Wednesday, February 5, 2014

R.I.P. No Child Left Behind: You Were A Mulit-Billion Dollar Failure!

Somewhere, in a dimly-lit bar, America’s education leaders gather. Arne Duncan cradles his head in his hands. He’s weeping. Michelle Rhee, once chancellor of the Washington, D. C. schools, is passed out on the floor.

Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, takes another slug of beer. Then he tries to explain how the “Texas Miracle” was actually real. Even his drinking buddies know that’s bull%$#@.

They’re just too polite to call him on it.

Right now, they’re listening to former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg ramble on about school reform and how his foolproof plans came to nothing. Nothing! Bloomberg has clearly had too much Dom Perignon.

“Sheese sheachers,” he grumbles, “they don' come fro’…burp…thaaa best schcools. Me? I wen’ to Haaavad. HAAAVAD, do you hear me?

Several members of Congress, seated at the same long table nod. “God,” they’re thinking, “where did we go wrong?” That’s the question that looms over them all. They promised when No Child Left Behind was passed, that every boy and girl in America would be proficient in reading and math by...well...2014.

Now here it was, 2014....

At a nearby table, a dozen real teachers are blowing off steam after a hard week at work. They can hear the reformers crying in their beer—or Dom Perignon—and shake their heads in disbelief. They knew NCLB was a stupid idea from the start. But none of the lawmakers asked teachers what they thought.

“Hey, Congress sucks,” one educator shouts. She is a veteran of twenty-one years in the classroom, teaching third grade math. That means she has more time working with kids than all the drunks at the other table put together.

“You’ve got a 9% approval rating in the latest poll,” she adds with teacher sarcasm. “Wake Rhee up and give her some pencils with erasers. That’s how she raised test scores.”

Her friends shush her but Duncan glances her way and starts blubbering. He was so sure his plan was going to work. 

“Nice SAT scores, Arne,” the obstreperous math teacher adds in a loud voice. Her friends shush her a second time.

Ah, yes. The SAT scores for college-bound students had just come out—and after a decade spent beating up on front line teachers, results were grim. Schools spent billions of dollars preparing for, administering and grading standardized tests.

They did exactly what the fools at the “leaders” table ordered them to do.

One of the classroom teachers has a copy of Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was implemented. He rises from his seat, walks to the other table, and hands it to the Secretary of Education. Duncan and his pals already know what it shows and that’s part of the reason they're drinking:



Meanwhile, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Leader Harry Reid share a bottle of expensive wine. They can’t pass any laws.

Might as well drown their sorrows.

Both men supported NCLB. Now they’ve seen stories in the paper about scores on the American College Test (ACT). “Maybe, these scores are really rising,” Boehner mumbles, “and we just can’t see it.” Reid shoots Boehner a funny look.

And how have U. S. students done on ACT tests in recent years? Again, our leaders know the picture is not pretty:

At the other table, a middle school history teacher is running down the 2013 ACT results for colleagues. Overall, scores are down slightly and he is trying not to sound bitter. He knows his “leaders” have made a giant mess of education over the last decade. 

The drunks at the “leaders” table have seen the same evidence and can’t quite fathom what it means. Before passing out, Rhee was making the case that scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress proved all their ideas were working. For a few moments she had everyone listening.

Average reading scores for nine-year-olds, she had pointed out, were rising: 1971 (208); 2004 (219); 2012 (221).

(She waved the chart shown below at her buddies.)

Reading gains for 13-year-olds weren’t nearly as impressive: 1971 (255); 2004 (259); 2012 (263). Still, Rhee briefly had everyone at her table convinced that rising scores represented awesome academic progress!

At first, the Congress people felt better. It didn’t hurt when lobbyists at the bar, who represented all the biggest testing companies, sent over several bottles of champagne. The companies had had a great year and made $1.7 billion selling tests to America’s public school systems. 

Unfortunately, Rhee had to keep talking. Rhee always has to keep talking. When she mentioned reading scores for seventeen-year-olds conversation turned depressing. Older American students, the end product of the whole testing scheme, scored 285 in reading in 1971, dropped to 283 in 2004, and rebounded slightly, to 287 in 2012.

If anyone had asked the teachers at the other table they could have told them it would have done more good to spend all that money wasted on testing and buy books and hand them out to children. But, no, we had to listen to our genius leaders. We had to listen to Rhee and Duncan and Bloomberg and all those other pompous asses. When all was said and done reading scores were up by a measly 2 points for soon-to-graduate students.

Two points in forty-one years!

Well, then, perhaps math scores were surging. That would take some of the sting out of the pitiful reading reports. How were nine-year-olds doing in math? In 1978 they scored an average of 219; by 2004 they were up to 239; and in 2012 they hit 244.

That looked impressive.

Then again, every teacher in America understood the hidden cost. Time spent on reading and math instruction had risen in every state. But since most states had no tests in social studies or science and since you could hardly have standardized testing in art or music, time devoted to those subjects dwindled or vanished entirely.

David Berliner, in his book Collateral Damage, had noted—as a bonus—that cheating to meet testing goals was rampant. In fact, Rhee was trying to convince Senator Ted Cruz that she knew nothing about the cheating scandal in her old district when the lobbyist-supplied champagne took hold and she toppled from her seat.

No one had heard anything from her, except snoring, for the last fifteen minutes.

Even the math results looked grim. Again, there was a decent bump upward at the 13-year-old level. In 1978, U. S. students averaged a score of 264. By 2004, the average had risen to 279, and by 2012 it was 285.

Unfortunately, when the last billion was spent math gains were also anemic. In 1978, America’s 17-year-olds scored 300 in math. By 1992, the average score was 307 (before all the standardized tests); and that score remained unchanged in 2004.

And then, in 2012, it dropped by one point.

Why, if a teacher didn’t know better—he or she might think that students could have raised scores much more, and easily, if they’d done nothing but devote an extra ten hours per year, studying their own math and reading.

Of course, that would mean we expected students to play a role in raising scores. And we all know, because Duncan and his crowd tell us so, that the only way to raise scores is to “hold teachers accountable.”

By now, the drunks at the leaders table had been reduced to one faint hope. If only they could see progress on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which pit our 15-year-olds against kids from other nations!

That afternoon the PISA results had been released! In 2000 the average score of U. S. teens in three areas was:


In 2009:


In 2013, the average 15-year-old American scored:

Math—481 (-12 points)
Science—497 (-2)
Reading—498 (-6)

Sweet Mother Mary—and in the name of John Dewey—all these brilliant reforms foisted on teachers and students.

Now, even the elitists at the other table knew they had failed. It was hard for men and women of such giant egos to admit.

So: they blamed it all on teachers.

Suddenly, Rhee roused herself from an alcoholic stupor. “Common Core will save us!” she insisted. Then she passed out for good.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at and I can probably send you a copy direct, a little more cheaply. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.


  1. Not 'Nuff said. The reality is that test scores measure only one much people actually care about education. When people give a darn, students achieve.

    People don't value education. People don't care. Woe onto us.