Blind hogs and behaviorist laws

"Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while," quoth the late Russell Long (D-LA), longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. And so it is with the customarily education-blind New York Times editorial page, which unearthed a back-to-school acorn of wisdom on September 6.

Perhaps inspired by the flat-world musings of Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the editors delivered themselves of a perceptive analysis, noting that NCLB has done well at forcing states, districts, and educators "to focus at last on educational inequality, the nation's most corrosive social problem." But, they continued, "it has been less successful at getting educators and politicians to see the education problem in a global context, and to understand that this country is rapidly losing ground to the nations we compete with for high-skilled jobs that require a strong basis in math and science.... The United States can still prosper in a world where its labor costs are higher than the competition's, but it cannot do that if the cheaper workers abroad are also better educated." (emphasis added)

That sentence should be written on the blackboard a thousand times by everyone balking at the demands of NCLB and other standards-based reform strategies. For such reforms seek to secure America's future in two ways. One is by narrowing our domestic achievement gaps. The other is by boosting our overall level of academic prowess, at least up to the level that states have defined as "proficiency." Those who decry NCLB have their eyes on today, or maybe yesterday, not on tomorrow.

Skeptics say the dual goals are in conflict. Closing the achievement gap, they argue, means dumbing down standards and reining in high achievers, whereas a regimen that propels young Americans to world-class norms in demanding fields such as math and science would leave some of their classmates behind.

That paradox is true in part. We cannot be completely equal and truly excellent at the same time. But we could be more of both than we are today. Imagine what a different country this would be if 70 percent of all our kids were "proficient" in key subjects rather than the 30-odd percent who are today. (I'm using the NAEP gauge of proficiency, not the squishier versions adopted by most states.) Picture a society in which 90 percent of all young people graduate from high school on time (instead of today's 70 percent) with diplomas that signify readiness for college and modern jobs.

To get anywhere near those outcomes, however, we must make major changes in how we organize, pay for, and deliver K-12 education. This is in addition to the accountability mechanisms we impose upon the system and its various components - including the people who work in it.

If we don't change our ways, we won't get different results. (Recall the old definition of insanity.) And that's what NCLB, at bottom, is about: pressing states, districts, schools, and educators (not to mention kids) to change their ways, alter their behaviors, do things differently than they're accustomed to. It's the strongest behaviorist statute I can remember in the field of education; Uncle Sam at his pushiest.

This explains why others are pushing back. People don't like to change their behaviors and institutions resist altering their established practices.         

Through such a lens one should view the machinations of the NEA, of Connecticut's attorney general and state superintendent, of Utah's legislature, and sundry other instances of NCLB backlash. Prodded by Washington to do things differently, they're balking. They don't want to change. But that's hard to admit. So they're finding a million other rationales ("local control," "unfunded mandate," "unconstitutional") to justify their resistance. They're demanding waivers, exemptions, and "flexibility" so they don't have to change, at least not much. And to a lamentable degree the U.S. Department of Education is yielding of late, just as the Clinton Department of Education did when states balked at implementing both "Goals 2000" and the 1994 amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No, NCLB isn't perfect. I have as long a list as anyone of its malfunctions, unintended consequences, and needed amendments. And yes, a handful of states (not including Utah or Connecticut, by the way) had pretty decent systems of pre-NCLB standards-based reform that were showing gains; it's hard to fault them for not wanting to retool just because Uncle Sam has a slightly different approach.

Still, the country's K-12 education arrangements, taken as a whole, need to change in a big way. Otherwise, we'll neither close our domestic gaps nor catch our international rivals. Change means altering behavior, which usually means being compelled, dragooned, bribed, or outsmarted into doing things differently. Despite not wanting to.

Boosters of NCLB in particular and standards-based reform in general would be wise to rest their case on two grounds, as the blind-hog Times did: the moral and political imperative of narrowing the achievement gap at home and the economic and geopolitical need for a population that can out-compete the countries now striving to whip us. So far, the former argument is practically all one hears. The White House should join the Times editors, as odd a coupling as that may seem, in making the second argument, too. Further, the White House should quit letting people off the hook just because they don't want to change. Instead, the president should point out that not altering behavior means not changing our results, and that, my fellow Americans, will not get us where we need to be.

"Back to School, Thinking Globally," New York Times, September 6, 2005 (paid subscription required)

"Bush faces growing revolt over education policy," Reuters, September 5, 2005

"Why Is State Really Bucking 'No Child' Law?" by Lewis M. Andrews, Hartford Courant, September 6, 2005 (paid subscription required)

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