There are two ways of explaining the passage of legislation such as No Child Left Behind, which has no chance of actually working. One is stupidity, on the part of the legislators, the bureaucrats, and/or the voting public. The other, more heartening possiblity, is that NCLB is intended to provide statistical evidence documenting the failure of "underperforming" schools, which will in turn fuel the push toward a school voucher system. I would love to believe that the explanation for NCLB is the latter, though I suspect it is the former.
That having been said, there are also two ways of looking at the failures of these so-called underperforming schools. One focuses on shortcomings of the schools themselves. The other focuses on the shortcomings of the students.
According to the NY Times, the fault lies squarely with the schools, or rather with the government's failure to adequately staff these schools with the cream of the teaching crop:
"Unless we improve schools — especially for minority children who will make up the work force of the future — we will fall behind our competitors abroad who are doing a better job of educating the next generation.
It’s impossible to brand No Child Left Behind as a failure, because its agenda has never been carried out. The law was supposed to remake schools that serve poor and minority students by breaking with the age-old practice of staffing those schools with poorly trained and poorly educated teachers. States were supposed to provide students with highly qualified teachers in all core courses by the beginning of the current academic year. That didn’t happen.
The battle for teacher quality is just getting under way. The country can either win that battle or watch its fortunes fade as the national work force becomes less and less competitive. Given what’s at stake, the teacher quality provision of No Child Left Behind deserves to be at the very top of the list when Congress revisits the law."
Gird yourself for battle. If we don't hire new legions of the most talented teachers to do service in the worst of our schools, we will never raise poor minority children up to the intellectual standard not only of their American counterparts, but of their international competitors. Soon, we shall all be processing fishsticks for our Asian overlords.
For a contrasting perspective on the causes of underperforming schools, however, consider the following statistics about Baltimore, in many ways a representative American city:
"Not unexpectedly we found a cognitive discontinuity at the city line. Surprising, however, was its magnitude. Whereas suburban mean IQs (86 for blacks, 99 for whites) conform more or less to national norms, city IQs are dreadfully low. With a mean IQ of 76, inner-city blacks fall about 0.6 SD below the African American average nationally. More than a third have death-penalty immunity on grounds of mental retardation. The inner-city white mean of 86 is nearly a full standard deviation below the national white average. By this measure, whites fared worse than blacks. Both groups are seriously deficient in human capital. Neither is very employable. To compound matters, we almost certainly have overstated urban IQs. City residents constitute a low-IQ group extracted from a more cognitively representative population. Their kids, whose test scores we analyzed, should have regressed toward their racial means, i.e., toward higher IQs. That is, inner city kids are smarter than their parents. Accordingly, our estimates of inner-city IQs are best regarded as upper bounds to adult values."
Quite a difference, eh? To reiterate, in Baltimore, the mean IQ among its black students is 76. The mean IQ among white students is 86. The mean IQs for black and white adults are, in all probability, even lower than are those of their children (the brighter kids tend to move away when they've grown up).
As reference points, the average IQ in America is 98, and the threshold for clinically-defined retardation is 70 (it was at one time 80). In other words, if one had to place the students in the Baltimore city schools on a continuum between intellectual retardation and normalcy, they would lie significantly closer to retardation.
Even though whites in the Baltimore test higher than blacks (as is true throughout geographical regions and economic classes in America) the white students still lie essentially at the midpoint between the American intellectual average and clinically-defined retardation.
How has this happened? IQ scores correlate positively with economic income. Ergo, poorer people in America, on average, have lower IQ scores. Baltimore city residents making enough money to relocate to the suburbs have disproportionately done so. Those left behind in Baltimore are disproportionately unintelligent. Thus, IQ tends to stratify not only by income, but by school district.
As unsettling as this may be, IQ also stratifies by race. Those eager to see improvement in minority academic performance will be pleased to note that Americans of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry all outperform the national average on IQ tests. By pure coincidence, they also outperform the average American student in other measures of academic achievement. Finally, they outperform their American counterparts in economic income as well.
Sadly, however, these are not the minorities NCLB has in mind when it talks about raising achievement in minority schools, though clearly these groups are American minorities. Rather, in the terms of NCLB, "minority students" refers specifically to black and hispanic students, who perform below average in various measures of academic performance, including IQ, and who go on to earn lower average incomes. Obviously, for the reasons cited above, poor minority students will tend to perform worst of all. This is more a matter of statistical reality than of instructional failure, though obviously it is difficult to recruit and retain talented teachers in the chaotic, sometimes dangerous atmosphere of bad schools.
A new crop of teachers will not erase this disparity in academic outcomes. Nor will a new computer lab. Nor more audio-visual equipment, a new gymnasium, nor a fresh coat of paint and a new sign in the parking lot. In the realm of education, a student's curiosity, enthusiasm, and sheer intellectual capacity are of far greater significance than are the attributes of the teacher. They count for more, and they shape the student's intellectual development to a much greater degree. To make matters worse, people tend to be curious and enthusiastic only about information they can understand and manipulate. They evince little curiosity or enthusiasm for that which they can neither use nor understand. Therefore, weaker students tend not to thrive indefinitely on curiosity and enthusiasm alone.
The facts of life often run contrary to our wishes.
There is legitimate room for discussion as to what the term "intelligence" means and how accurately it is measured by a given test. There is also room for discussion as to why some groups score differently from others. However, I am using IQ here simply to mean a quantitative score on any of several widely-used, standardized intelligence tests. There is almost no uncertainty as to whether the scores on such tests stratify in the ways described above, and as to whether they correlate with academic success as measured by grades, graduation rates, professional degrees and qualifications, medical board exams, bar exams, and so forth.
Several factors beyond the guidance or control of any government agency increasingly drive the stratification of our society by intellect and by income. This reality, like the statistics above, raises politically and socially disturbing questions. It would be unrealistic and perhaps inhumane to expect everyone to greet this information with calm self-assurance. It is, for most people, discomforting at the very least, and it will be construed by many as troubling, if not threatening.
Anything that calls attention to the role of nature, i.e. genes, in shaping our intellectual and economic fate runs dangerously counter to a number of carefully crafted social orthodoxies. America prizes particularly the belief that anyone, given clear instruction and enthusiastic encouragment, can learn anything, do anything, become anything. This belief may suffer in the light of statistical analysis, but it persists because it answers a peculiarly American need, one more grounded in culture and psychology than in observable truth. But this should not be surprising; the identity of any society is built to a large extent on falsehood and myth. For this reason, this information will never be thoughtfully examined in the pages of the New York Times.