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Nearly everyone assumed the Iraq-vets were receiving the same kind of first-class care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that the President receives when he drops by for a physical, but . . .














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Politicians have the curriculum all figured out: high scores are winnable if we just test the students often enough and hold educators accountable for student performance.


INDEX to all NRP and NCLB essays

NCLB and the NRP REPORT:no child art

If there are flaws in the research for No Child Left Behind,
is it 'unpatriotic' to point them out?

By Jim Trelease © 2001, 2006, 2007

white house
With almost religious conviction, government declared the "right"
way to teach reading.

n the wake of September 11, 2001, I received a scolding email from a Texas teacher expressing how disappointed she was that I would print critical remarks about the government's No Child Left Behind Act, suggesting in tone that it was unpatriotic to do so. Let's address that issue.

   For nearly a century American educators have labored to nail down the right and wrong way of teaching and learning, debating this approach over that. The greatest minds at the highest levels of academe have wrestled with these questions. In the last 50 years, reading has been the main focus, producing more research investigations than any other area in American education. But figuring the absolute right way to teach reading was like trying "to nail Jello to the wall." The debate often took on the vestiges of a religious war, each side fanatically declaring it had found the true route to literacy salvation, denigrating opposing views as heretical, if not Satanic (see Southern phonics advocates).
 "It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.
— Robert H. Jackson,
Supreme Court Justice, 1950

  And then in 2000, the National Reading Panel arrived with the findings that would become the foundation for the reading plank of the No Child Left Behind Act. With an almost religious conviction that the NRP's findings were irrefutable, the federal government used it as the bedrock upon which to build not only its reading curriculum, but the report's findings became dogmatic mandates for anyone wishing federal funds: You either did it the NRP way or you didn't qualify for federal funding. Of course, all of this is predicated upon "trusting" the findings of a government-funded panel. But is that always a good idea? Should we ever put blind faith in governing agencies to always get it right? The Founding Fathers didn't. (See Justice Jackson's quote (right) to that effect.) They knew how often government can get it wrong and thus created the "checks and balances" system known as executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each debating and/or canceling the others' moves.

  Yet a certain amount of trust is always necessary in order for things to work. What if no one trusted a bridge to hold? What if no one trusted a can of soda to be safe to drink? But blind trust in governing agencies is dangerous. Consider a partial track record for blind trust.

  1. Many people blindly trusted the CIA's intelligence report for the Bay of Pigs invasion, but they shouldn't have.
  2. Most people wouldn't have believed the Justice Department would abuse its privileges and spy on the private life of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., but it did.
  3. Most folks trusted the Nixon administration when it said they had nothing to do with those "plumbers," but they did.
  4. Most trusted Bill Clinton when he declared he didn't have sex with that woman, but he did.
  5. Most Americans trusted that after 20 years the F.A.A. had made airports safe and secure, but it hadn't.
  6. Most people assumed the I.N.S. and FBI wouldn't ignore foreign visitors who had terrorist connections especially those who wanted to learn to fly 747's, but they did.
  7. Most investors and employees in major corporations assumed the S.E.C. was giving adequate oversight to accounting procedures, but the year 2002 proved they weren't.
  8. In the wake of 9/11, most people assumed Federal agencies would check the "product reliability" before paying $700,000 for bomb detection dogs but they didn't and the dogs proved useless.
  9. Most folks trusted that bishops would never recycle pedophile clergy from one site to another but they did.
  10. If a modern government was sending 150,000 troops half-way across the world to unseat a foreign power, most people would assume that modern government would plan for the aftermath of the "takeover" when they would have to assume control of the country. Wrong. Five years after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, its Department of the Army ( historians at the US Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas) released a scathing 700-page study of its performance on the ground in Iraq; foremost in the long list of indictments was the failure to adequately prepare for post-Saddam. (New York Times report on the study.)
  11. Nearly everyone assumed the Iraq-vets were receiving the same kind of first-class care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that the President receives when he drops by for a physical, but they didn't.
  12. Most people think networks like CBS, CNN, and Fox would vet the retired-generals they use as military consultants to make sure they don't have any conflicts of interest — like working for military contractors who profit from wars. Wrong. As it turns out, a New York Times investigation April 20, 2008, showed a multitude of conflicts, even to the extent of the Pentagon paying for their flights to Iraq and withdrawing contracts if gthe consultant's analysis wasn't positive.
  13. While the price of gasoline soared in 2008 and the American economy went into the tank, most people assumed the people in charge of winning the war in Iraq would be careful how they spent the money taxpayers were giving them. Nonetheless, a Pentagon audit that year showed more than $8 billion had been paid to private contractors without any government rules being followed and hundreds of millions handed out without even record-keeping.
  14. Throughout the summer of 2008 while the mortgage banks were imploding, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (along with President Bush — Harvard Business School MBA 1975) assured the American people that the problem was "contained" and the American economy was "sound." Two months later each man was declaring the economy to be in a state of crisis requring a $700 billion bailout.

Typical of this "blind trust" is the legend that California's low reading scores (consistently in the U.S. bottom five) are a product of "whole language" abuses that caused the scores to plummet. In fact, it was this legend that was a major underpinning for the national movement to adopt more phonics instruction, a prime ingredient of the No Child Left Behind Act. USC professor emeritus Stephen Krashen tackled this legend to see how much truth there was to it, publishing his findings in the June 2002 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. The article and research notes are available online (free) at Kappan (

   Krashen's findings clearly showed "the Great Plummet of 1987-92 never happened. California's reading scores were low well before the California Language Arts Framework Committee met in 1987 [when legend holds the California whole language movement began]. Moreover, there is compelling evidence that the low scores are related to California's impoverished print environment. There is also strong and consistent evidence that the availability of reading material is related to how much children read and that how much children read is related to how well they read. A close look at the evidence suggests that the skills-and-testing hysteria that has gripped California and other states has been unnecessary." To make matters worse, the demolition of literature-based reading instruction in California since 1997 and the subsequent tidal wave of phonics instruction (at a taxpayer cost of more than $500 million) did nothing to change the California reading scores: they were still at the bottom in the 2002 NAEP assessments. (See also print environment here.)

   Although some see any questioning of authority as seditious, many others see it as the basis of good science. Richard Feynman once defined science as "the belief in the ignorance of authority." Esteemed education researcher David Berliner elaborated on that concept in this way:

"Unrestricted questioning is what gives science its energy and vibrancy. Values, religion, politics, vested material interests, and the like can distort our scientific work only to the extent that they stifle challenges to authority, curtailing the questioning of whatever orthodoxy exists."

—David Berliner,
"Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All,"
Educational Researcher, Vol. 31, No. 8, pp. 18-20

   While the Vietnam War raged on, the tacticians in the Pentagon and Congress were unwavering in their certainty that their strategy was correct and winnable, while the soldiers in the field and the pilots in the air were the ones most likely to be taken captive or killed. Sometimes the same disparities occur in education.

The CEO's and politicians have the entire curriculum figured out: high scores are winnable if we just test the students often enough and hold educators accountable for that performance. Meanwhile, down in the field, things aren't so simple.

For example, according to the No Child Left Behind Act, if a school fails to make test gains in two successive years, the school can be labeled a "failing school" and the school's administrators must write an extensive (100+pages) school improvement paper to justify their job and school. Sounds good so far. Now enter government bureaucracy.

magnifying glass over NY Times logo

   As The New York Times reported (February 19, 2003): In October 2002, principals at Arizona's 275 "underperforming" schools (19 percent of the state's schools) were summoned to Phoenix for an audience with the state bureaucracy. There they were told the law requires them to submit a school improvement plan. One principal asked, `Who will evaluate the plan?' The woman from the state laughed. She said, "We don't have the resources."

"To his credit, Tom Horne, who became state education superintendent last month, was upset when he heard there was no one to read the improvement plans. So he hired 10 retired teachers to evaluate the plans. That will be roughly 27 120-page reports per evaluator. Sad to say, there is no money to have the evaluators actually visit the schools before critiquing the plans."

—The New York Times
February 19, 200

On the other hand, just because government mandates something doesn't make it feasible. For example, here is the New York Times' description of the plight in Los Angeles five years after No Child Left Behind began:

EAST LOS ANGELES — As the director of high schools in the gang-infested neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, Guadalupe Paramo struggles every day with educational dysfunction.

For the past half-dozen years, not even one in five students at her district’s teeming high schools has been able to do grade-level math or English. At Abraham Lincoln High School this year, only 7 in 100 students could. At Woodrow Wilson High, only 4 in 100 could.

For chronically failing schools like these, the No Child Left Behind law, now up for renewal in Congress, prescribes drastic measures: firing teachers and principals, shutting schools and turning them over to a private firm, a charter operator or the state itself, or a major overhaul in governance.

But more than 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools are branded chronic failures, and the numbers are growing. Barring revisions in the law, state officials predict that all 6,063 public schools serving poor students will be declared in need of restructuring by 2014, when the law requires universal proficiency in math and reading.

“What are we supposed to do?” Ms. Paramo asked. “Shut down every school?”

—by Diana Jean Schemo
"Failing Schools Strain to Meet No Child Law,"
New York Times, Oct. 16, 2007, p. 1

INDEX to all essays here on NCLB, NRP, and Reading First


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