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No Child Left Behind

by Kent M. Pitman and Nancy J. Howard (Thursday, September 14, 2006)


We have enclosed our comments on the No Child Left Behind program. Because our analysis runs for several pages, we have separated it into sections for easy browsing. The last section summarizes our conclusions.

The Politics of Entitlement

Telling children that they will be guaranteed success by the government seems to us a recipe for having children think they don't have to work to succeed. The world is harsher than that, and sending a clear message that success requires work by the child rather than work by the state seems a better way of assuring that the child will work. To some degree, we feel that the present Entitlement Society is egged on by the notion that society will work hard to help children keep up even if a student is doing nothing to keep up on his or her own.

In the spirit of John F. Kennedy's urging that people should ask not what their country can do for them, we feel that a more appropriate tone to take than No Child Left Behind is something along the lines of: Work Hard for Society and Society will Work Hard for You.

Any so-called "rights" should come come firmly coupled to corresponding responsibilities, such that we actually think it's better not to view them as "rights" but rather part of the "social contract" between student and society.

Indeed, students should understand that neither education nor any other government social service is a mere right but rather a privilege, and that such privileges are forfeited when the social contract is violated. So, for example, we think one of the easiest ways to make schools drug-free is to say that anyone caught doing drugs automatically waives his or her so-called "rights" to an education. We don't see a reason for society to invest in students who are not willing to invest in themselves. It's just money down the drain, and money that in this economy we don't have to waste. Better to spend that money on those who want to learn.

Investing Strategically

Implicit in the mantra of "No Child Left Behind" is that all children should walk at the same speed. Even independently of resources, this is almost nonsensical. If no child can be below average, then by definition, no child can be above average either. As a consequence, we often refer to No Child Left Behind as No Child Allowed Ahead.

In the post-9/11 era, we've seen similar silliness in the analysis of where to invest security funds. Public discussion seems to sometimes trend toward the idea of No Community Left Unprotected. And yet, we know that's a ridiculous way to spend money. If we insist that every community receive equal dollars, it's certain that the prime targets like New York and Washington DC and San Francisco and LA will receive too little. It is an obvious truth that these are higher probability targets, and to deny that is to waste public funds on silly protection. Allocating federal funds to heavily protect Tulsa, Oklahoma is something that we can't afford to do. This is no value judgment against the people of Tulsa, nor even a claim that Tulsa can't be attacked. It's just an observation that the odds don't favor terrorists singling out that one city. There are too many obscure cities of the same size and to fund them all equally would squander important resources. The only rational choice is to allocate funds according to some theory of likeliness of attack.

If students are viewed as the fuel for jobs that will provide tax revenue to fund future schools for future students, then what makes most sense is to assure that the people who will likely succeed at modest cost to do that first. Then we can come back and worry about the others. If we worry about everyone from the outset, we may be selling out our future for the sake of perceived near-term gains.

We have heard anecdotal accounts of large amounts being spent on busing disabled students to school, while at the same time our observation is that basic services that would benefit the other end of the spectrum, like getting computers into the school curriculum, lag due to budgetary concerns. We see these issues as related.

Caring for the weaker, "special needs" members of our society is something we should take seriously. However, in our zeal to be compassionate, we should not sacrifice the proper education of the others in society. We suggest, as a practical reality, that the amounts for helping students with special needs be budgeted entirely separately from the budget for general education and not be part of No Child Left Behind.

By contrast, a modest investment in insuring that our hardest working students and our brightest students are enabled to get ahead is likely to pay dividends later on, in just the same way as money spent on security for our port cities is likely to pay off. It would be a shame to neglect this opportunity in a misguided sense of "fairness". There is nothing "fair" about dragging all of society down by insisting that no one will get ahead unless everyone does.

Needs Before Luxuries

It is dangerous, in general, to promise a public that one's rights include the right to force the government to spend money on even one person, much less every person. It becomes a simple matter of math to understand that if government has finite resources and such resources must be allocated judiciously.

Spending money on charities before necessities is ultimately not a charitable act if it places in jeopardy the ability of the society to continue such expenditure and risks that the one giving charity will enter the class of those in need of charity.

It's essential to focus on one's basic needs first and to tie charity to surpluses above what is needed for the basics. In the realm of education, if we don't assure that a core number of people are sufficiently educated to claim the jobs that will provide the tax revenue to pay for the additional work we need to bring others up to speed, none of the rest of our work will matter.

As such, the focus in No Child Left Behind on those being left behind seems misguided. What's needed first and foremost is to make sure that enough get ahead that they will continue to fund the necessary programs for those who were left behind.

It sounds easy and good-hearted to say "we must not allow anyone to fail", but we suggest that such an analysis may be naive. Although it sounds magnanimous, we consider the issue more akin to "lifeboat ethics". In many ways, the US economy seems like a sinking ship. Our manufacturing economy is being increasingly outsourced. We're borrowing more and more money from overseas. At some point, the value of the dollar will plummet and jobs will become scarce because both the capital and intellectual resources of the world will have gone elsewhere, if they have not already. In the context of that sinking ship, it does no good to declare "no one must fall overboard" if the ship is going to sink anyway.

Our first priority must be to make sure enough people are making money that we can fund the additional charity of allowing the others to catch up. If, as seems quite possible under No Child Left Behind, we squander our limited dollars on assuring that we all move in intellectual lockstep, the sad consequence is likely to be that this drags our entire society downward, not upward.

Like it or not, No Child Left Behind is a luxury, and one that we should consider critically to be sure we can afford. If we instead seek more realistic goals, like Most Children Reasonably Successful, it would probably be cheaper and would produce better economic success. Then, in the future, when we might be again affluent in the way the post-World War II generation was once affluent, we could seriously address the needs of those who'd suffered in the meantime.

Dynasties and Trickle-Down

There may be some concern that we are proposing a two-tier system, with Educational Haves and Educational Have Nots.

Our interest is not to create an elitist system, nor do we believe these suggestions will lead to any. For one thing, unlike monetary wealth, intelligence and strong work ethic are not properties that are "dynastic" in nature. Just because your parents were smart does not guarantee you will be. Just because your parents worked hard does not guarantee you will.

Some might worry that what we're suggesting is equivalent to a kind of Trickle Down Education, in which we identify a social class of intellectuals and focus on that group to the detriment of others. In fact, unlike wealth (which clings to families, communities, and social groups) and may exhibit effects like monetary dynasties, a propensity for success in education more likely to distribute itself evenly about the society than is money.

Children are not all equal. Often this is true even of children from the same family. Some will achieve and others won't. This may be because they are brighter, or because they work harder, or because they have better teachers, or some combination thereof. We can pretend these differences don't exist, but we do so at our own peril because some day, our Social Security, medical services, and other social programs will be paid for by the tax dollars made from our citizens' aggregate success. Treating all students as if they are equally likely to generate large amounts of income for our nation is naive and dangerous.

Mechanism vs Outcome

As busy parents, we've had little time to review the actual legislation, but we have been over summaries of it. The focus on "mechanism" rather than "outcome" is disturbing.

The notion that the definition of a qualified instructor would be codified into the law seems dogmatic, especially since those qualifications are explained in terms of credentials rather than capabilities.

Quoting from the Aspen Institute's summary of requirements on teachers:

"Highly qualified is defined as having State certification or licensure, a bachelorÂ’s degree or higher, and demonstrated subject matter competency."

Conspicuous is the absence of a requirement for "teaching competency". State certification and licensure is assumed to cover that. But if that were so, then state certification or licensure, such as a university degree, should cover subject matter competency, too.

These regulations seem worded in a way that probably leads to a perpetuation of bureaucracy rather than focusing on the fact that excess bureaucracy is what's been holding schools back. If outcome is what matters, then certification and licensure should not be the key element.

With an aging workforce, there is a large body of skilled individuals who will be retiring and yet still able and willing to work. The notion that none of these individuals should be considered as allowed to teach is disturbing since they potentially constitute a rich set of invaluable instructors. States should be aggressively streamlining the requirements that would enable these individuals to participate, not creating hurdles.

Again quoting from the Aspen Institute's summary of requirements on paraprofessionals:

"A paraprofessional must be prohibited from providing instructional services to a student unless under the direct supervision of a teacher, although he or she could perform other activities (e.g., parental involvement)."

Implicit in this assumption is that if no such teacher is available, it's better that the student receive no instructional services at all than the allegedly substandard services of a paraprofessional. This seems again to be a recipe for perpetuating bureaucracy more than a recipe for assuring students will succeed. Organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America have, for nearly 100 years, been successfully using volunteers, without state certification, to teach important life and leadership skills to their membership while incurring a minimal impact on budget.

What should count is "outcome", not who is doing the work or what their teaching background is. We should indeed keep track of outcome and assure that whatever schools are doing really works, but we should not tie the hands of a school administrator who wants to do something innovative like invite a team of local experts in a subject matter to offer hands-on experience or to drop in for lectures. There should be standards for supervising the students, but those supervising don't require "teaching experience". A low-cost alternative that might work. For example, parents themselves might function adequately as chaperone/supervisors.

The rules we have seen look like they will make any kind of flexibility of this sort nearly impossible, requiring instead that teachers, receiving union-negotiated overtime pay, be sought any time an outside expert is involved. We believe that rules requiring that a "real teacher" always be present when learning is going on will lead schools to avoid outside help, rather than seek it, because the hassle of doing so is not rewarded. You might as well tell students they can't do homework without a teacher being given overtime pay to visit each student's house, since a parent might not have the adequate credentials to be supervising in the evening.


The fact that the legislation does not seriously take on the issue of teacher's unions is of great concern to us.

We perceive that teachers often lack important training and yet feel unmotivated to go and get it. In normal jobs, without unions, workers know the burden is on themselves in the modern workplace to stay up to date or find oneself laid off.

The fact that teachers don't feel the urgency to get their skills up to date on their own has a two-fold negative effect: It means they go ahead and teach based on older information, techniques and technologies. And it also means they convey in subtle ways to students that there is not a need to be constantly working at maintaining one's own educational level in order to keep up in the world. We feel that this, in turn, leads to students who grow up with a feeling that you don't go and learn things until you're told to.

Most of modern society is heavily based on continual self-education, yet students are insulated from seeing this. If students thought that even their teachers had to scramble to be constantly learning outside of school, we believe the effect on the students would be positive.

Moreover, unions also permit, encourage, and sometimes require teachers to leave early in the day, often causing them to be inaccessible at times when students need them. This is unlike the way salaried work happens in the rest of society, where work often extends until the job is done. That impacts students directly by sometimes robbing them of needed attention and indirectly by teaching them that work is something you just do for a few hours a day. It's great if our students can grow up to get jobs that require only a few hours of work a day, but that's the exception rather than the norm. The most likely jobs to have that are hourly jobs, with the lowest pay. Salaried employment tends to involve a great deal of dedicated effort to a cause, and today's teachers often seem poor role models for that in ways that seem encouraged by unions.

While unions can at some level provide important safeguards against an overbearing employer, they can also be forces that resist important competitive changes when a company (or a school system) desperately needs to change to survive. The pendulum swings back and forth. But our judgment is that at the present time, unions are hindering the changes that need to be made.

We're all for paying good teachers more money, but we want such pay to be merit-based, not negotiated by a union on a blanket basis. To borrow a metaphor, No Teacher Left Behind means No Teacher Gets Ahead. We think treating teachers as "all the same" and requiring equal attention is as foolhardy as doing the same for students.

Targeting Spending

Education is a product of a number of things, including at least:

Money is a kind of multiplier on these quantities. The same money applied to various of those items might yield widely different results. For example, lots of money applied to getting students to class does not fundamentally change the nature of the educational process much at all. It may be important to get students to class, but in terms of the impact it has on the educational process, it's not a highly multiplicative effect.

By contrast, the same money spent on improving the curriculum affects all students everywhere who use that curriculum. So money spent on improving curriculum seems much better spent.

One thing that seems remarkably obvious is that the cost of replicating "good teaching" in every town in the country is HUGE. In this day of the Internet, we should be investing in infrastructure such as computers and television that allow everyone in the US to share a known-to-be-good lecture on a particular topic. Even if there were 10 or 100 lectures on the same topic to choose from, there is a realistic hope that there could be that many outstanding lectures. However, the number of schools in the US is hugely larger than that, and yet in each and every one of them, we invest in having people give the same lecture. That's money poorly spent.

Today's children are very comfortable paying attention to television. A modest investment in a variety of good lectures on standard topics would yield a rich set of choices that could be presented at schools nationwide in order to deliver reliable presentational quality. This would reduce the burden on teachers to deliver the same old lecture over and over, and would increase the time available to them to answer questions and help students who didn't understand something. But if the lecture was recorded, it would also mean that it could be viewed at home by a sick student, or reviewed again by someone who didn't "get it" the first time.

Likewise, many kinds of testing could be automated, not only giving instant feedback, but allowing students to retry various thing they had trouble with until they learned how to do them. This could improve diagnoses of problems and ultimately lead again to better learning.

The use of computers in school seems largely relegated to "teaching computers". But tomorrow's workplace will use computers in most skilled jobs. Students need to fully integrate the use of computers into their lives, but they will not do so if schools don't do this. Treating this as an optional component of education relegates the use of computers to the privileged economic class and has exactly the opposite effect of what schools often think they are accomplishing by "not using computers because not everyone can afford them".

Students who aren't asked to use computers to write papers, to solve math problems, to plan schedules, etc. are going to grow up thinking computers are for video games, iTunes, and so on. This will not get them the jobs of the future. It is a recipe for the United States to become the new Third World.


We ask that, until our society is so rich with money that the expense is of no importance, money be targeted where it will do the most good for the most people. It seems reasonable to have a specific separate budget to be spread evenly among those who are behind with the specific social goal of helping them catch up. However, we feel that confusing such a budget with an "education budget" is a serious mistake.

Government may wish it could rescue every single soul, but doing so would be prohibitively expensive, just as it would be ridiculous to suggest that it was FEMA's responsibility to save every single soul from Katrina. It's fine to be compassionate by offering federal help to schools, but it's foolhardy to so intensely coddle our students that they are actively led to believe that they enjoy the manifest right not to fail. Capitalism demands hard work and part of the motivation for that hard work is the notion that its absence can lead to failure. Guaranteed succeess in education is only a step away from guaranteed success in business. Will we see No Business Left Behind next? That sounds a lot like socialism or communism. (And don't laugh: We already have No Bank Left Behind through the FDIC, and the financial effects of that have been disastrous.)

We ask that as much money as is allocated for those struggling to help people "catch up" also be allocated at the high end to assure that those showing promise can have the tools to not only keep up with their friends, but actively rise ahead of them. The phrase "No Child Left Behind" entails "No Child Allowed Ahead", and so we don't think it sets an appropriate tone. We don't ask for this as a matter of charity, but as a matter of societal self-interest and common sense: If we don't maximize our overall societal monetary success, there will be no money in the future to fund any of these programs, and perhaps no society at all. It is not just our business success that's at stake, but also our ability to defend our nation. Modern warfare relies not just on guns but on intelligence and skill, and we cannot rely on outsourcing our shortfalls in the way that we have foolishly outsourced our capital infrastructure over recent years. What we don't produce domestically is not a strategic asset in case of war, and that includes education.

We ask that outcomes be the measure of success, not mechanisms. And we ask that regulations be actively streamlined to reduce barriers to participation by low-cost, even volunteer, assistance from community professionals and parents. At present, there are enormous barriers to this because the focus is so strongly on teaching credentials rather than ability to usefully aid and inspire students.

We ask that substantial federal investment go to standardizing high quality teaching materials and delivering them over mass media, rather than inefficiently attempting to independently develop and deliver these things in each and every town in the United States. The solution to developing a nationwide computer industry has not been to make sure that each town is capable of fabricating computer chips from scratch. Such efforts are centralized because there is insufficient economy of scale in redoing fabrication on a town-by-town basis. Similar reasoning should lead us to quickly realize that town-by-town fabrication of our most critical resource, education, is again going to fall short if it does not try to address the structural issues of economy of scale.

Copyright © 2009 by Kent M Pitman. All Rights Reserved.

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