Thursday, April 16, 2009

Want to See the Future of NCLB? Look to the UK.

The Bush Administration and Margaret Spellings are history, and the education world now anxiously parses sentences and micro-analyzes tea leaves from Barack Obama and his new Secretary of Education, former Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan, as the new Administration’s plans for the future of American education slowly unfold.

Despite all this attention, the most underreported story in American education is taking place not in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, where a data-driven educational testing regime instituted by the legislative progenitor of NCLB has devolved into near chaos. In recent weeks, the 190,000 members of England’s National Union of Teachers have voted to boycott the country’s 2010 national standardized exams, refusing to prepare students for them or administer them. Perhaps even more astonishing, the National Association of Headteachers appears set to follow in their boycott footsteps, the first time in history that England’s school principals have taken such an action.

The story behind all this is, of course, particular to England’s educational system structure, but the results are hardly surprising and seem utterly predictable. Of greater concern for American education, however, is the remarkable parallels between England’s disastrous twenty-year experience with performance standards and school rating and the overall approach of NCLB. The United Kingdom began this same process more than a decade before the U.S., and it is not unreasonable to view their today as our tomorrow. The future of American primary and secondary schools under NCLB may well be written in the events currently occurring in England, enough so that taking a close look is more than warranted.

A Little History and Background

In 1967, a comprehensive, three-year study of England’s primary education system was published by the Central Advisory Council for Education. The Plowden Report as it became known (in honor of the Council’s chair, Lady Bridget Plowden), ran well over a thousand pages and called for a highly child-centered approach to primary education. It also cautioned against standardized student assessments, stating in part:

We have considered whether we can lay down standards that should be achieved by the end of the primary school but concluded that it is not possible to describe a standard of attainment that should be reached by all or most children….We therefore envisage that some use will continue to be made of objective tests within schools. Such tests can be helpful - and their norms can serve as a basis of comparison - as long as they are used with insight and discrimination and teachers do not assume that only what is measurable is valuable…

Twenty years later, Margaret Thatcher’s government summarily ignored this advice. The Conservative Party’s Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced the United Kingdom to Standard Attainment Tests, colloquially referred to as Sats. This groundbreaking legislation called for the implementation of a National Curriculum in England, Wales, and Northern Island for all primary and secondary schools. With a common curriculum in place, a series of standardized performance tests could be instituted from which student progress could be measured. More important within the Conservative philosophical worldview, test results could be compiled by school and used to rate each school’s yearly performance in published “league tables.” Parents would thus be enabled, Conservatives argued, to exercise an ostensibly free market choice of schools for their children, based on each school's standardized test results measured against a common national curriculum.

The Sats were first implemented in 1991 with the Key Stage 1 exam for seven-year-olds (effectively, second graders). Key Stage 2 exams began three years later for eleven-year-olds completing their sixth year of general education. Key Stage 3 exams applied to students at age fourteen, and a final, Key Stage 4 exam (now generally referred to as the CCSEs for General Certificate of Secondary Education) came at age fifteen or sixteen. Over time, Key Stage 1 exams settled in to cover Reading, Writing, and Mathematics, while the Key Stage 2 and 3 exams encompassed those two subject areas plus Science. The youngest students were targeted to reach at least a Level 2 performance (their levels run from 1 – 3), while the Key Stage 2 (eleven-year-old) examinees were targeted to reach Level 4 (out of a range from 2 – 5) and Key Stage 3 (fourteen-year-olds) would fall between Levels 3 and 7.

Things Fall Apart

Several teachers’ unions opposed the Sats implementation in 1993, but the first major rumbling of dissatisfaction came in the early 2000s. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each separately abolished the league tables (school by school comparisons) and moved to abolish the National Curriculum testing represented by Sats. Most often, those exams were replaced by teacher-based assessments combined (in some cases) with periodic standardized exams applied on a sampled basis to assess overall educational progress. In virtually every instance, the rationale for abandoning Sats was, as The Guardian reported in 2003 about Scotland’s decision, “to create a ‘seamless’ curriculum with the emphasis on teaching rather than testing.” Scotland’s Education Minister, Peter Peacock, stated that the annual testing regime had “driven some schools and teachers to test, test and retest.” He further asserted that the educational focus had to return to “improving learning in the interests of the child…not data collection.”

Even as the rest of the United Kingdom was abandoning Sats, England forged on despite growing opposition. Sats not only formed the exclusive basis for rating and ranking the nation’s schools, they (particularly the Key Stage 2’s) were also paramount in determining teachers’ pay, headmasters’ continued employment, and schools’ reputations. Even as the percentage of students reaching the targeted performance levels (81 percent at Level 4 in English, 78% in Math, 88% in Science in the 2008 Key Stage 2 exams for eleven-year-olds), the percentage of students reaching the highest mark, Level 5, was dropping. Educators throughout England were decrying the narrowing of curriculum, pervasive “teaching to the test,” widespread demotivation of students toward learning, and impacts on students’ health due to intense pressure from schools and parents. A voluminous report issued from highly-regarded Cambridge University concluded (as The Guardian reported) “that a generation of children had had their lives impoverished by the dominance of a rigid testing regime, and had received an education that was ‘fundamentally deficient.’ It was neither broad nor balanced, and it valued memorisation [sic] and recall over understanding and inquiry.”

By 2007, reports of cheating by teachers and administrators were surfacing; in one instance, a teacher hung herself after it was discovered that she had helped her students cheat. In 2008, the American company Educational Testing Service took over the contract to administer the Key Stage 3 exams for fourteen-year-olds. ETS’s performance was disastrous, a total failure of control over the marking process that not only led to their contract’s termination but prompted the London government to declare an end to all future Key Stage 3 exams in England. While the policy change was welcomed, many questioned why the Key Stage 1 and 2 exams were not abolished as well.

Teachers and School Heads in Open Revolt

Now, as the 2009 tests loom in May, the National Union of Teachers has voted (reportedly unanimously) that its 190,000 teacher members will boycott next year’s Sats exams. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is expected to follow suit in the coming weeks when their annual meeting takes place. In essence, the national unions of teachers and school heads are in open revolt against the government’s NCLB-like testing and school rating regimes.

Various spokespeople have stated that the tests are “educationally barren,” that teaching to the tests has “distorted the whole education process,” that there is “overwhelming evidence showing the Sats damage the education of children, supported by evidence linking them to a deterioration in children’s health,” that the tests were having a “very serious backwash effect” on the rest of the school curriculum, and that their abolition “will restore magic moments to the primary classroom as everyday events, not as rarities.” The general secretary of the NAHT stated: “Testing narrows the curriculum and makes learning shallow, because the tests are simply regurgitative….There is high stress for children’ some will already be spending up to ten hours a week rehearsing these tests. It’s a complete waste of time.” John Dunford, leader of another head teachers’ union, stated that “the original purpose of examinations, to assess students’ progress, has become confused with school accountability and the performance management of teachers.”

Perhaps the strongest indictment of Sats came in the New Statesman, written by Francis Gilbert, a middle school teacher for almost twenty years. “In practice,” Gilbert wrote in the November 20, 2008 issue, “these tests have proved to be a nightmarish failure. The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children’s zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable….the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively.”

NCLB was modeled on and grew out of the UK’s Sats exam initiative, a program that preceded it by over a decade. While it’s of course impossible to compare directly the two countries’ educational systems, it is also foolish not to observe and learn from the English experience. After two decades of data-driven, standardized exam-based performance measurement, the pendulum in the UK is clearly swinging back toward local, teacher-based assessments with periodic but less intrusive system-wide assessment.

It may well be that the future of American education under NCLB is here now, reflected in the past twenty years’ experience in the United Kingdom. It is certainly true, here in NYC's public schools, that we're seeing all the negative signs that England has already experienced and is now rejecting.


Patricia Connelly said...

Thank you, Steve. I have given both my children the option to skip both standardized testing AND "make work" homework since the 1st grade. However, they have only intermittently taken me up on the option due in large measure, I believe, to the fact that they do not want to be viewed by their peers or teachers as "outsiders". In any event, I have not sent them to test prep Saturdays or have discouraged them from wasting their precious childhoods doing test prep worksheets at home. And, nonetheless, they are both thriving, even my youngest who is learning disabled. They read, read, read and play and explore their interests and argue and challenge their parents at ever turn. I have no doubt that they will be able to think on their feet and make wise judgments when I am long gone. When will good and sensible folk finally say ENOUGH is ENOUGH?

Anonymous said...

There's of course an ocean of difference between union militancy here and there.

And in big cities, too many teachers are in and out in 2 or 3 years to develop that sense of "something must be done."

I'm glad for them, the teachers and principals in England, that they are standing up. I don't know if that can be a model for us here.


Julie said...

What can a parent do? Would a parent petition signed by everyone I can get it to make any difference? I feel like we civilians have no say because our elected officials do NOT represent the people. Teachers, it seems have even less power to make any changes since their jobs are at stake if they do not conform.

I have written my state rep and he is a Bush clone (yes, I'm in Texas) and has basically told me he doesn't care if people disagree with NCLB (and Texas TAKS) because he will fight to the grave to defend it.

What can I personally do to help the situation???