Axes to Grind


2. Eric – Response to “In Defense of NCLB”
1. Dan – In Defense of NCLB

Editor’s Note

This is getting the full-service post on several accounts: a) it’s too large to toss into a comment; b) I skipped lesson planning in favor of writing this response to Eric’s response so, in my arrogance, I feel like it deserves an audience, c) the moments where you, Internet reader, call me out on my logical fallacies and naiveté have been invaluable lately; d) it’s a blog; we let quality control go in the first round of layoffs.

An Open Letter

Eric, thanks for opening this up a little more.

First, let me make my opinion absolutely clear that there are many teachers now protesting NCLB whose teaching I respect. Nowhere in the post do I make the blanket assertion that “any teacher who protests NCLB is a mediocre teacher,” though I admit that’s the vibe of the piece.

There is even a paragraph early on — a paragraph I added between drafts — that itemizes some of the legitimate critiques of NCLB I found around the Internet. I’ll say now what I said then, that those of you who have legitimate grievances with NCLB need to rebuke those teachers and bloggers whose complaints are self-serving, whose grievances are merely smoke to cover their lousy practices. You need to be even more frothingly rabid than I am. Because every teacher who makes an easily disproven assertion like (e.g.) “It’s impossible to differentiate instruction under NCLB,” is another teacher clouding the pond, sapping strength from your legitimate concerns with NCLB.

Compressing liberally (and hoping I don’t conflate any of your arguments too bad) it seems like you’re trying to grind two axes here, one of which pertains to NCLB, one of which is much wider in scope.

The Decoy Axe

The most emblematic paragraph of your first axe:

Any test is only a valid assessment of itself. A student who can successfully complete a test indicates that he/she can successfully complete that kind of test—nothing more.

This befuddled me for some time. I mean, if true, that first sentence really denigrates the results of any assessment I’ve ever given. This is a level of cynicism I cannot share, one which I think flies in the face of reality. Certainly my experience of reality.

Another quotation relevant to your low esteem of current assessment models:

[All] you know [is that] my students can, to varying degrees of success or failure, regurgitate facts and identify simple answers.

Which, again, makes me wonder which test you’ve got in front of you.

The overwhelming majority of the released Geometry CST questions demand complex thought, require conjectural knowledge, synthesis, and application. The test punishes surface-level, factual knowledge ruthlessly, in fact.

If a student earns an “Advanced” designation on the Geometry STAR test, I know she knows the Geometry standards. I can tell her parents, my colleagues, and my administrators, that she knows the Geometry standards.

You claim that the best I can say of her “Advanced” designation is that she is an advanced test-taker — really really good at filling in all them li’l bubbles there. (Several passages of your post indicate you think that multiple-choice tests are, by definition, simple-minded assessments. I hope I’m just reading too fast.)

Even if things were as facile as you claim, the natural conclusion would seem to be for better NCLB assessment rather than your implicit call for no NCLB assessment.

The Real-Deal Axe

Then I got it. The axe you’re predominantly grinding here has less to do with the assessment itself than with what the assessment is assessing. Which is to say, all that booklearnin’: facts, figures, dates, the state capitals, the quadratic formula.

What you wish the assessments assessed (all taken from your post):

  1. finding happiness in art,
  2. becoming a successful performer,
  3. developing critical thinking,
  4. developing the ability to:
    • question,
    • discover,
    • explore,
    • approach things from multiple perspectives,
    • find resources and information.

These are all great. I wish every teacher had these as heavily in mind as you do. But then you take that enthusiasm to a place where I cannot follow:

NCLB can not assess these things in its current form, and so schools are not concerned with them.

The first part is true, but not the fault of NCLB. Your fight there is less a beef with NCLB than with the school system as is. And beefin’ with NCLB for assessing the status quo is like calling Goodfellas a terrible romantic comedy.

But that second clause is deeply troublng. Schools aren’t concerned with all these wonderful elements of a capital-E Education (questioning, discovery, exploration, etc.) and you’re laying that blame on NCLB?

I’m lost.

Schools and teachers aren’t concerned with questioning, discovery, exploration, but that blame lies exclusively on the shoulders of the schools and their teachers.

The grievance, “NCLB won’t let me teach my kids questioning, discovery, and exploration,” holds only a little more water than, “NCLB won’t let me differentiate instruction.”

You’ve suddenly set up a dichotomy in my own classroom between a) teaching kids questioning, discovery, exploration, and b) teaching them skills assessed by NCLB (to “recite the quadratic equation,” for example) — a dichotomy that is demonstrably false.

That’s because my teaching, which is far from the best out there, manages both. We practice connection, elaboration, application, and extension all while ( or “in spite of,” from your perspective, I suppose) promoting booklearnin’.

It’s a long road to the quadratic formula, per your example, which deals with higher order equations. We start with lower order graphs — simple lines — and talk through some examples — the relationship between a) cell phone minutes used and b) the cost of the cell phone bill, for instance. We talk about what it means to solve for zero in these circumstances and we notice how it really isn’t terribly difficult with these simple equations. Just a two-step process.

Then we move to higher order graphs — parabolas, quadratics — and we talk about where we’ve seen these. The path of a baseball through the air, for example. We talk then about what zero means here — that the ball has hit the ground — and we notice how and why our old tricks don’t work. How we need a stronger operation. A stronger formula. A quadratic formula, if you will. And yeah, by the end of all all that, my students will recall the quadratic formula as well as they can Black Parade lyrics, but we aren’t regurgitating anything. They’ll have questioned, discovered, and explored, and a worthy portion of them will do me proud on the STAR test.

See, I feel like you and the read/write web enthusiasts you represent oftentimes have a simplistic, occasionally downright prejudicial view of education’s status quo. Since NCLB doesn’t assess a student’s ability to appreciate, articulate, and blog about the beauty of Starry Night, then Mr. Meyer’s students must be spending their period droning The Quadratic Equation Song, putting numbers into formulas, staring blankly at their calculators, all while waiting for a low-frequency chime to send them shuffling (like “automatons,” you say) to their next regurgitation experience.

Am I representing you and yours unfairly, Eric?

Your post is exactly the elevation of rhetoric I asked for in my post, Biggie Smalls, but we can do better. We can elevate this discussion to an even higher plane by doing away with easy clichés like “automaton” and “regurgitation.” We need to fight over the best examples of both opposing POVs and then, once we settle on some excellent hybrid of the two, fight like hell to elevate our colleagues to that level.

You argue that questioning, discovery, and exploration are the ideals of modern education. I say, great. I’m really concerned about the first-gen Latino kid who can’t read or write or use entry-level proportions, whose read/write teachers just want him to post to the class blog, but that’s a separate debate. This is the system. You can make a valid argument that the system should be changed. To my mind, however, you’ve made an argument that NCLB doesn’t assess the current system well when, the truth is, it just doesn’t assess your fantasy system well.

The Bonus Axe

You bring your post back around to teacher quality, a fine place to begin and end.

However, you’re not going to get these kinds of teachers [the creative, innovative kind] if you don’t treat them as professionals, reward them as professionals, allow them room for innovation, or rely on research in a variety of fields to inform education. NCLB does none of these things.

To your last sentence, I disagree in all but one case.

NCLB asks me for results. It asks me to quantifiably prove I’m taking my employer’s time, money, and resources, and using them well. If it’s anything, that’s professionalism. A common anti-NCLB alternative — demanding a paycheck, trust, and freedom from accountability, is the opposite of a professional. That’s a grad student.

The ever-lucid TMAO has a great post running right now that transfers the usual anti-NCLB grievances to a couple other professions to calamitous results.

‘Dr. Galen, why did the patient die?’ A procedure for tumor removal I found creatively stifling, a lack of patient involvement during the first hour of surgery, and hospital regulations requiring I to file reports on patient progress toward health.

And along those lines, innovation isn’t doing whatever I want, whenever I want, free from oversight. Innovation takes places under constraints. The real innovation isn’t crafting satisfying learning experiences restrained by nothing whatsoever; it’s crafting them knowing there will be a reckoning later.

You are right on this one, however: NCLB doesn’t reward me financially like a professional. But then, it doesn’t cook up a very good quesadilla either. And it did a shitty job painting my apartment. But teaching failed us there long before NCLB came along.

Eric, I hope you don’t find me too abrasive to continue this dialogue. This has been an invaluable waste of my lesson planning time.

Thanks, in any case,


I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Thanks for the response, Dan.

    I’ve been debating whether it’s better to just post a short reply in a comment or to respond more substantively. I think if we’re really going to attempt to elevate the discussion, then a more lengthy response might be necessary. I hope I’m right here, and at any rate, that’s my motive for creating an annotated response to your post, nothing more.

    Here’s the link to the annotation.

    I also linked to it from my blog.

    Thanks again.

  2. Robert the "Nerd"

    January 28, 2007 - 9:37 pm -

    I have read the last few threads by dan et. al and have a short response to the NCLB conversation (mostly because I like reading, am considered an excellent teacher by my administrator, students, and peers, but I am bad at blogging):

    Be careful new teachers in how much and how often you criticize veteran teachers as Lazy. Though this was never said directly in any thread, I see it clearly in the posts–I think I would pass the inference part of the CST language arts test. I often hear brazen young teachers who laud their work ethic. I have worked with two tremendous workers in the past few years, dan being one of them. However, new teachers must work really hard because they are really bad, generally speaking, at their jobs (dan of course is the exception). No offense, but ask any 10 year vet (who likely works half as hard as a 3rd year teacher) how much their practice has improved over the years and they will mostly just laugh. The chasm is huge! More experienced teachers work much smarter and get greater returns for less effort. I use myself as a example. I teach really tough kids by choice and get great results, yet by the standards set in many of the posts I have read I may be a lazy teacher. I work really hard in front of and with the kids, not preparing for them. I create, perhaps “manipulate”, students into caring and trying by connecting to them while they are in front of me. The magic in working with tough kids is buy-in, not the next great lesson. Having taught with tough kids for a while, experience has given me an array of approaches to helping motivate tough kids.

    Re-enter NCLB. Hard schools are filled with new teachers who teach poorly and hence schools that are already behind get sanctioned for the reality that anyone with sense (or at least doesn’t like the fear that next year your job may be eliminated) bails out. It is the hammer NCLB swings that is unjust, not the assessments themselves.

    Further, take the elementary case against NCLB as presented in a poor school near you. The poor school is in program improvement status for poor test scores, which means the students lose PE, science, social science, and art in favor of more reading and math. The kids remain more generally ignorant than their peers and have a much less rich learning experience than their counterparts in middle class schools who are reaffirmed as great students with each test administration and are rewarded with less involvement/curricular demands/restrictions. We screw poor kids by helping them? Vicious cycle which the punishments of NCLB perpetuate. Which school would you want to teach in just from a curricular standpoint? This means more new teachers teaching poorly with needy kids in needy schools…an NCLB victory?

    I can concede that without NCLB we may not be paying proper attention to the achievement gap, but we have an equality gap in society. Schools that are largely segregated by race and class (see Kozol) are punished for their disadvantage. NCLB is systemically flawed and it has little to do with individual teacher test scores or the nature of its assessments.

    I am for holding teachers accountable for the performance of their students, but is the Standardized test the best way to find out which teachers are really reaching and teaching kids?

  3. Robert,

    Thank you for bringing this up:

    Schools that are largely segregated by race and class (see Kozol) are punished for their disadvantage.

    It’s a huge piece of the issue, and one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been addressed here yet.

  4. Dan-
    First of all, I want to say that you are a very good writer, your high school English teachers would be proud, secondly I agree with “Robert the Nerd”–I’m a good teacher and a bad blogger (I hate to write) but I always have something to say–kids are my main concern. I’ve read many of the posts and comments regarded the discussion on NCLB and I do think it’s easy to complain and many teachers are very good at it.

    I come at NCLB from an entirely different perspective than you do. I’ve taught for over twenty years, my sons are your age; I teach elementary kiddos (I think NCLB feels different for K-6); and (tee dee) I teach gifted kids. Since I come from such a different perspective I thought you might indulge me space to air some of my concerns:

    At a meeting yesterday I had a teacher tell me she was unable to provide appropriate leveled math materials to a boy who scored in the 99th%ile on standardized testing until she had finished preparing him for state assessment tests. There was no glimmer of understanding from her that he already was “prepared for state assesments”. This is not an isolated incident, it happens everyday in schools around the district. ALL students in that school, no matter how advanced, spend three and a half hours a day in Reading instruction.

    With the emphasis on Reading and Math instruction in the elementary classroom, I’ve noticed my students skills dwindling. Proficiency in writing and research skills used to be a given with high ability kiddos…that has changed over the last 3-4 years. When I asked them how much writing and research they are doing in the classroom they reply “Not much”. I serve kiddos from 11 different schools, so it’s not just one school. It may surprise you to know that 30% of high school dropout are gifted, of course it may not surprise you since you teach “big” kids.

    I teach in a Title 1 school building. Do you know that students who move into our schools and do not speak English have to test in English on grade level in 11 months even though research says it takes 7 years to fully learn a language. Think about moving to Berlin and having to take a test in German. Did you know that a student with a learning disability has to test on grade level and in many cases cannot have the test read to him/her? These are the things about NCLB that frustrates me. Assessment is great, I’m all for it but there are many kids left behind and short changed. I don’t know if I’ve adequately made my points but I’m tired…and going back to “48 Hours Mysteries”.

    Continue to work hard to meet the needs of all the kids in your classes. N.

  5. Nancy, thanks for stopping by and bringing elementary and gifted ed to the table. I’m pretty accustomed to the tragedies on the opposite end of of the spectrum, where low-performing kids can’t get the instruction they need. Your anecdotes are somewhat out of my experience.

    I am curious, though. I teach a pretty wide range of kids in my remedial Algebra class. Some students could very conceivably pass an honors class. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to construct lessons where everyone finds something that makes them pause, scratch their head, and work harder.

    Can you explain how my situation is different than a remedial Reading Comprehension class with a student who has top-notch reading comprehension? Do these schools forbid teachers from giving challenging material to kids who need the challenge while moving the rest along at the proscribed pace

    Thanks for the link to your blog also. Stories from gifted elementary ed oughtta be useful reading for this remedial high school teacher.

  6. I don’t think our teachers are “forbidden” to provide appropriate materials. To do authentic differentiation is a struggle, very time consuming and the focus on testing doesn’t encourage it. I’ve taken 100s of hours of instructional workshops on differentiation and I don’t think I could do it well. It is hard to do well, its a total paradigm shift from how many teachers are trained. Excuse the edu-jargon…while I digress.

    Differentiation does not mean that each kid would be taught something different, generally all students are taught the same thing. How they make sense of what they are taught and what they do with it is the part that is differentiated. It’s pretty obvious how you help a student make “sense”; you use different techniques/strategies to make sure each kid “gets it “. What is hard is allowing students to show what they learned in different ways. This is where the “gifted” student gets short changed sometimes…since he may learn differently or “prefer” not to do homework (though may be able to ace the test).

    If he had the option to show his understanding in a myriad of ways, you might get more “work” and even more “struggle” out of him. Here’s a couple of examples of kids who got to do math in a different way by using Bubbleshare and Thumbstacks.

    Assessment is a critical part of differentiating because you’ve got to know all the time who knows what. I observed a middle school teacher teaching the water cycle. In the last 5 minutes of the class he asked the kids to write on a note card what the water cycle was…he collected the cards on the way out and with a glance knew who “got it” the first time and who needed to “review”.

    One BIG mistake many teachers make is they think they have to teach the grade level or course material to every kiddo …surprise, surprise…they don’t. They just need to make sure the students know the grade level or course work.

    I wish I had the answer to student motivation, I don’t. I wish I could advise you on how to get the best our of each kid, I can’t. BUT knowing your students learning profiles, interests and readiness will allow you to differentiation content, process and product. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works, but that is what I think NCLB demands.

    You got my 30 minute diatribe…would have been faster if I’d been able to find the bubbleshare and thumbstack projects more quickly. I’d lost it in dozens of recently read blogs!!

    I would like to leave you with an analogy, maybe it will make you think:

    You are an adult and last year you decided to take ski lessons in Colorado. You bought the clothes, rented the skis and drove out to the Colorado slopes. You signed up for beginner lessons, practiced and has a great time. A year passes…you had so much fun last year that you decided to go back to Colorado for intermediate lessons. You bought fancier clothes and this year you decided to buy skis. You drive out to Colorado and pull up to the ski school. Swen comes bounding out of the chalet and says “Velcome, Velcome…but I have bad news. Not enough people signed up for intermediate lessons, you will have to take “beginners” again.” As an adult, you would say “H*** no, I will not take “beginners” again, I’m ready for intermediate!!”

    But kids don’t have that power; they have to take beginner again and again and again. Think about it, as an adult you would never put up with that.

    Have a good week, N

  7. An anecdotal reply, maybe:

    I have two students in my remedial Algebra class, both named Justin, both blisteringly bright. Both finished today’s assigned work — an analysis of a runner’s distance/time data — waaaay before everyone else. Some students — I’ve got some who don’t speak English — didn’t finish at all.

    I saw the Justins finished and looking bored. I walked back and asked them to look at the data from a different way. “How could you prove your conclusion if there weren’t any numbers — just the graph?” And then I walked away. That bought me another five minutes to mentally prep another extension or another task entirely.

    That process is difficult as hell and I’m really disinclined to it at the end of the week. But I know it’s possible, satisfying, and represents my best.

    But I haven’t taught gifted ed, elementary, or language arts. So I’m trying to understand what it is about those systems that doesn’t permit that kind of differentiation. What factors haven’t I considered that would preclude that kind of anecdote being told of a gifted ed, elementary, or language arts classroom?

  8. What you don’t get, Dan, is that you may be the exception…but if you ever want a change it sounds like you’d make a heck of a good teacher of the gifted!!

    Ancedote back at cha’– I was teaching a mysteries unit to a group of 4th graders. I’m a firm believer in reading the “original” so during a “Introduction to Mysteries” day we read the first detective story, Poes’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. The next week I followed up with The Raven. I’m not a literature scholar and it briefly crossed my mind that I’d never read The Raven and didn’t really know what it was about, of course it didn’t stop me from introducing it to the kids. After reading the poem aloud, I paused and a few hands shot into the air. Elizabeth, age 9, who had never heard the poem before said, “Do you think the raven symbolized Lenore?” Yikes! And Molly said, “I think the whole thing is melancholy.” Keep up the good work, your kids are lucky to have you. N.

  9. In specific response to your last comment/question, Dan: as a language arts and gifted ed teacher, my answer is “nothing.” In fact, I think the ability to do the kind of differentiation you describe is essential in both of those classrooms (and in all other classrooms, too.)

    I agree with Nancy’s concern in her anecdote: there should be a variety of courses available for students at varying ability levels that students can choose (with some guidance). But I think that’s an ideal situation that most school districts can’t afford to offer.

    This makes the job of the teacher harder than it needs to be, but I think the solution is the kind of response you describe.

  10. I start teaching at 12:30 on Wednesdays and Fridays in my single-campus unified school district. No excuse not to take a field trip over to the elementary school.