The Hoff notes some new poll numbers that show some racial / ethnic differences in perceptions of No Child Left Behind:
Forty-one percent of blacks and 39 percent of Hispanics believe that NCLB has helped improve their schools. Only 21 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Hispanics say the law is hurting their schools. (The rest says there’s no difference.) By contrast, 27 percent of whites say the law is helping schools, 31 percent say it is hurting, and 27 percent say it hasn’t had an impact.
This shouldn’t be surprising, and the explanation is pretty simple: minority groups like NCLB better than whites because NCLB is in fact better for minority groups than for whites. As Eduwonk noted last week, there are resource allocation and prioritization choices embedded in NCLB and any other kind of education law. The authors of NCLB saw an education landscape in which minority, poor and disadvantaged students were falling short in resources and success by every available measure, and so they deliberately designed a system that would change allocations and priorities accordingly. And it seems to be working; as this week’s CEP report found, “Student scores on state tests of reading and mathematics have risen since 2002, and achievement gaps between various groups of students have narrowed more often than they have widened.”
While lots of things besides NCLB have happened in the last six years that affect student achievement, and the overall improvement is less robust than many hoped, it seems pretty clear at this point that the law is moving things the way it intended: getting more students to basic proficiency levels in reading and math, with an emphasis on traditionally disadvantaged students. That has undoubtedly come at a cost in some areas–we may be paying less attention to other subjects, or to high achievers, or to non-disadvantaged students. That’s not a “flaw,” as many would have it, but a choice–the kind of choice that grown-ups make, and a choice that I think is more than justified given the catastrophic and all-too-common educational failure that marginalized students have traditionally experienced. It’s not, however, a zero-sum choice–I’m pretty sure that a unit of educational resources transfered from a well-off student to a disadvantaged student produces a net gain to society, in that the former student has an abundance of out-of-school resources to fall back on, while the latter does not.
Eduwonkette tries to take on the equity assumptions underlying the proficiency-based NCLB model by saying:
There are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between achievement and kids’ life chances. The first is to consider, in absolute terms, the set of skills that students have. The second views achievement as relative. Most coveted opportunities – jobs, college admission, a good grade in a college course, or positive evaluations in the workplace – are not divvied up based on students crossing an arbitrary line of proficiency or competence. We don’t give everyone a job who’s passed a basic reading test, nor do we admit everyone to UC-Berkeley who’s received more than a 700 on the verbal SAT. Every student in a college course at NYU can’t get an A, and faculty measure students’ performance against others to assign grades. In short, all of these decisions are made by comparing the performance of those in a pool, and choosing those who come out near the top.
The proficiency view, to my mind, is certainly important to consider when we are thinking about building stocks of human capital. But if we are concerned about inequality and social stratification – ensuring that, on average, every demographic and socioeconomic group is equally prepared to compete in higher education and the workplace – relative achievement measured on a continuous scale is what matters, not proficiency rates.
I take her point but still think this is most wrong. At the very upper reaches of society, like UC-Berkeley or a super-selective university in New York City, this is true. But for the vast majority of people, the relationship between education and opportunity is much more a matter of passing through various gates / getting over various hurdles / choose your metaphor, each of which is based on meeting a specific, non-relative standard. You need to learn enough to graduate from high school, and then enough to get into college, and then enough to earn a college degree, and then enough to land a career-oriented job. Once you’re in the job, the relative stuff starts to make a difference. But you’re a whole lot better off being in the 10th percentile of bachelor’s degree holders than the 90th percentile of high school dropouts in this country. Specific milestones and credentials matter, a lot. And there really are levels of learning that have absolute meaning, particularly with respect to literacy and numeracy, which is why–surprise!–NCLB focuses there.