The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, September 06, 2003

The No Child Left Behind Act is bad law. The law's intentions are admirable, but impossible to accomplish. No government agency can operate in the interests of its consumers, because it is insulated from the fundamental rules of the marketplace. No government-run enterprise has ever shut down, or laid off its employees, because its customers are unhappy with it.

I first became aware of No Child Left Behind's problems last summer, when I visited my sister in Michigan. A local paper noted that hundreds of Michigan schools had failed to meet NCLB's criteria for passing standardized tests, while the state of Arkansas did not have a single failing school. NCLB mandates that tests must be taken and the results reported, but the content and administration of the tests are left to the state. Thus there is a perverse incentive to make tests trivial, to get good scores. Obviously Arkansas has succumbed to the temptation of looking good, and Michigan has not.

Yesterday the Mercury News published an editorial critical of No Child Left Behind. As is typical, the Merc got it wrong even while they were getting it right:

Feds `flunk' a good school
Mercury News Editorial

The George Mayne Elementary School is a case study in what's wrong with No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that Congress passed two years ago.

By most measures, the largely low-income and Hispanic school in Alviso has made impressive strides. Its Academic Performance Index, the chief state measure of achievement, has risen every year, from the bottom rank to near the state average. In the latest STAR results, the percentage of students proficient in math and English rose substantially in almost every grade -- more than doubling in two instances.

Principal Denise Stephens has put together a team of committed teachers; most have advanced degrees.

Other schools would be bragging about these achievements. But this week, Superintendent Paul Perotti sent out a letter with demoralizing news.

It's been awhile since "Juan Gato" or Lileks used the phrase "Baby Jesus." Somewhere, Baby Jesus is crying. There. That feels a lot better.

At this point you are probably holding your breath as you wonder what horrible punishment is about to be visited upon the good people of George Mayne Elementary. Will Principal Stephens be fired? Will the school be closed?

It will tell parents that they have the right to pull their children out of Mayne and send them to another school in the Santa Clara Unified School District.

That's it? You mean the parents could send their children to the school of their choice? Amazing -- it's like they're human beings with fundamental rights, or something!

Anyway, if George Mayne Elementary is doing a good job, the parents won't want to send their kids elsewhere, so why the big fuss?


No Child Left Behind requires that 95 percent of students in every major ethnic, racial and socioeconomic group in a school, plus English learners and disabled students, take and pass state standardized tests. If one category comes up short, the entire school flunks.

Mayne fell one or two Latino students shy of 95 percent participation in the STAR tests. So the ax fell. It must use precious Title I dollars to bus students to other schools, at their parents' request.

Cry me a river. "You mean I have to provide metrics to show my performance? I don't get to collect a paycheck for breathing?"

Rigid measures turn the law into a game of gotcha. A school that raises scores of a dozen subgroups will get dinged if one subgroup's score dips. Among those labeled in need of improvement for not testing 95 percent of students were Palo Alto High, Lynbrook High and Saratoga High -- three of the region's highest achieving schools.

Cry me another river. "What do you mean my pay is being lowered because of my poor performance? This is a game of gotcha!"

There are plenty of unalterably bad schools that should be sanctioned; parents in those schools should have the right to go someplace better. George Mayne Elementary is not one of them. No Child Left Behind should be rewritten to recognize the difference.

Let me repeat what the Merc's editorial writers said:

  • There are plenty of unalterably bad schools that should be sanctioned
  • parents in those schools should have the right to go someplace better
  • George Mayne Elementary is not one of them

George Mayne Elementary's customers do not have the right to go someplace better. Words fail me. I half expected to see the Merc advocate that people in the school district be prohibited from moving.

I guess when you're a monopoly newspaper, treating customers like serfs comes naturally to you.



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