A reader writes:
If there is one issue on your blog I was ever qualified to write to you about, this is the one. I'm turning in my dissertation this afternoon, in fact, on the effects of NCLB on teachers' instruction. I think a lot of your readers' points are way, way off the mark. Here are the facts as I understand them, from my work and the literature.
First, the effects of standards-based reform on student achievement (measured by test scores) are decent--as good or better than your typical whole-school-reform movement. They are about the same magnitude for white, black, rich, and poor students. In my opinion, these effects are mainly operating through the content of teachers' instruction--WHAT they are teaching, not necessarily how they are teaching. Teachers are responding to the assessments and standards by aligning their instruction, especially in mathematics and science. Some might call it teaching to the test, but I actually found that instruction moved more toward standards than it did tests.
Teachers' responses to the standards and assessments are, not surprisingly, strongest when the standards and assessments target the same content. That was, in my view, the #1 goal of standards-based reform, and yet I've found that state assessments often measure wildly different content than is specified in standards. In other words, the tests were supposed to be fair representations of the content specified in the standards, but that's simply not the case right now, and teachers don't know what to teach as a result.
Even more interestingly, I analyzed teachers' responses to standards and assessments and found that, in grades where the standards and assessments emphasized higher-level thinking, like the high school grades in English, teachers responded by increasing their focus on those skills. When the standards and tests emphasized procedural thinking, like all grades in mathematics, teachers responded by emphasizing those skills. Thus, if the standards and assessments were better targets (right now, they almost all stink), teachers would almost certainly respond by teaching in ways that are more desirable. Constructing high quality tests is only a measurement and, possibly, cost problem, but I am very confident we can overcome those obstacles.
As for the accountability measures, I agree that they are overly draconian. However, I did find that teachers paid more attention to the standards and assessments and aligned their instruction more in states with higher levels of accountability. Some degree of accountability is good, but the current system needs to be retooled.
Given these conclusions, I think it would be a massive mistake to abandon standards-based reform altogether. The fact is that the way we've done NCLB is not what the original "inventors" of standards-based reform had in mind. If we did it better, I am very confident that the results would be better and the negative externalities would be minimized. I am hopeful that that's where we're heading, but we'll see.
As for charter schools and urban flight, neither of which are my areas of expertise, I am neutral on charter schools--on average they do the same, but some clearly do better (again, I think, because they have more instructional time and teach more content). And people have been avoiding urban public schools for decades, so that argument is nonsense.
Anyway, I hope you find this information useful. None of my research is published yet, but I got a professor job at USC in this dreadful market based on this job talk, so I'm pretty confident that my results are legit and an important contribution to the field.