Archive for March, 2007

How NCLB is dumbing down education. This piece appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer this past Monday 3/26/2007. It is worth a quick look.

read more | digg story

Read Full Post »

Is there a significant difference in making an ontological statement and an epistemological statement. Susan Buck-Morss (2003) presents the following examples of the problem raised. Consider the following statements:

  1. Because the United States does not violate human rights, it is a civilized nation.
  2. Because the United States is a civilized nation, it does not violate human rights.

Statement 1. is an epistemological description allowing for critical judgments about relative truth or falsity. Statement 2. on the other hand, is an ontological description establishing by definition the fact that the United States is civilized. This is not a judgment but, rather, a statement of truth. There is no room for judgment in the predicate because civilized nations do not violate human rights. Since, as a matter of fact, the US is defined as civilized, anything it does is, therefore, the act of a civilized nation.

The epistemological opens the door to critical debate. Stated in another way, Because the US does (or does not) violate human rights, it is not (or is) a civilized nation. Here the relative truth values can be weighed, discussed, debated, or otherwise set to a test to determine the truth or falsity of the statement or its converse or any shaded, nuanced levels in between. Not so with the ontological. The ontological statement is one meant to justify a position, to close, even usurp, debate. By defining the conditions of being as a fact, there is no possibility of refutation. To do so is to be unpatriotic.

The US is not the only nation or group to engage in ontological justification. Here are a few other examples of ontological statements that are meant at their core to justify behavior without substantive debate or discussion :

  1. As a Muslim my struggle is Jihad, a holy struggle; therefore whatever violence I employ must also be holy.
  2. Imperialism is undemocratic however, Israel is a democracy; therefore Israeli occupation of Palestine is not imperialistic but a defense of democracy.
  3. Because I am an American (Iraqi, Israeli, Egyptian, _____________) I am prepared to die for my country (religion, ethnicity, gender, _____________). You can fill in the blanks for whatever requires an ontological justification.

While the change from epistemological to ontological appears to be small—a mere shifting of the subject and predicate of a statement—the result is one that is open to or closed to critical thinking and debate.

My point here is really quite simple. Reasoned discussion always stems from knowing and not from being. Ontological statements define being in terms of a truth statement that is not subject to debate while epistemological statements embrace notions of debate, the weight of evidence, and otherwise thinking about interests being served. Ontological debate is, and can only be, a shouting match. Perhaps it is time to stop shouting.


Buck-Morss, S. (2003). Thinking past terror: Islamism and critical theory on the left. London, UK: Verso.

Read Full Post »

In a stunning article in Educational Theory, Tyson E. Lewis (2006) argues that contemporary schooling in the United States, through policies of zero-tolerance, lockdown, and No Child Left Behind policies, separates and isolates students from the body politic by creating ambiguities that emerge from the complexities of disciplinary procedures and high-stakes assessment policies prevalent in inner-city schools that serve low-income, minority students. Lewis relies on arguments made by Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, and Critical Theorist, Theodor Adorno to make his case.

According to Lewis, Adorno makes the case that schooling creates the precondition for fascism to take hold due primarily to the undemocratic nature of the classroom. In Western education the classroom is often understood as a place of discipline and punishment, of separation and separating, of execution and executioner that is implicit in the student-teacher dialectic of power and passivity. School is not understood, in the main, as a place for developing autonomy, critical decision making, or self- and communal-response-ability; this in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. Lewis seems to understand the difference between language and the Real (Žižek, 2002).

Agamben, according to Lewis, presents a case for the Nazi death camp as the paradigmatic case of the creation of exceptional space, space removed from the principal political space of the community yet existing within that space without visibility or recognition. This form of exceptional space extends to many institutions found in the Western idea of Global Capitalism such as airports, hospitals, and credit bureaus. Lewis argues convincingly that schools must be included in this exceptionality as well. When such exceptional space is created “life is held in suspension, neither inside nor outside the polis, neither fully alive or dead. Stated differently, life is made to survive in legal limbo” (Lewis, 2006, p 161). Schools, create space that is inherently undemocratic. Student’s lives are suspended while dependent upon the whims and fancies of outsiders, political and administrative demands, that place their lives in suspension where survival in legal limbo is, perhaps, all that can be expected.

What is destroyed in the process is not dignity, rather it is control or the illusion of control. When placed in survival mode, life is reduced to the bare necessities, to what Agamben (1998) has labeled homo sacer, literally, sacred life, but in Agamben’s terms is defined more metaphorically as bare life. In the paradigmatic exceptional space, the Nazi Death Camps, homo sacer collides with the ordinary citizen, one surviving in limbo, outside of the borders of the political system and one entrenched within the borders of that system; one powerless, the other holding the key to ultimate power—life and death.

The United States is not exempt from creating borderless states of isolation. Native American people have lived in isolation on reservations for a hundred years or so, isolated as sovereign nations within a sovereign nation, a euphemism that is intended to hide the source of Real power. During World War II, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, isolated in the California desert and the Great Basin where they could be separated from Real Americans. More recently, the detention camp at Guantanamo place the lives of enemy combatants in limbo under the watchful eye of the military. Each of these instances, including the paradigmatic case, fall into what Agamben (1998) calls biopolitics.

Lewis extends this argument to schools, labeling the activity of schools and schooling as biopedagogy. Students are placed in a position of being homo sacer in the sense that because they are subject to nothing but external rules, to not being able participants in the decisions that directly and indirectly impact their lives, schools are places where students necessarily collide with those that choose to control them. Schools isolate, separate, and punish sometimes just because they can. The real tragedy is that this all appears to be normal to the rest of us.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Lewis, T. E. (2006). The school as an exceptional space: Rethinking education from the perspective of the biopedagogical. Educational Theory, 56(2), 159-176.

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

Read Full Post »

World’s Smallest Political Quiz Results

I recently found the site Advocates for Self-Government where I took the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.” It is worth the two to three minutes to take this quiz and really see where you stand as a thinking citizen. I found the whole thing eye-opening. Perhaps you will too.

read more | digg story

Read Full Post »

Slavoj Žižek (2002) writes, “The problem with the twentieth-century ‘passion for the Real’ was not that was a passion for the Real, but that it was a fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.  Žižek is, in part, referring to notions of tensions between universals and particulars that often are distinguished through the use of coded language. 

This is especially true as the debate surrounding No Child Left Behind begins to take on steam.  Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings (2007), writes, “The No Child Left Behind Act has evolved from idea to law to a way of life. It’s the foundation upon which we must build, and the time to act is now.”  Spellings, by her argument that NCLB has evolved into a “way of life” codes NCLB as the Real yet she ultimately fails to confront the Real in the sense that she fails to respond to the critics of NCLB. 

In the same document Spellings goes on to point out how to build on the stunning accomplishments already achieved under NCLB.  She writes that we must now:

  • Strengthen efforts to close the achievement gap through high standards, accountability, and more options for parents.
  • Give states flexibility to better measure individual student progress, target resources to students most in need, and improve assessments for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
  • Prepare high school students for success by promoting rigorous and advanced coursework and providing new resources for schools serving low-income students.
  • Provide greater resources for teachers to further close the achievement gap through improved math and science instruction, intensive aid for struggling students, continuation of Reading First, and rewards for great progress in challenging environments.
  • Offer additional tools to help local educators turn around chronically underperforming schools and empower parents with information and options.

But wait, I am confused.  Each of the points Spellings makes is formulated in the negative and often oppositionally.  She speaks of “achievement gaps” and “high standards” in the same breath.  She wants to target individual students in order to develop universal achievement among the disabled and limited English speaking students.  She wants more rigorous and advanced high school coursework seemingly by providing new resources for low-income schools (where the “achievement gap” is the greatest).  She wants to provide more resources for teachers to close (oh my, here it is again) the “achievement gap” along side intensive aid for struggling students.  And finally, not to be outdone, she wants to help local educators turn around local “chronically underperforming schools” presumably by informing parents and giving parents greater options for their children.  So how is any of this different from the Real of the current iteration of NCLB? 

Spellings vigorously, but not rigorously, condemns schools, schooling, teaching and learning using language that alludes to underperforming schools, achievement gaps, and creating challenging contexts for learning.  Her claim is designed to spark disgust in the minds of those whose children “perform” at appropriate levels.  The problem here is that what is appropriate is and remains unclear.  The language used by Spellings is a language of blame, of pointing fingers at the victim which has a two-fold effect.  It removes blame from the dominant majority.  It is not their fault that some students underachieve.  Perhaps it is their low-income status, their disabilities, or their failure to master the English language.  Secondly, it fails to address the underlying social problems that lead to poverty, to alienation, and to resistance in school of working class and welfare class students.  But, gosh, most of us are off the hook.  Rhetoric alone will never fix the problem.

NCLB is something like coffee without caffeine, a simulacrum of the Real without the malignancy (Žižek, 2002, 2003).  NCLB is the perfect stratagem for the avoidance of confronting the Real.


Spellings, M. (2007). Building On Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act. Retrieved March 27, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/factsheets/blueprint.html

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real. London, UK: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Read Full Post »

Educating Alice posted a story regarding the Holocaust and Shoelaces. This story is important enough to read in its entirety.

I want to add my 2 cents here. I agree that we must teach kids to think about hard topics in a rigorous manner. Collecting 6,000,000 centimeters of shoelaces tied together is symbolic drivel, an act not worthy of serious consideration, except that it interferes with children thinking hard about the whole issue of the Holocaust.

I am currently reading a very short (66 pages) book by Robert Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial. Cambridge, UK. Icon Books (2001). Eaglestone makes a thoughtful argument in which he distinguishes between the modern, liberal discourse that, through fear of political incorrectness, continences free speech to the extreme and a postmodern view that insists on rigorous attention to the ethical value of the argument itself. The modern view allows for debate where there is no debate. It makes room for Holocaust denial because free speech requires that both sides be heard–even when there is no other side. The postmodern view, however, requires one to address the underlying ethics of the argument leaving little room for sweeping events under the rug as if they did not occur.

Collecting shoelaces is much like Holocaust denial because it trivializes the reality of the event. It is something like creating a virtual reality, like decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer, allowing for an experience without the malignancy of the event itself.

Technorati : ,

Read Full Post »

The link leads you to a post by Treavor on his blog that is absolutely worth the look. The video clip from YouTube poses some interesting and disturbing questions that need to be addressed in the United States but, because of the hegemonic views of the current administration, the diffidence paid to global capitalism, and the blind faith in positivism and the implications attached thereto it seems that we are not even beginning to think about the issues raised.

Are Schools Preparing Children for the Future?

Read Full Post »

In a post on the NCTE blog, Barbara Cambridge writes in part:

I am encouraged that we are beginning to distinguish between formative and summative assessment, not to affirm one over the other but to accent that each serves a particular purpose, formative primarily to improve teaching and learning and summative primarily to answer accountability needs.

At the same time that we make that distinction, however, we might also think how doing each kind of assessment might affect the other kind. To return to the AFT forum Kent referred to, listen to points made by Paul Barton in a forum presentation labeled “‘Failing’ or ‘Succeeding’ Schools: How Can We Tell?” Barton makes four points about accountability data, the kind of data most often generated by summative assessments.

First, Barton contends that current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned. Test scores used for accountability are invalid if alignment is not in order. My take from this point: Pedagogy, curriculum, and formative assessment need to track with summative assessment.

Secondly, Barton states that a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year. Barton recommends administering the same test at the beginning and the end of the school year. My take on this point: Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments .

Thirdly, Barton says gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents. Transparency would be supported by having student identifiers to track students from grade to grade or by stretch tests that cover several grades worth of work but are taken each year. Tests, however, are really not needed every year. Samples, rotating testing, or testing on an unannounced basis would free time for more diagnostic testing (formative assessment), which research shows improves instruction. My take on this point: A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning.

Fourthly, standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system. My take on this point: Hurray that teachers are identified as the professionals who should set standards.

Each of Barton’s points, it seems to me, recognizes the (potential) interaction of formative and summative assessment.

I want to comment on the points made as Cambridge relies so heavily on Barton for her analysis. I must begin by addressing the problems with the current obsession with notions of assessment and evaluation. As I have said many times in the past, the current reliance on technocratic solutions begs the question regarding the purpose of education in the first instance. The overarching problem with the reliance on assessment and standards is precisely the reliance on predefined outcomes as a substitution for real education, for real learning. It is somewhat akin to coffee without caffeine or wine without alcohol (Žižek, 2003), virtual reality is substituted for reality. The obsession with test scores, curriculum alignment, and the like creates the phantasm of real education allowing for the maintenance of the status quo, or worse, plunging the system of public education into the abyss of what Žižek (2002) references as the “Desert of the Real.”

The first of Barton’s points is that “current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned.” The underlying assumption here is that by aligning curriculum with assessments one will know with some degree of precision what is being learned, and by implication, what is being taught. The argument is a technocratic, utilitarian view of what should occur in schools, a neatly packaged Utopian understanding rather than one that addresses the complexities of teaching and learning, the multiplicity of contexts, interactions, and the like that make classrooms messy, nuanced spaces that require well developed professional judgment and flexibility in response to changing circumstances. Notions of alignment of curriculum to assessment deny the complexity in favor of packaging, of sound bites, of billboard slogans.

According to Cambridge, Barton’s second point, that “a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year,” is well taken. Her solution, however, fails to inspire. She states, “Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments.” Here she relies on Barton’s position that the way to overcome prior learning in any given school year is to pre-test and post-test thereby controlling for prior learning. Cambridge translates that idea into a distinction between formative and summative assessment but this is a solution that merely extends the utilitarian view that testing accounts for learning, at best a naive position.

Barton’s third point, that “gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents,” presents an interesting problem. In the first place one must have faith that what is measured by testing actually represents gains in student knowledge. It seems that Barton’s first point negates this possibility unless, somehow, pains are taken to actually align curriculum with assessments. More curious, however, is Cambridge’s take on this point. When Cambridge states, “A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning,” she seems to be privileging formative assessment without admitting to the potential problem that formative assessment is created to simply mirror the summative assessment thereby training (as one might train a seal, a dog, or a dancing bear) to perform well on the only test that counts, the summative assessment. Too many contradictions to suit my take on all this.

Barton’s final point according to Cambridge is that “standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system.” Where do I start. The whole notion that specific gain can somehow be measured represents a view of human nature that reduces everything to a number or a set of numbers. From my vantage point, that of a teacher of literacy, I tend not to trust the Positivists faith in this form of reductionism. Quite the contrary, I trust words, stories, narratives–NOT NUMBERS! Oh how I hate to shout, but English teachers need to shout from time to time. I am disheartened by Cambridge’s response as she cheers the notion that teachers should set standards. Well, duh! Of course teachers should set standards. But, when imposed assessments, notions of formative and summative assessments, dictated standards and the like are the norm, teachers will be reduced to nothing more than conduits for the transmission of the standards to children who are, in turn, reduced to nothing more than a number.


Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Read Full Post »

I want to focus on the regulation or regulatory function of the American academic standards movement. It is precisely the regulatory function of that movement that requires closure, the encapsulation of the model itself. In this short piece, I want to examine the connected concepts of standards-driven instruction and data-driven instruction in American public schools. In a nutshell, data-driven instruction derives its power from the larger concept of standards-driven instruction. Both, however, miss the essential point that instruction must be less about technical complicity and more about knowing and knowledge.

A current sub-discourse of the American standards movement calls for the implementation of standards-driven or standards-based instruction. What is really meant by this language? What standards is one speaking of? How shall one implement those standards in the classroom? What standards are really important and why? Marzano & Kendall (1998) asked the question, what if all national standards that have currently been adopted by discipline specific professional organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies or the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of English, were taught in public schools beginning in kindergarten and continued to be taught until a student graduated from high school—how much time would it take to complete one’s pre-college education? Using a quite liberal formula for teaching and reteaching every standard and assuring a reasonable degree of mastery of each standard, and using the typical formula of a 180 day school year and a 6.5 hour school day they found that a student entering kindergarten at age 5 would finally be ready to graduate high school at the end of grade 22—ten full years after the normal grade 12. Given this analysis, students would not be ready for college until they were 28 years old. Marzano and Kendall did not even consider state standards or locally adopted standards as a part of their analysis. What is clear to me is that the obsession with standards has led to an insistence on quantity rather than on quality in education. One must consider that there are many ways to address quality education, only one of which is to obsess over the quantity of what one learns.

When quantity is the issue one finds multiple stories of abuse of the system. Emphasis on quantity leads to erratic implementation of and/or assessment of educational progress. An example seems to be in order here. In around 2002 in Illinois, where I live and work, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) decided that they would no longer test writing in the state assessment, the ISAT. The resulting message schools received was to effectively eliminate writing from the curriculum in grades k-12. This action came because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements focused on the technocracy of reading and math. Writing was, therefore, legislated out of the literacy mix. In 2005 the ISBE announced that writing would return to the ISAT in 2006 and 2007 being phased back in over the two year period. The problem, however, became one of what would be tested rather than how to teach good writing. Teachers began asking, “What did they want on the test?” The clear implication was if what they (whoever ‘they’ might be) wanted was known then students could be drilled into compliance with the assessment and scores might actually rise.

My concern here is that when technocracy is substituted for learning the result is not education, rather the simulacrum of education. When it is more important to know what they want then writing does not re-present thinking, quite the contrary, in merely repeats a mindless formulaic approach to putting pencil to paper conforming to whatever is currently in vogue, whatever those in power determine, in this case, corresponds to appropriate writing. Instruction under these circumstances might be better classified as training, something we do to dogs, seals and dancing bears for purposes of human entertainment. Such instruction is not open to surprise, mystery, or wonder. It is not open to anticipation of something to come, of the absolute other. It is not open to ideas, thoughts, or innovation. It is efficient, predictable, and produces expected results. The technocrats behind the standards movement rely on regulation to insure the possible, to conserve what never was and to block everything that could be anticipated.


Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1998). Awash in a sea of standards. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Read Full Post »

What a breath of fresh air. The idea of using literature and/or trade books for teaching history is not new but many people have a hard time actually doing it. Here is a story of a teacher with the courage to make the switch. Bravo! I am sure his students will benefit from this move. Read the post for yourself.

read the whole post | digg story

Read Full Post »

Posted on Craig’s List. I think this is worth at least a quick read.

read the whole post | digg story

Read Full Post »

Nel Noddings once wrote, “Education should be emancipatory, not predatory.” Colman McCarthy (2006) writes, “Tests represent fear-based learning, not desire-based learning.” Here then is the problem: If the current trend in American education is, in fact, fear-based and, thereby predatory, how can we think about moving the classroom in the direction of emancipation and a desire-based curriculum?

I find the Hillocks (2002) informative on this point. It is not that testing is, in itself, an evil that we must tolerate. What is problematic is the way in which testing is used in the United States. Several points can be mentioned:

  1. Current testing does not necessarily test what is purported to be taught. In other words, tests do not align well with curriculum.
  2. The purpose of testing is not well understood, even by those who are responsible for the selection and administration of the tests. The simple fact is that large scale testing is appropriate when looking at general trends but when used to identify and isolate individual students or schools they are being misused at the deepest levels.

Furthermore, Applebee (1996) argues that curriculum is best understood as a conversation that is locally engaged in and must include multiple stakeholders such as the school community, parents, teachers, administrators, students, and others that have an interest in the development of young people within a community. By imposing external curriculum schools move away from their role as democratic institutions that have as an underlying purpose to develop democratic, critical thinking among the children they serve. Imposed curriculum, furthermore, removes motivation and interest on the part of students and, often, their teachers as well changing the curriculum from one that is based on desire to one based on fear.

Freire (1970) asks us to ask this important question when beginning to analyze the actions of those in power as they develop programs that effect the rest of us: Whose interests are being served by the actions or programs suggested or enacted into law? In the case of high-stakes testing as the principle outcome of the process of education the interests of test developers and publishers are clearly being served by this billion dollar industry. But, are the interests of students, teachers and the community as a whole being served? I argue that they are not if for no other reason than the despotism of the test undermines democratic institutions by modeling an undemocratic approach to teaching and learning the result of which is not lost on students or their teachers. In the end, those of us asking the critical questions are caught up in the futility of attempting to challenge the system that produces legislation in a democratic republic that is, at its core, undemocratic.

Widespread evidence points to schools and school districts cheating on reported scores. Other evidence points to states that revise their state assessments in order to appear to comply with No Child Left Behind. Still more evidence points to misrepresentation of the data reported by the Department of Education and President Bush designed to make NCLB appear to be the cause of progress made in gains reported but when subjected to disaggregation of the data shows that NCLB may not have had any impact on rising scores. Further evidence points to higher dropout rates since the inception of NCLB. Overall the evidence developed by neutral investigators tends toward the negative. Not surprisingly, evidence from conservative and religious right sources consistently sing the praises of NCLB but I question their impartiality. Work that I have reported on shows clearly that the impact of high-stakes testing on teaching has a negative impact when teachers do not consistently reflect on their own teaching practice (Passman, 2001).

It is important that sanity be restored to American education. Reducing the process of education to a single test score does violence to students that can least afford it. Failing to properly fund public education does violence to urban and rural communities that can least afford it (Kozol, 1992). Thinking that we can improve education by creating fear among teachers and their students is short sighted and, in a democracy, unthinkable.


Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised ed.). New York: Continuum.

Hillocks, G. (2002). The testing trap : how state writing assessments control learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Harper.

McCarthy, C. (2006). Test-driven teaching isn’t character-driven, March 19, 2007, from http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0607-26.htm

Passman, R. (2001). Experience with student-centered teaching and learning in high-stakes assessment environments. Education, 122(1), 189-199.



Read Full Post »

If you have questions about high-stakes testing mandated by No Child Left Behind then this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer may just help you think about the NCLB mandates in a different way. While it represents anecdotal evidence from one teacher, that evidence is mounting and cannot be overlooked in the overall discussion of NCLB. The author makes the following bold statement:

Tests represent fear-based learning, not desire-based learning.

I can identify with this sentiment completely!

Read the Story | digg story

Read Full Post »

In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2006) offer a well reasoned critique of NCLB. They analyze both the language of the act itself as well as the language of the tools used to implement the act published by the U.S. Department of Education. Cochran-Smith & Lytle explore in depth what they refer to as three images of teaching or, even more specifically, the “central common conceptions symbolic of basic attitudes and orientations about teachers and teaching that are explicit or implicit in NCLB (p. 668).” This article argues that NCLB is disingenuous toward teachers leaving them void of active agency as contributors to their own professional practice. The argument is further supported as they point to multiple instances where NCLB oversimplifies the processes of teacher learning and teacher practice because the act relies on a reductionist view of teaching and learning. NCLB focuses on a transmission model of teaching and learning at the expense of all other methods and models, this in spite of the fact that the past 30 years have pointed us in more constructivist approaches to classroom practice.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also argue that NCLB has multiple detrimental effects on schools, students, teachers, administrators, the communities served by schools, and the nation as a whole. They argue that NCLB undermines the broad democratic purpose of education in our nation. Public schooling, since the late 19th century, has been, at least in part, dedicated to the development of a productive, contributing citizen; active members of the body politic. They argue that NCLB, by removing democratic initiative and decision making from local and state authorities, effectively removes decision making from the classroom. The imposition of a top-down system of regulations for public schooling flies in the face of democratic principles, hence NCLB undermines democratic principles by teaching teachers and their students that following orders is more important than thinking about the source or legitimacy of those orders.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also remark on the effect NCLB has had on narrowing the curriculum by privileging reading and math at the expense of social studies, science and the arts. What is more disturbing is that when considering reading NCLB only considers the technical aspects of the reading process and then only follows a single model for the transmission of reading skills to students. There is no effort to address competing models, for reading for aesthetic pleasure, or for reading for content and information. Some studies have found that better than 71% of American schools have dropped social studies, science, and the arts from their curriculum and that the majority of these schools are those that are historically under-served in terms of both money and staff.

I am appalled by the problems that NCLB has created. I suspect that they are far more serious in both the short and long term than the problems the act purports to correct. I will be spending some time over the next few weeks thinking deeply about the issues presented by NCLB. I will address questions such as whose interests are really being served by NCLB. I will deconstruct the language of the act and the supporting documents that are designed to support the implementation of the act. As I do this I will be looking seriously at work by David Berliner (1985, 2002) and his colleagues and Walt Haney (2000) as well as a number of other researchers. I believe this is an important debate and invite broad discussion.


Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Retrieved July 19, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2006). Troubling images of teaching in No Child Left Behind. Harvard Educational Review, 76(4), 668-697.

Haney, W. (2000, Aug 19). The myth of the Texas miracle in Education. Retrieved July 22, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/

Read Full Post »

Over the next few weeks I want to explore some of the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) especially as NCLB impacts attitudes directly engaged with teaching and the image of teachers in general. NCLB is deeply problematic at many levels, not the least of which are the many tensions that are explicit within the language of the act itself. In this post, I want to explore the notion that highly qualified teachers, as defined by language in NCLB, are those with content area knowledge that can give their knowledge to their students.

The notion that content knowledge can be transmitted from teacher to student is one that professionals from many disciplines over the past 30 years have dismissed as being far too narrow and simplistic to be of any significant value for serious classroom consideration. Both teaching and learning are socially constructed, dependent on local knowledge, customs, and ideas, and deeply embedded in class, status and other cultural issues. Learning is not a matter of absorbing what another tells us, rather it is a complex pattern of acquisition of new and important ideas, finding parallels to one’s own prior knowledge, experimenting with ways of integrating that knowledge into new and meaningful constructions, and finally making the newly integrated knowledge public—only to repeat the entire process over and over again. In this sense, learning is a messy, contextualized process that is dependent on well informed and well educated teachers.

NCLB, however, defines highly qualified teachers as those that have content knowledge they can give to their students—to transmit their wealth of knowledge and experience to their students regardless of context, culture or other mitigating factors. This can and will be done by applying scientifically based methods (SBM) to the classroom because SBM is what works. In short, NCLB takes the position that just about anyone with adequate content knowledge can teach what they know to others if they are provided with the appropriate SBM to apply, sort of like a salve to an itch, in the classroom. This view understands students as a disease for which the cure is the SBM applied to them by content savvy teachers. The problem is that there is no SBM, no unbiased research to support this position. What little research there is that supports the NCLB position comes from think tanks that support NCLB. Relying on these results is a bit like parents relying on a study that points to benefits of delayed toilet training funded by the manufacturer of Pampers! Biased funders of what passes for research do not present reliable, trustworthy findings.

Classroom teaching is a complex, fluid experience as any experienced teacher will relate. The act of teaching is not guided by a single size fits all approach anymore than it is fair to assume that everyone would be pleased to sit down to a meal of fried grasshoppers. Teachers are adept at making quick and necessary adjustments to their teaching because they are constantly making informal judgments about the progress of their students in the classroom. Teachers gain this expertise in two ways. First, through professional training in schools that emphasize pedagogy, lead to effective practicum, clinical and student teaching experiences and finally to on the job experience. Secondly, teachers seek advanced degrees to improve their understanding of teaching and learning so as to be more effective in the classroom. Experienced teachers know, both practically and instinctively to be wary of those that introduce the absolutely perfect program, the one guaranteed to fix everything. They have seen it all before. They know that what works varies from day to day, class to class, year to year. What I did in my 1st period English class may or may not work in my 4th period repeat of the same content material. If I am not aware of that then I will fail my students in both the short and long terms. NCLB makes no room for this kind of reflection.

Just as an aside, I have been wondering lately why those who most ardently support NCLB and SBM tend to reject science when it comes to evidence supporting evolution? It seems curious that science is such a fickle partner!

Read Full Post »

More results from NCLB are in and, not surprisingly, the results point to an administration that overtly chooses to place a positive spin on those results even when no such connection can be asserted. The administration, and specifically President Bush, has been singing the praises of the NCLB legislation as the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show increases (although not necessarily significant increases) in reading and math among 9 and 13 year old school children.

President Bush likes to cite the “long-term-trend” NAEP as proof that the No Child Left Behind Act is working. The gains are significant only for 9- and 13-year-olds in math and 9-year-olds in reading. What’s more, the gains fall into a five-year testing window, and only two of those years occurred after the law took effect.

Although the results for 9-year-olds on the reading test are positive, researchers say they can’t be linked to the law. The testing window extends back to 1999—three years before President Bush signed the NCLB legislation into law and even before he was president.

The president displays a profound misunderstanding of the way in which statistics are interpreted. His view is not uncommon among the vast majority of the population with little or no training in statistical analysis. But, Mr. Bush has advisers that are fully capable of making appropriate inferences based on the numbers they see and they choose to adopt a populist stance, one that turns in their own favor, because they know that the audience they are trying to reach are as ignorant about the meaning of the numbers as is their boss. Clearly, this administration operates under the assumption that a lie told often enough soon looses its status as a lie and becomes the truth. Shame on the rest of us for falling victim to these lies.

Education Week

Read Full Post »

Reported by the NEA (National Education Association) with regard to a study prepared by Nichols, Glass, and Berliner, the NEA states the following:

Using several analyses of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test data from 25 states, a link between pressures associated with high-stakes testing and student achievement could not be established. The results of this research suggest that increases in testing pressure are related to increased retention in grade and drop-out rates.

The study, High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act,” was conducted by Sharon L. Nichols, Gene V. Glass, and David C. Berliner of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at the Arizona State University College of Education.

The executive summary is available here. The full report (PDF, 118 pages) is available at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory Web site. September 2005

It is certainly worth reading the executive summary if not the full report from EPSU.

Read Full Post »

I have often argued that engaged teaching and learning must be so much fun that children do not know what they are doing is good for them. This idea turns on the notion that teaching and learning must be ENGAGED. To be engaged teaching and learning must be rigorous, must be of value to students, and must be targeted to a real audience that goes beyond the teacher. Another way of thinking about engagement is to label this teaching and learning in this way as authentic.

In American schools today the emphasis on high-stakes testing resulting from the No Child Left Behind requirement to demonstrate adequate yearly growth (AYG) has placed a damper on engagement. Furthermore, NCLB requirements are causing schools to concentrate on technical aspects of reading and mathematics while abandoning aesthetic reading purposes as well as science, social studies, and the arts. Students are encouraged to follow specific formulas for writing, apply technical language to their acts of learning, and spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for the standardized testing that is required by NCLB.

By abandoning literature, science, social studies and arts integration into the curriculum, American schools are effectively creating an entire generation of Jeopardy players; an entire generation of people who are able to recall isolated facts without the ability to relate those facts to anything meaningful. Americans, sadly, are tolerating, perhaps even encouraging, the dismemberment of intellectual capital among the younger generation.

Integrating the arts into the classroom by introducing models of creative dramatics such as improvisation, choral reading, text to script adaptations (and performances) as well as teaching music, drawing, and the like as these important and engaging activities relate to the content of literature, science, mathematics, the social studies, and the like will restore creativity for sure. Additionally, students will learn to contextualize knowledge rather than understand knowledge as a bunch of facts.

Fear of being less than Number 1, an American obsession, seems to be driving the political and cultural movement toward a standards based curriculum and high stakes testing. Becoming well schooled in a Western hegemonic world view is the goal of some. Reliance on technical aspects of reading and mathematics is on the plates of others. What is missing is a commitment to knowledge as thinking rather than knowledge as a matter of being able to recall facts and structures.

Of course this little rant comes about because it is testing time in Illinois where I live. I have personally witnessed nearly two months of test preparation mostly at the expense of instruction. If I count the time dedicated to test preparation in the schools I visit on a regular basis over 70 instructional days have been dedicated to preparing for the multiple tests being administered to Chicago Public School students. This amounts to better than 50% of the school year so far spent on testing and test preparation.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »