids’ achievement results.  But getting the feds out of the naming-and-shaming game is a big plus.

Secondly, the ESSA removes the mandate that teachers be evaluated according to the kids’ test scores — another statistically absurd idea.  Surely scores will still be used for some evaluations, in some fashion.  But it was outright funny watching states twist themselves into pretzels to assess gym and art teachers’ performance on standardized reading tests, for example.

See here for a side-by-side summary of the old and new laws; just scroll down a bit.

But what’s in it for the kids?

Sadly, not much.

The law has only minor changes to how it allocates dollars — for better or worse.  But for consistency’s sake, the fed money will flow as it has in the past, without interruption and with fewer strings.

And officially removing the nastiness of the “sanctions,” which were punishments for under-performance, might help everyone to relax a bit.  Hopefully some kindness will trickle down to the kids.

However… the law hardly reflects that any of its authors had in mind the actual warm-bodied kids who are involved in education.  The way to improve education is to improve the conditions in which it takes place.  What would nourish curious kids so they can soak up more learning than they did before?  Kids are organic beings.  The fields or flower beds where their minds are being cultivated need rich curricular and strategic nutrients with more access to sunshine and refreshing waters.  As it is, achievement levels will likely remain stagnant or even recede.

The assumption of education is that the acquisition of skills and content is built on a solid foundation of mental health.  Schools are designed to respond to kids who arrive with a reasonable amount of attention that they can give to the business of learning.  In reality, many kids arrive quite distracted for a whole host of reasons, from too much video gaming to full-on trauma.  I resent the people who blame school performance on parents and poverty, but get real.  Struggling families tend to have struggling kids.  Struggling kids act out, withdraw, or see little point in school.  Since 2001 the poverty level among public school children has risen from 38.3% to 49.6% in 2012.  It’s likely that they’ve passed the 50% threshold by now, so more than half of all kids in public schools are living in families where deprivation is the norm.

That’s the tip of the iceberg.  The U.S. has absurdly negative stats showing high rates of premature pregnancy, drug use and disengagement.  In brief:  a huge proportion of U.S. kids are not okay.  And in many cases the troubles at home are then compounded at troubled, overwhelmed schools.

You would think that if you were re-writing the federal education act, the plight of the kids and families might spark a conversation.  Because here we are, once again, going down a road that is statistically impossible.  Education will never improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate.  This doesn’t let the schools off the hook at all.  Like the feds themselves, it’s their job to advocate for the health, well-being and prosperous future of the children under their watch.  No, they don’t think of it as their role, but it’s high time they start if they hope to get anything accomplished.

The Congressional happy-dancing about the Every Child Succeeds Act shows zero political appetite for taking on improving the welfare of the kids.  Once again, this will never work.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , ,

Leave a comment

A Punitive Mindset Ruins Good Testing Data

Published by — Standardized tests are fantastically useful.  But schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.


The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standardized achievement testing, but in what we do with said testing.  Achievement data are fantastically useful.  These days virtually every industry collects and analyses the best information available to make smart decisions.  So the recent groundswell aimed at ending the flow of testing information is akin to insisting we all stick our fingers in our ears and holler:  We don’t want to hear it!

Easy now.  Let the data speak.  Just quit jumping to ill-considered actions.

But the situation has gotten so bad, parents are refusing to allow their children to take standardized achievement tests.  Congress, seemingly stuck in brute partisanship, is arming for war over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  One huge battle will be testing versus no testing.  Likely it will focus on money, although the $34 per kid for state and federal testing seems a small price to pay to find out if the taxpayers’ $600 trillion dollar annual investment in public education is getting results.  That’s trillion with a “t.”  We can spare $1.7 billion, with a “b,” to do a check-up.

How testing became a monster.

The one great thing NCLB did for the nation was goad states into building robust data systems.  Though far from perfect, even state-designed testing programs surfaced glaring racial and socio-economic disparities.  Tests revealed that special-needs children and non-native English speakers often languished in segregated programs, “protected” from higher expectations.  It wasn’t pretty.  Still isn’t.  But sunlight on the plight of the underserved inspired a lot of creative thinking about how to narrow the gaps.  As a nation, we’re grown uncomfortable with these disparities.  And that’s a good thing.

A very bad thing, though, was that punishment was baked into NCLB from the get-go.  In the name of “accountability,” the 2001 law disciplined failing schools with an a menu of escalating sanctions including humiliation and threats of state takeover — as if states had the capacity to take over schools.  Annually, all schools had to meet rising achievement benchmarks with goal of having all students “proficient” by 2014.  Each year that a school bombed its benchmarks, the feds and states had license to trumpet failures in the media, impose insulting oversight, and force the schools to write the parents about their failures.  NCLB was a big, bad Dad that believed he’d get results by yelling louder and getting meaner.

Everyone knew that achieving nationwide proficiency in 2014 was statistically impossible.  But oh well.  States issued new naming-and-shaming reports anyway.  Adding insult to injury, those most affected were low-income kids, segregated in forgotten, ill-supported schools where staff already felt punished enough.  Partly to protect their vulnerable kids, school staff began gaming the numbers, or even outright cheating, to avoid further demoralization.

Eventually, increasing amounts of school time were devoted to test prep, effectively passing the pain on to the kids.  Neither the feds, states, nor researchers recommended becoming test-prep factories.  Sure enough, test-prep barely budged academic performance.  But many schools argued that they had no choice but to focus on the test results because of perceived threats to their jobs.  Then situation made the parents crazy.  All parties blame the tests themselves.  And here we are.

Exactly who is responsible for kids’ learning?

Currently Finland’s high-performing schools are Education’s darling.  Interestingly, their students are tested constantly, but to good effect.  As Anu Partanen writes in a recent Atlantic piece about Finnish schools, “teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”  At the end of high school, students must pass nationally-mandated high-school exit exams, so there is a goal and objective measure of success at the end.

How schools get there is their business.  The Finnish feds regularly check up on schools across the country with tests, but their purpose is to make sure the schools and kids are doing well.  It’s not in their culture to think that the way to produce improvement is to get all nasty at schools that struggle.

On the contrary, the Finns have the attitude that testing provides superb data to help teachers collaborate with one another, along with the child and family, to ensure each kid’s success.  Teachers have enormous responsibility for student learning, but they’re not alone; they lead a circle of adults who own that child’s success, as defined by observation as well as objective data.

By all means test, and even publish the results.

But for the foreseeable future, the feds and states need to rethink their get-tough relationship to school improvement.  NCLB made it painfully clear schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.  (People can’t either.)  So for now, collect data on the kids’ achievement.  And publish it.  But then study it carefully, discuss it, take responsibility for it.  Make sure the data becomes useful wisdom, and quit using test scores as billy clubs.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

2014, When All Kids’ Performance Were Supposed To Be Equal

Published by — I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.

In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break.  I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, “Not statistically possible!”

I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.

He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure.  While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn’t lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they’d all be “proficient,” per the mandate of the new federal law.  Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all?  He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests.  He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures.  Cheek had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership.  But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions.  Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone’s best work.

I wasn’t taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, “And you can quote me.”

So here we are:  2014.  My, how time flies.  What did we learn?

I learned two things.  The first is that having good data is really useful.  The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against.  (They were.)  NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity.  If you know what you’re doing, “anchoring” statistics can verify the quality of statistics.  All facts are friendly.  Having good facts helps us help kids.

Ah, but do we actually want to help children?  I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we’ll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement.  Won’t happen.

Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014.  But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law.  As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems.  We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can’t somehow beat their badness out of them.

Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits.  Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever.  There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors.  No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.

Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they’re producing such bad results.  Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed.  For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults.  When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.

Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet “F.”  Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds — for the free-lunch kids — to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies.  NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn’t get chewed up in the process.

Such mean behavior isn’t built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement.  Let’s see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.

Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.  How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become “globally competitive” is an adult wish?  What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help — long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland.  Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an “F” when they deserve one.  But they don’t need punishment.  And neither do the schools.

It’s 2014, and the kids aren’t in significantly better shape than they were in 2001.  They didn’t become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep.  Punishment didn’t work.  It was a dismal failure.  In 2014, the question before us is:  what will work?  Only, let’s be honest this time.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Persistently Low-Performing Schools Need More Options from the Feds

Published by — Obama and Duncan’s four turnaround models for failing schools are a step in the right direction, but they comfort the status quo.

In 2009, the Obama/Duncan administration announced that they would spend serious money and attention redeeming the 5,000 worst schools in the nation. To my mind, this has been their best idea.

But then they came up with four — and only four — models for how to deal with these schools. I remember reading them over and over again looking for the good one. In vain. By its very nature, education policy made a million miles from a classroom – by Congress, say – risks insensitivity to the everyday reality of flesh-and-blood teachers and kids.

But let’s back up and look at the feds’ big plan for struggling schools.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) strategy left over from the Bush administration had two good results. First, states were forced to upgrade their data systems, so the public could get a better idea of whether kids were learning. Second, that data revealed conclusively that certain populations, like kids in poverty, were being sadly under-served. The problem with NCLB was that its main strategy for helping children was to heap a lot of bad test scores, threats and humiliating name-calling onto schools.

Frankly, we didn’t learn much of positive value from all that naming and shaming.

The new administration decided to focus instead on supporting innovation. Good, much more positive approach.

In the case of what they call “the persistently low-performing” schools, they allocated significant money for districts to support big changes at these schools. If the education industry can learn how to fix these schools in specific, it will learn how to help the poor, minority and special-needs children who are disproportionately stuck in them.

So, at the dawn of 2010, the feds told each state to create criteria to identify their most troubled schools, including all high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that 15,277 schools, or 16 percent of all schools nationwide, were identified as “persistently low-performing” schools. Each became eligible for federal School Improvement Grant money. Some schools opted out of the grants because other reform efforts were already underway.

The others, however, had to fix their problems by choosing from among the four federal models. They are:

Closure – Close the school altogether and transfer its students to high-performing schools in the district.

Turnaround – Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff.

Restart – Open the school under a third-party education management organization, one that is independent of the district, such as a charter operator.

Transformation – Reform the entire instructional environment, develop teacher and school leader effectiveness, reward teachers based on student performance, increase community engagement, and extend learning time.


The first three models mainly reveal the policy-makers’ doubt that these schools might have any strengths. But in my experience, even badly-troubled schools sometimes have a core of fabulous people working under impossible circumstances. These three models change the circumstances by evicting most or all of the adults, presuming they are the root of the problem. And to be sure, they might be. But if they’re not, what a waste of the best thinking and experience of the people most intimate with the kids.

The fourth, Transformation, does just the opposite. It leaves the people AND the circumstances absolutely in place. Even the vague “extended learning time” can mean 5 paltry minutes. So under Transformation, the school district officials and the new principal can design a plan, but if they want to be able to hire teachers from outside the district, the union can always say no. If the principal wants to be free of a deadly curriculum, the district can say no. Transformation provides no leverage.

Recently I heard the new principals of four problem schools give presentations of their transformation strategies. Utterly gutless. The thinking seemed same-old, same-old. Every job was preserved, with the same person in it, probably doing pretty much the same thing, despite some nice-sounding programs – a triumph of rhetoric over action.

Not surprisingly, 74 percent of the nation’s “persistently low-performing” schools chose Transformation.

If I were able to add a 5th option, I would describe it as:

Radical Site-Based Management with Teeth

This model would identify a talented, committed core of people already in the building – assuming there is one – and empower them to take control of their own destiny. The district and community could decide if such a core exists and who, precisely, they are. Then, give them charter-like powers to develop their own strategies and unshackle themselves from any provisions of labor contracts and district policies they consider detrimental to teaching and learning. Give them power over and responsibility for their budget, personnel, strategy, schedule, and so forth. Free them to make a plan they believe will make them successful – within their budget. Keep the core staff and give them real power to change the circumstances.

Like creating any school, site-based management is not for the lazy. But trusting a core of existing staff would build on existing strengths. Experienced, talented adults who know their kids and their needs are the perfect people for the job. They have strong feelings about what’s been holding them back. Capitalize on their knowledge. What’s to lose?

These models all have risks. But empowering the best of an existing staff would show some respect for what good there is even in some of our most troubled schools. And they’d be more likely to turn things around for the kids faster than some outside group starting yet another new charter school.

At least give them a shot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

, , ,

Leave a comment

Ron Wolk, How Education Resources Waste Minds

Published by — Ron Wolk book is about how our education system is outdated, mismanaged, and how we might start getting it right.

Now in his 80s, Ron Wolk has no patience for mincing words. So Wolk, the founder and original editor of Education Week, wrote Wasting Minds – Why our education system is failing and what we can do about it.I

It’s a fast read, rich with vivid stories. The message is dark. He says flatly, “States have spent nearly 20 years formulating 21st-century standards for a 19th-century school system.” Wolk has been working in education well over 30 years, making policy with education luminaries as well as walking school hallways observing the good, bad and the ugly.

He summarizes what he’s seen in his brief preface: “In the early 1970s, the United Negro College Fund conducted a public advertising campaign centered on the slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ The slogan became part of the American vernacular. Sadly, evidence makes clear that the minds of millions of students of all races are still being wasted today.”

You’ll be glad to know he’s not big on blaming anyone in particular for this waste. We are all responsible. “School boards, administrators and teachers are not bad people who want schools to fail, but they feel compelled to protect their routines, their status and their turf, and they weave a rationale to justify that.” They’re human.

Wolk gave an overview of the problem last spring when he spoke to a group gathered at the Annenberg Foundation. “For the last 30 years, I’ve spent most of my waking hours thinking about education. And I tried for years to write about education. But it’s a system. So you’d start on, say, teaching, but get all tangled up in the details. Eventually I had an epiphany: the system is based on a number of assumptions that are flawed or flat-out wrong.”

Wasting Minds, then, is about the flawed assumptions underlying our school systems, assumptions that desperately need to be replaced. Most importantly, the assumption Wolk insists should be newly planted at the center of education is:

“To help motivate children and maximize their abilities, we must educate them one at a time and tailor their education to their interests and needs.”

In other words, if each kid’s desires, hopes, dreams and motivations can’t somehow be factored into how educators make policy and how teachers teach, education will never be designed to serve flesh-and-blood kids.

Wolk says, “We know that no matter what we teach, students will not learn what they don’t want to learn.” But the education industry knows very little about student motivation. Wolk uses the second half of his book to give examples of how some schools get it right, and to dream of an even more student-centered future.

But the book’s first half focuses on why schools aren’t kid-centric now. I found it painfully compelling. He articulates 10 assumptions built firmly into federal and state educational policy. I’ll discuss only the first assumption here. But just the chapter titles are a pleasure to read: “If it Moves, Test It.” And “The Quest for the Supreme Leader.” I don’t agree with him on every point, but it’s a relief just to spend time with someone who is also observing the same naked emperor I see.

Assumption number one is: “Students are not performing adequately because they and their teachers don’t work hard enough. The solution is a “get-tough” policy like No Child Left Behind.”

This statement is partly true. Wolk writes, “There is no denying that too many students are unmotivated and unengaged; they find schools boring at best and alien places at worst.” And “there are undoubtably teachers who retired long ago and didn’t tell anybody.”

But he goes on, “to assume that the problem of poorly-performing schools and students can be solved with threats and penalties is to misunderstand both the institution and the people in it, and to further widen the achievement gap.” The federal NCLB law was supposed “to focus on the plight of the disadvantaged.” But in practice, it promoted tons of testing that was supposed to hold adults accountable. The law’s mandate to “sanction,” which is to say punish schools for getting the wrong test scores means that the schools with the most challenged kids are under almost constant threat of humiliation and sometimes firings or closure.

Who does their best work under threat of punishment? No one questions that we needs good data that tells us what kids are learning and what they aren’t. Schools are super-complex organizations, and we need to understand the effectiveness of our efforts.

But NCLB’s punitive approach has demoralized and brow-beaten many schools into becoming frightened, hostile environments. Challenged, disengaged or defiant kids have become such a liability, they threaten teachers’ jobs. Naturally, teachers want the “bad” kids out. This, Wolk notes, is where the “school-to-prison” pipeline begins.

And prisons are the ultimate waste of human lives.

Impassioned, Wolk writes, “An effective education system is, in many ways, a prerequisite to finding solutions to all of the other formidable problems the nation faces. Without it, where will we get the people, the ideas, the creativity, and the technology needed to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new century?”

And an ineffective system such as we have now is a multi-billion dollar waste of kids’ minds and potential.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at

, , ,

Leave a comment