Revising NCLB: Let Your Voice be Heard
Make Sure Your Voice is Heard in the NCLB Revision Process
Word is that there is considerable discussion in Congress about passing a revision of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2015. Educators and those involved with schools need to make their voices heard about what kind of NCLB law should be enacted in the future.
This commentary suggests nine changes to NCLB that will help educators develop programs that meet the needs of students in the 21st century. The letter below, which includes the nine recommendations, is a sampling of what might be sent to National politicians – your representatives, Senator Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kline, who will lead the Senate and House Education Committees, and the President – to affect what changes are enacted into law. I urge you to contact your legislators to send them a message like the one below, with these recommendations or your own ideas. You may also wish to discuss your ideas with others and come up with a group response to what you would like to see in a revised law.
Send a Letter to Your National Representatives Like the Following...
Dear (Senator, Representative, President),
I understand that there are efforts being made to revise the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in 2015. I hope that the voices of (educators, parents, others) will be heard during this process.
The current NCLB testing emphasis and the relentless need to demonstrate adequate yearly progress make it difficult for schools and districts to implement an educational approach consistent with student educational needs in a 21st century world. Schools continue to use large amounts of time and energy to help students prepare for test taking. The curriculum has narrowed. The unintended consequence is to leave many students behind, without the core understandings, processes and habits of mind they will need in order to successfully compete in a technologically driven, information rich, highly skill-based world.
I believe that we need a new National policy that supports a 21st century education for our children. I am suggesting nine broad changes to the law that would help schools and teachers across the country better meet the needs of diverse students and schools in a complex 21st century world. The recommendations suggest a very different type of law that, instead of a set of top down mandates, emphasizes collaborative working relationships with states, schools and districts and local flexibility, creativity and innovation. They suggest that NCLB should be focused around a 21st century education mission statement and set of goals and should support the development of high quality standards that make significant learning possible. The recommendations promote a broader view of accountability and assessment policies and practices, emphasize the development of a rigorous, expansive, high quality curriculum and school programs, and promote the use of powerful instructional strategies. They are designed to address the deep-seated problems with the current law.
The recommendations are the following:
- Create a law designed to encourage and guide states, districts and schools to develop 21st century schools, rather than coerce them into submission.
- Create a 21st century education mission and vision statement to focus the law.
- Encourage the development of high quality state standards.
- Support the development of curricular programs that are consistent with high quality standards.
- Reduce the amount of standardized testing and encourage the use of multiple types of assessments to measure success and progress.
- Encourage districts and schools to develop and implement benchmark and graduation projects.
- Encourage districts to provide a variety of elective courses and comprehensive extra-curricular activities and programs.
- Encourage professional development that supports the use of powerful instructional strategies.
- Create the means for greater collaboration and sharing among states, districts and schools.
I would be happy to send you more information regarding these broad recommendations if you think it would be helpful.
I hope that you will seriously consider these ideas and pass them on to those who are going to make decisions about what kind of National policy will be developed to lead our schools into a 21st century world.
(Name and position)
More About The Nine Recommendations
1. Create a law designed to encourage and guide states, districts and schools to develop 21st century schools, rather than coerce them into submission.
The current NCLB requirements are like a hammer that hits states, districts and schools over the head with the same “one size fits all” requirements, as well as providing incentives that are hard to resist (even if disagreed with) because they involve so much funding. Instead, the law should be designed to engage and foster collaboration among all educational entities, encourage creative thinking among many, and promote diverse, customized solutions and practices instead of a “one size fits all” paradigm. It should treat professional educators with respect, listen to their voices, and be designed to encourage diverse educational approaches and models that will better educate children for a 21st century world.
2. Create, disseminate, and build on a 21st century education mission and vision statement.
The 21st century demands that students receive an education that helps them adapt to a knowledge and service based society and economy, a highly complex job market, multiple local to global problems and issues, and rapid scientific and technological change. Both STEM and the arts play a significant role in our economy. Effective adults have a broad background of knowledge, ideas and facts, are able to ask good questions, and can discuss issues and create strong argue for a point of view, write clearly, coherently and comprehensively, think logically, understand scientific methodology, evaluate and interpret data, and creatively think outside the box. They can sort, classify, evaluate and synthesize large quantities of information that often come from “searching” a topic or issue. They successfully complete complex projects and share their results. They interact and work with all types of people. They have developed their talents and abilities in many areas through music activities, sports and other clubs, special competitions, programs for the academically gifted and adult education courses. The have learned the skills necessary to be lifelong learners in a technologically advanced, rapidly changing society.
The NCLB law should include a mission-vision statement and a set of educational beliefs and goals that are consistent with the needs of students in a changing American society and world. For example, Pennsylvania’s education regulations (1999) include the following description of the purpose of education:
“In conjunction with families and other community institutions, public education prepares students to become self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens. Together with parents, families and community institutions, public education provides opportunities for students to: Acquire knowledge and skills; Develop integrity;
Process information; Think critically; Work independently; Collaborate with others; [and] Adapt to change”.
While not perfect, this statement of purpose includes goals that are more consistent with the current and future needs of students that can be used to judge whether other aspects of NCLB are consistently focusing on the needs of students living in the 21st century. A first step for improving NCLB is to discuss, debate and arrive at a consensus on an educational vision for a new century.
3. Encourage the development of high quality state standards.
Unfortunately, many state standards are of poor quality. For example, a study by the Fordham Foundation (2006) found that only 16 states had a set of World History Standards that scored at an A, B or C level. The study found that most state standards had too much or too superficial content and/or were poorly organized and sequenced. Many state standards are often either so broad or so narrow as to provide meaningless guidance on what’s important in a 21st century world. Low quality state standards contribute to low quality curricula and instructional practices. Teachers often find themselves forced to teach from poor quality standards and cover large amounts of information and ideas found within hundreds of standards statements at each benchmark level that are marginal at best and impossible to teach, except on a surface level.
In order to improve this situation, NCLB should define and describe the characteristics of standards that meet 21st century objectives and provide guidance as to how they can be translated into a set of practical curricular goals and programs. Standards guidelines should showcase high quality standards and provide examples of core principles, theories, concepts, issues, processes and skills from subject areas that should be learned at deeper levels of understanding, such as democratic values, artistic perspectives, important mathematical concepts, and principles of physics, perhaps taken from NAEP guidelines. Core skills and processes that cut across subject areas, such as scientific methodology, critical and creative thinking, complex problem solving, information literacy, writing and research skills might also be suggested. To help make standards more manageable and meaningful, NCLB should encourage states to more realistically organize standards by grade levels at the elementary level instead of subject areas. Core standards might also identify standards by subject areas, K-12, in order to show the progression of learning over time.
4. Support the development of curricular programs that are consistent with high quality standards.
Standards by themselves are of very little help to teachers unless accompanied by high quality curriculum materials that meet the standards. Unfortunately, our current system of privatized, for profit company curriculum development, along with the myriad of curricular requirements from many states, make it difficult for high quality materials to be developed. For the most part, high quality curriculum materials have been developed through projects coordinated by universities and other non-profit organizations.
NCLB should provide grants and other funding sources to promote the development of high quality curriculum materials tied to standards that provide lesson and unit designs, instructional materials and sample activities. As they are developed, these materials should be piloted in schools and classrooms and then made available to schools and districts at a reasonable cost.
5. Reduce the amount of standardized testing and encourage the use of multiple types of assessments to measure success and progress.
NCLB should reduce reliance on standardized tests as the core measures of success and accountability, and instead support the use of a wide variety of assessments that measure student success and progress.
The problems with standardized tests as core measures of success abound. James Popham (2006) suggests that state assessments as currently constituted are poor tools for improving instruction because they are not instructionally supportive. Tests are based on so many standards and goals that it is nearly impossible for teachers to work to instructionally improve student learning and achievement on the tests. He advocates several ways to make changes: build the tests around a few curricular goals clearly described, and have enough items on a test to be able to measure each goal accurately. NCLB should require that state assessments focus on a few important goals tied to a 21st century education, with enough items to measure whether students are proficient in these areas.
Also, due to cost and ease of use, state tests generally tend to use traditional fill in the blank, multiple choice items that measure how well students can choose correct answers rather than on their ability to construct and explain their answers, do complex problem solving, conduct research, or apply knowledge to new situations. Through regulations and monetary incentives, states should be encouraged to develop tests that provide more constructed responses and fewer selected response items.
NCLB should also reduce the number of required standardized tests and suggest an increase in the use of local assessments. A reduction in the number of standardized tests would remove a significant impediment to developing high quality 21st century programs. For example, giving standardized tests every other grade level between third and eighth grade would probably provide adequate data to assess how well schools are doing. Standardized tests given twice in the elementary grades (third and fifth grade) and once at the middle and high school levels would also provide useful data and would be less intrusive into the school program.
The current NCLB standardized tests requirements and their high stakes have led many states to reduce cut scores and for schools to reduce their focus on assessments that improve learning and provide important assessment data, such as formative assessments, self-assessments, writing tasks, and open-ended, authentic performance tasks. NCLB should encourage local districts and schools to create assessment plans that incorporate multiple types of diverse assessments to measure achievement and success. The rewriting of the law might be modeled after an earlier version of Pennsylvania education regulations (1999), which required school districts to develop a local assessment plan that:
“shall be designed to include a variety of assessment strategies which may include the following:
o Written work by students
o Scientific experiments conducted by students
o Works of art or musical, theatrical or dance performances by students
o Other demonstrations, performances, products or projects by students related to specific academic standards;
o Examinations by teachers to assess specific academic standards
o Nationally available achievement tests
o Diagnostic assessments
o Evaluations of portfolios of student work related to achievement of academic standards
o Other measures as appropriate, which may include standardized tests.”
NCLB should also encourage states and school districts to develop and use a variety of assessments to share with the public as a means of demonstrating successful achievement on and growth towards a variety of goals and demonstrating improvement over time. It should encourage and provide incentives for districts to develop creative and innovative ways to assess learning and share the results with the public.
6. Encourage districts and schools to develop and implement benchmark and graduation projects.
NCLB should also encourage districts to develop one or more graduation projects that incorporate the use of research skills, the writing of a coherent, organized report, presentation skills and community service. According to an earlier version of Pennsylvania education regulations, which had such a requirement, the graduation project “is to assure that [all] students are able to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information and communicate significant knowledge and understanding”. Many Pennsylvania districts still require a graduation project and understand its importance. They have also created “benchmark” projects at the elementary and middle school levels. The inclusion of benchmark and graduation projects has led teachers at all levels to include more projects as part of their instructional focus, with more opportunities for students to learn how to conduct research, read a wide variety of materials, write reports, conduct presentations, use technology more effectively, and think critically and creatively.
7. Encourage districts to provide a variety of elective courses and comprehensive extra-curricular activities and programs.
The emphasis on high stakes reading and mathematics testing has led many schools and districts to increase core requirements and focus directly on reading and mathematics instruction. This has often led to a reduction in the teaching of science, social studies and the arts at the elementary level. The secondary level has added extra reading, writing and mathematics instruction, especially at the ninth grade, and after-school remedial programs, often reducing the number of rich subject area, elective courses and extra curricular activities that deepen learning and expand student talents and interests. All levels have introduced remediation programs during the summer, with few schools developing summer enrichment programs.
This narrowing of the curriculum may be exactly the opposite of what students need to improve their achievement. For example, ED Hirsch Jr. (2006) persuasively argues that students need less emphasis on the processes of comprehension and lower level reading materials, but rather rich and varied learning experiences and strong, rigorous subject area learning that help them to gain “word and world knowledge” necessary for success in school. Many educators have argued that a rich and varied curriculum, one that introduces students to the arts, to the pleasures of learning, to programs that build on the talents and strengths of students strengthens and deepens learning and learning processes and improves achievement.
NCLB should develop regulations and provide additional funding to strengthen subjects such as the arts, social studies and history, STEM subjects, and elective courses. It should also provide funds for “extra-curricular”, after school activities, especially in low income school areas, that enrich and enlarge student learning and open students to exploring their talents and abilities in many areas.
8. Encourage professional development that supports the use of powerful instructional strategies likely to foster higher levels of achievement and support learning based on 21st century goals.
The current emphasis on standardized testing, adequate yearly progress, and “one size fits all” teacher evaluation systems has had a deleterious effect on classroom instruction. Powerful interactive and reflective strategies that take time and require explanation, discussion, research, thinking, problem solving and cooperative learning are not likely to be used at a time when standardized tests are primarily based on multiple-choice questions and require coverage of large amounts of material in order for students to be successful. Yet some studies have found that the use of more powerful, engaging instructional strategies are correlated with higher levels of achievement on traditional standardized tests (see for example Smith, Lee and Newmann, 2001).
Instead of requiring states to develop and use “one size fits all” teacher evaluation systems, NCLB should encourage schools and districts to develop professional development programs that promote the use of a variety of research based, powerful instructional strategies such as essential questions, graphic organizers, reading, writing, and thinking strategies, formative assessments, cooperative learning, performance tasks, and project and problem based learning.
9. Create the means for greater collaboration and sharing among states, districts and schools.
In order to help implement this forward looking approach to educational change, the Federal Government should use its resources to help schools work together and share educational programs, policies and practices that make a difference in learning and achievement. Through a government website, schools and districts can post information on how to implement programs that meet 21st century educational goals, share standards-based programs, rate, recommend and comment on curricular materials, share assessment strategies for different programs and courses, and provide information on curricular programs, courses, units and lessons that promote high quality approaches to teaching and learning. Sample strategic plans that promote excellence can also be shared.
Some Final Thoughts
We as educators need to forcefully enter into the national discussion on how to create a national education policy that encourages schools to meet the needs of students living in a new century and a new age. We need to together have the foresight to move the NCLB law in a different direction, before we have lost a generation of children to a narrow, traditional standards-based educational approach that is woefully inadequate to aid us in preparing our children for the future.
The obstacles to changes such as these are formidable. The current simplistic solutions built in to the law are easy to understand and have appeal. There is a danger that even if these changes were implemented, they would be used to politicize the educational process, to promote partisan educational goals. Never-the-less, educators need to argue for a National education law that defines educational excellence in a new and different way, encourages diversity among schools, and promotes a “bottom up” approach to excellence.
Hirsch, E.D. Jr (2006). Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really? Commentary in Education Week, April 26, 2006.
Mead, Walter Russell (2006). The State of State World History Standards. Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Available: www.edexcellence.net.
Pennsylvania Department of Education (1999) Chapter 4: Academic Standards and Assessment. General Provisions. Available: www.pde.state.pa.us/stateboard/regulations.
Smith. J., Lee, V. and Newmann, F. (2001). Instruction and Achievement in Chicago Elementary Schools. Chicago, Ill: Consortium on Chicago School Research,
Popham, James (2006). Educator Cheating on No Child Left Behind Tests: Can We Stop it? Commentary in Education Week, April 19, 2006.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator - teacher, college professor, curriculum director, author and Understanding by Design trainer. He currently does volunteer work for Philadelphia public schools. Additional and related teaching and learning resources and ideas designed to help prepare students to live in a 21st century world can be found by going to his posted blogs on ASCD Edge, and on his website: www.era3learning.org