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John Merrow Headshot

An 'Act of War?'

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As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

The news that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is willing to give waivers to states struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been greeted with a sigh of relief in lots of places. He calls the law 'a slow motion train wreck' while bemoaning the failure of Congress to write a new version of the law, which actually expired in 2007.

Whether the 'relief' will be anything more than a Band-Aid remains to be seen, because the Secretary and Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes made it clear that, to get waivers, states will have to meet certain federal expectations regarding charter schools, the evaluation of teachers, and the acceptance of common core standards. The feds are not backing away from intense federal involvement in public education and may in fact be ratcheting up.

Even so, I don't see the Secretary or anyone in the Administration examining what strikes me as the root of the problem: NCLB's demands for more and more testing in reading and math.

Here's what I have come to believe: we test too much in reading and math, and that narrow focus means schools are not teaching other basic subjects like history. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy (PDF), a middle-of-the-road organization, found that "approximately 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess."

What's more, I believe that an unintended consequence of focusing on reading test scores is that many kids end up detesting reading.

Start with reading: When 83 percent of ALL of our low-income third graders, whatever their color or ethnic origin, cannot read competently or confidently, our country has a reading crisis. And because we know that 75 percent of those who are behind grade level at the end of third grade are unlikely to ever catch up, it's a crisis that demands action now.

But what exactly is the crisis? Do we teach reading incorrectly? Badly? Are educators still fighting the reading wars over whole language versus phonics? While the correct answer to all three questions is probably a qualified yes, it is our emphasis on passing reading tests that is the most significant piece of the problem.

I don't question the test scores: they are what they are, but what they reveal is how well the kids did on the reading test, and not much else. I say that because I have confidence in my own observations over recent years, and I have seen and heard low-income FIRST graders reading competently and confidently -- in schools where the fourth graders score poorly on reading tests.

They can and do read in first grade, but by fourth grade they cannot pass a reading test. And my conversations with a few of them suggest that they basically don't like to read:

I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but here's my hypothesis: Popular curricula -- no doubt created in response to NCLB -- emphasize (and drill in) the skills of reading in ways that actively teach children to dislike or even detest reading itself, because the goal is high scores on reading tests, not 'a nation of readers'. The net result is children who can read but basically hate it. They don't do well on reading tests because they instinctively rebel against being treated as little more than numbers; they aren't allowed to read for pleasure but instead are drilled in 'identifying the main idea' and so on.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has observed on many occasions, if we want children to pass reading tests, they should read, and read, and read.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes: "Here Merrow goes again, blaming tests," you may be thinking, but that's not the point. Tests don't kill curiosity; it's the constant testing and the primacy of tests that turns kids off.

NCLB is the villain of the story. Since NCLB became law in 2002, the amount of standardized bubble testing has doubled, according to Marshall 'Mike' Smith, former US Undersecretary of Education -- and other observers.

Schools do not teach what isn't going to be tested, and they do a bad job of teaching a subject when all that matters is the test score. Treat a human being as little more than a number, and the results are predictable.

Because state-wide testing is essentially limited to math and reading (with a smattering of science now), those subjects are highlighted, while other important subjects -- like history -- are sidelined. What is the effect of this policy? We can answer that because we have a reliable national test in other subjects, including history. Witness the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): Just 17 percent of 8th graders scored at a proficient or higher level (which was an increase over 2006!!). In the 4th and 12th grades, history repeated itself, with no statistically significant changes since the last analysis: Only 12 percent of seniors and 20 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency. How bad is our students' understanding of history? Over half of all 12th graders scored below the 'basic' level.

The apparent outcome of this national policy: citizens who do not know much about history and are unlikely to pick up a book (where they might learn some history).

To echo "A Nation at Risk" (1983), if a foreign power had done this to us, we'd consider it an act of war.

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.