What the iPod can teach us about the failure of NCLB

iPod Sad Face
Photo by Joel Washing

Two months ago, Apple celebrated the 10th anniversary of the
release of the iPod. Sunday, we will “celebrate” the 10th birthday of NCLB.

The iPod is universally seen as a game changer—something
that not only transformed the way we listen to music, but that changed the
music industry itself.

Few would say the same about the transformative power of
NCLB.

Yet, what if the iPod hadn’t evolved in the ten years since
its initial release? What if, after Steve Jobs released the 2001 version—the
first-generation iPod—the different divisions at Apple couldn’t come to
agreement about how it should evolve?

As one tech-expert explained:

[The iPod] debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only,
FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and
5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows
version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod
debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If
Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in
2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

The transformative power of the iPod was unleashed not by
its first iteration, but by the way Apple constantly evaluates, reevaluates,
improves, and changes its products. And that’s why, ten years later, the iPod
is seen as a game changer.

By contrast, ten years after the release of NCLB, the law is
seen as a disappointment, if not an outright flop. Not because it didn’t have
the potential to change classroom-level instruction the same way the iPod
changed music, but because it’s a law frozen in time.

NCLB was signed into law and never modified. As Mike
pointed out
yesterday, Version 1.0 of NCLB sparked some initial changes.
Student achievement improved, particularly for our most struggling students and
particularly in math. But then we saw a plateau.
Version 2.0 was debated for a decade and never released. And we wonder why the
impact was so small?

The truth is that any policy innovation is only as good as
its implementation is strong.

The truth is that any policy innovation is only as good as
its implementation is strong. And strong implementation requires constantly
evaluating and reevaluating what’s happening, what’s going wrong, and how it can
be improved.

There are schools and districts, however, who did take Steve Jobs's
approach to implementation. They embraced standards- and accountability-driven
reform the same way Apple embraced the iPod. They focused on evaluation and
continuous improvement, and as a result, they have made enormous gains for
their students. These schools took the state standards—which were often
woefully inadequate, written in obscure and unteachable language, and riddled
with content gaps and errors—and worked with teachers before the school year
began to ensure everyone was clear about what, precisely, students should know
and be able to do. They worked to ensure that those outcomes drove
short- and long-term lesson plans. And they worked to align formative, interim,
and summative assessments to the state assessments in terms of content and
rigor.

But more than that, the most successful among this group
constantly evaluated and reevaluated their practice and made changes to
curriculum, to instruction, and to assessment to help their students master
that content and those skills. That is standards- and accountability-driven
reform at its core.

In order for standards to gain traction on the ground—in
classrooms—they have to be the starting point for all short- and long-term
planning; they have to be the anchors to which all formal and informal
assessments (both formative and summative) are aligned. Unfortunately, in too
many classrooms, standards were largely ignored. Sure, they were occasionally
linked to lessons—generally as a compliance measure when administrators
required it—but, in too many classrooms, teachers continued on, using the same
kinds of curricular and instructional resources they had for many years,
sometimes with minor tweaks, day in and day out.

We should
look not at the failure of the law itself, but rather at our failure to evolve
NCLB in response to lessons learned.

Of course, the state assessments did have some impact. In
many classrooms, a panic wave would sweep through the building several weeks
before the state test when “regular” instruction would be replaced by test
prep; when “electives” (like art, history, and science) were dropped in favor
of extra “tutoring” (read: more test prep) for “cusp” students who, it was
thought, could be brought from failure to passing with some key test-taking
strategies and some last-minute cramming. And, in too many schools, this
version of implementation has remained mostly unchanged since NCLB was passed
10 years ago, largely because the law itself hasn’t evolved with the changing
landscape.

And so, as we take stock of NCLB 10 years later, we should
look not at the failure of the law itself, but rather at our failure to evolve
NCLB in response to lessons learned. In
the end, if we want standards- and accountability-driven reform to be a game changer
for schools, we need to learn from the past—from our successes and mistakes—and
commit to improving and evolving our first-generation iPod.

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