Progress for Every Child

The ultimate goal of educational policy must be progress for every child.  Not standards.  Not attainment of grade level proficiency.   Not college readiness.  But progress toward developing each young person’s potential to the fullest extent possible every year.  Not only is this the right educational goal, but it is the only one that pulls parents, teachers, and administrators together politically in a shared vision of helping every child, disadvantaged and advantaged alike, to grow into smarter and more capable citizens.  With rare exception, each student’s progress, no matter how high or low the base level of attainment, eventually benefits others in society.

While most teachers and parents adhere to that goal, they also care deeply about their own children and protégés, and many top-down requirements ignore that legitimate and natural impulse.   When my children were in school, governments and school boards devoted additional resources to the “gifted and talented.” Others felt left out. Later, the focus shifted: the schools needed to do more for “special education” students, then those for whom English was a second language (ESL).  Next efforts were made to pull more students into advanced placement AP courses, then to mainstream a larger share of students with different abilities. Later, standards became the focus du jour, culminating partly in 2001 in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, and more recently in new fights over the “common core” level of achievement agreed to by state officials.

The reaction?  I think it can be summed up well by the story of the school superintendent who in response to No Child Left Behind essentially told his principals to focus on that group, let’s say 20% of students, with the highest probability of being brought up to the standard.  As for the other 80 percent of students, those above the standard and those more likely to never achieve it, well, they implicitly had to accept relatively fewer resources if relatively more were devoted to the 20%.  A more extreme reaction came to light with the “racketeering” conviction of several Atlanta school teachers and officials for feeding students answers to standardized tests and changing test sheets.

These various reform efforts didn’t necessarily fail.  They responded partly to past areas of neglect.  But one can also see that if each program’s success depends mainly upon shifting attention and resources, and if there are narrowly circumscribed measures of success, then it’s quite possible to come full circle on these efforts, succeed modestly with the targeted population each time, and then at the end of the day advance not at all with any one of them as the targets rotate into and out of view.  To me that partly explains why our school systems have fallen behind those of many other countries.

The literature on performance measures, successful organization, and statistics gives us many lessons that need to be heeded. Among those most relevant here: no organization succeeds unless it engages in a process of continual improvement.  Those who are on the ground must buy into and have ownership of the process.   Tests should occasionally shift to areas that haven’t been checked.  For instance, if success in math comes about because extra time to it came out of fewer recesses, one had better check on whether active students become more out of control and if obesity is increasing.  Finally, it’s all right to teach to a test if we know that the test incorporates much of what we want to succeed.  A great example in the school systems are the advanced placement tests, where teachers often follow a fairly rigorous but also standard way to advance a selected group of students on a subject matter eventually to be tested.

Teaching to the test is bad enough when it discourages educators from teaching necessary skills that those tests neglect. But it is even worse when state governments, school boards, or school superintendents grade a school, or principal, or teacher primarily on the percentage of students reaching some minimum standard. Such judgments ignore both other sources of knowledge and the potential progress of many students above or below the standard.

Though No Child Left Behind may have failed on some fronts, it did help set in motion more rigorous efforts to track students over many years. These tracking systems often provide the types of data by which progress can be measured along several (but, of course, far from all) useful dimensions. The potential of these data for first empowering teachers and parents with multiple measures of each student’s progress, not just attainment, has yet to be realized.

Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, have recently released a bill known as the Every Child Achieves Act. The label at least suggests a focus on every child, rather than NCLB’s focus on a subset of students who are “behind.” Many experts call the bill a step in the right direction because it tries to maintain some accountability even while allowing states much greater flexibility in setting standards.

Still, whether the states advance our still-mediocre educational system—either on their own or with the help of federal incentives—remains to be seen. A crucial telling point will be whether enough schools and jurisdictions start to recognize how to better use measures of progress, not just attainment, and then aim to develop each and every student’s potential regardless of whether they fall well below, near to, or well above any particular attainment standard.

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