The Lake Wobegon Effect

I spent last evening at a panel discussion on the effects of standardized testing on students. The panel was made up of local educators, education professors, and a psychologist. I pretty well expected that the No Child Left Behind act would come up, and I expected that no one would be singing its praises, but I wasn’t really thinking that the panel would digress into a well organized gripe session about it. It is certainly hard to argue that this train wreck legislation has been anything less than destructive in its implementation. One panelist went so far as to challenge the members of the Bush Administration to take the tests and see if they would all pass. They were clearly preaching to the choir here, and enjoying the chance to do so.

However, I was a little distraught that there was very little mention of how to fix things. The message seemed to be that if only NCLB would go away, that everything would be okay. Some went so far as to seek abolishing the NYS Regents exams, SATs, and ACTs as well. The panel psychologist asserted that they knew how to run an effective school, but NCLB was preventing them from doing this. I’m not so sure they do.

I challenged this notion during the question and answer session. I noted that the Reagan Administration’s report, A Nation at Risk, warned that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” And this report preceded NCLB by almost two decades. Further, NCLB would never have found purchase if the perception in 2001 had been that the existing educational system was succeeding. Granted, NCLB is brain dead. But if the system was broken beforehand, and we eliminate NCLB, what do we put in its place to assure our children’s competitiveness in the world?

The answers were anything but comforting. A couple of the panel members assured me that “A Nation at Risk” was all about linking educational effectiveness to a nation’s economy and that this relationship had since been proven false. Well, that’s largely true, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The report was still a condemnation of our education system, although it’s dire predictions of it resulting in a failed economy were not borne out. The follow-on educational manifesto, “A Nation Still At Risk,” was released in 1998. It eliminated the economic ties and simply compared student performance of the US on the global stage. It was certainly not written as an accolade for our (then) current system.

The panelists then tried to shift the blame. They sighted statistics that there is a tight correlation between poverty and education. The problem, as they see it, is that the US allows large concentrations of its people to live in poverty, and those impoverished areas are prone to educational failure independent of what educational policies are put in place. Again, they are right, but I would still contend they are missing the point. Yes, poverty is bad. Yes, the impoverished are educationally disadvantaged. But that doesn’t account for all of the problems. I’ve not seen any data to suggest that suburban school districts are cranking out the best students on the planet while less affluent areas drag down the average. The failure of impoverished school districts alone doesn’t account for the dearth of talent that requires us to need more H-1B Visas for foreign specialty workers than allowed by law because we can’t fill jobs requiring exceptional skills with our own talent pool. Clearly poverty is an issue, but one that cannot be addressed by the educational system.

There must be something educators can do within the control of the non-poverty laden school systems to improve the situation. This is what I was looking for. However, the only plan offered was to return control of the schools and the classrooms to the teachers such that they could nurture and grow our children. After all, they knew the kids best and could help them the most.

On the face of it, this is hard to argue with. Excellent, caring, and motivated teachers (and we’ve all known a few) are absolutely the right people to grow students. But we’ve also all known teachers who were not so talented or motivated, or who once were, but have grown too cynical to care in light of increased class sizes and policies imposed by their fellow educators because of en vogue pedagogical trends such as “new” math, inclusion programs, or ungraded students. And these teachers and programs existed before NCLB.

One of the panelists accused NCLB of expecting to create The Lake Wobegon Effect, where all of the students would be above average. However, I think the panel’s solution prescription is an admission that their own profession has already fallen into that effect. It depends on all the teachers being above average. Yet, like any other profession, half of them actually graduated in the bottom half of their class.

Ironically, the panelists repeatedly made the point that you get what you measure. NCLB imposes strict measurements which are having an undeniable effect on the educational system. Granted, this is a deleterious effect, but what is being measured is getting done. Their solution, again repeatedly stated, is to stop measuring. But I think that is wrongheaded. The NCLB measurement system is not right. We may be measuring too much, measuring too specifically, measuring the wrong things, or even not measuring enough things. But measurement is yielding correlated action. So the answer has to be figuring out how to get the measurement mix right.

I spent years working to help people manage call centers where the same thing was observable. Too much focus on any one set of measurements was asking for trouble because you would get what you measured, usually at the expense of something else you valued, but forgot to measure. Measuring nothing was simply unpredictable. The motivated and talented people would still do a great job helping your customers, but there were always employees who would be on indefinite smoke breaks if there were no consequences for poor performance. Good measurement systems sampled a wide variety of variables, and interpreting the results was complicated.

The lesson is that you can’t simply measure what’s easy to get data on and then make hard and fast predetermined actions based on those values. Good measurement of complex systems is hard. Interpreting all that data is also hard, and not something prone to absolute judgments. And in the end,there have to be consequences for that measured performance, both good and bad.

I certainly agree that NCLB has to go. I also agree that teachers should be given wide latitude in the classroom to cover the curriculum in ways that resonate with their students. And curricula should be aligned with the needs of businesses and colleges so that students are prepared for the world that awaits. However, I also believe that performance of students, teachers, schools, districts, and states all needs to be measured. And that based on the interpretation of that data, corrective action needs to be applied. This corrective action needs to include the potential reassignment or firing of teachers or administrators who are not able to be coached or trained up to doing the job they have been assigned. Tenure should be a thing of the past. If teachers want the long leash in the classroom, they need to accept accountability for that freedom. They need to be willing to operate in the same types of environments of risk and reward that professionals in other fields already do.

I didn’t challenge the panel with whether or not they would be willing to accept the classroom freedom on these terms. (After my first question, it wasn’t clear they would be eager for me to ask another.) Yet, I suspect this would not be something the profession would readily agree to as they seemed mostly eager to have the measurements stop. However, (he says with a touch of cynicism) if the teachers are all above average, then there seems little risk.

2 thoughts on “The Lake Wobegon Effect

  1. I think you went to a different presentation than I did. I didn’t once hear that ALL measurements should be stopped. In fact, they said a number of times that the state standardized tests needed to be, but obviously other testing needed to be counted along with other measures that were as meaningful as those tests… that there needed to be a balance that made sense for the students. And they did talk about how the regents and SAT tests are designed so that half of the kids will pass and half will fall below the lines and that even some colleges are not requiring them any longer because it’s known that’s what’s occurring when they create the tests. Those same colleges want to know more about how the kids really perform and work thru learning, vs. just what they memorized for those all important SAT scores.

    I don’t think anyone knows the complete right formula, but isn’t it a start just getting more people to really understand how NCLB is crafted and what it’s doing to our kids, so that at least the discussions can take place. I think that was the main agenda last night. And for me… it was really refreshing to be told how they are put together (and yes, I do understand that it was their side they wanted portrayed) vs. just getting spin on how great everyone is doing. Yes, some of the speakers were extremely biased (and I dare say a bit paranoid), but just because you’re paranoid about something, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to you (or in this case.. the kids). They are the ones suffering thru all of this, and ultimately, that means our country doesn’t end up in such great hands a generation from now.

    Just some thoughts from the other side of the conversation. And… at least there was a conversation.

  2. Fair enough. I perhaps overstated the disdain of testing. They did promote educational models at schools that didn’t require Regents exams and they certainly condemned high stakes testing. But they did not propose to eliminate all testing.

    Also, you are right that there is no easy solution here. I didn’t seriously expect the panelists to have a “magic pill” to fix everything, and I certainly don’t have one either.

    However, I think my essential thesis stands. The panelists did not, and I think the profession as a whole does not, accept any responsibility for the state of the educational system that allowed NCLB to come to be. Poverty was blamed, the state Regents were blamed, NCLB was blamed, but the panel positioned the educators (and the students) as the hapless victims here.

    The students certainly are victims of any failed educational system. The teachers may well be victims of NCLB. But acting as victims does not earn them the trust to control the post-NCLB model.

    I may be reading too far between the lines, but the panelists basically said that the pre-NCLB system wasn’t broken, and to the extent that there were flaws, it wasn’t their fault. NCLB has to go. But merely returning to the pre-NCLB state doesn’t get us there. If educators want to control that system (and I think they should be the ones to control it) then they need to minimally be accountable for its success/failure. I didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone was willing to step up to that bar.

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