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October 27, 2006

on opportunities and outcomes in education

Today's dominant educational legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requires outcomes--but it does not require opportunities or other "inputs." Presumably, policymakers were skeptical about the quality of mandated opportunities, even if there were adequate funding. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide science classes, or after-school activities, or service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Would they be considered in compliance with the law even if their outcomes were poor? Instead, Congress said that schools must achieve specific outcomes--mainly, reading, math, and science scores--but they could choose their own methods. (This is a simplification, but close enough for argument's sake.)

The focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons, although I understand and do not dismiss the reasons behind it.

First, NCLB--unavoidably--selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren't very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most "at risk" and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, "Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future." Worse, we may overlook young people's potential. They are capable of serving others, creating works of art, and organizing constructive activities. Treating them as bundles of problems instead of assets can help to drive them out of school, or so I strongly suspect. This is an argument for guaranteeing every American child opportunities for positive development.

Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students' individual skills.

A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students' discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students' skills or knowledge.

These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids' reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students' knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

The other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest--all of which are consequences of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who "leave them behind."

Well, maybe. But that strategy is no use if kids hate school and drop out, or if kids pass our reading exams but cannot use written texts for practical purposes, or if kids make it through school but don't know what to do with their lives.

Posted by peterlevine at October 27, 2006 08:56 AM

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