There is a problem in population ethics called the repugnant conclusion. In brief, it describes a situation in which a large population whose lives are barely worth living could be measured nonetheless as having more total happiness than a smaller population with a higher standard of living (Ryberg, 2006). NCLB is producing two types of repugnant conclusions in P-16 education in the United States. Intended to address equity issues in education, NCLB rather encourages the overemphasis on passing minimum standards for both students and schools, rather than encouraging the kind of innovative thinking and skill sets that are required in the global economy. In addition, it provides for the success of students who manage to get on the “conveyor belt” early, and has not been effective in producing meaningful gains over time for students and schools currently underserved and failing (Tough, 2008).
To address the second point first, Seattle’s school superintendent has made very strong statements about reforming NCLB in order to better serve the immigrant population. She makes an argument beyond the English Language Learner discussion. She also states that for students not only learning English, but who did not have literacy skills in their home language, NCLB is a barrier, not a system for equity. Under NCLB, these students are expected to be up to speed in a year, but they’re on the conveyor belt too late. Paul Tough describes on his blog how students who underperform in primary school, even if they make gains in middle school under intensive NCLB programs, still slide into underperforming in high school, under the same concept. The reasons for this are reflected in the “What No School Can Do” reading. He asserts that the programs like “Baby College” in Harlem that begin with prenatal care and education for the parents, lead the child into preschool and then a NCLB type primary school are the most successful. The flip side is the historical aversion in the US to such a paternalistic attitude. Opponents describe it as evangelism for Anglo middle class values.
NCLB has generated a burst of creativity…in figuring out ways to beat the assessments. The lock-step system is a disincentive for the very risk-taking that has generated some of the successful programs like Baby College. Students internalize the attitude of “just get through the test” rather than the true goal setting, innovation and dreaming big that has characterized the past success of the American system. The mythology is still there, and is codified in NCLB’s equity ideals, that is, anyone has a right to an opportunity to succeed. But until that mythology is supported at a number of policy levels, it will remain just that, in addition to being a global model of how not to implement widespread educational change.
NCLB has shined a spotlight on US equity issues, and has provided an influx of federal funding. It has newly engaged communities, schools, parents and the students themselves in very important dialogues. On the other hand, the findings and goals of NCLB are some of the same scripts that the US has been dealing with for a long time. Proper teacher compensation, training, and respect are nothing new. This reform has yet to prove itself as a methodology for meeting its own goals, and the odds for it ever doing so without significant modification are low and sliding downward as time goes on. At stake is nothing less than the under serving of an entire generation of students who were not lucky enough to get on the conveyor belt early enough—another repugnant conclusion.
Ryberg, Jesper. (2006). The Repugnant Conclusion. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on October 4, 2008 from http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/repugnant-conclusion/
Tough, Paul. (2008). Schoolhouse Rock. Slate. Retrieved on October 4, 2008 from http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/schoolhouse/default.aspx