The Creation of the Can School and the Can’t School: The Biggest Secret in Public Education, #1


In 2000, as I was ending my first year of teaching, No Child Left Behind was rolled out by the Bush administration in order to raise the achievement nationally of public school students.  It was a massive investment of money, but it was also a fundamental shift in educational policy.  The core driving force of NCLB was that it was researched based.  This would be a policy designed to increase achievement based on research that showed what factors increased achievement. That research was housed in a fat document known as The National Reading Panel and it made some claims that are still today considered facts in stone in schools and the public writ large. For example, The National Reading Panel showed that students could not increase achievement simply by reading a lot. They needed coaching alongside them. Critical thinking and metacognitive work while reading was central to comprehension, even as much so or more as phonics was. Finally, the grandest conclusion of all was the driving force of NCLB policy. Namely it was this: Teachers and their ability to teach, were the greatest and in practical terms only reason why students passed or failed.


And once the causality of teachers and achievement was settled, NCLB laid out in teacher training rooms across America exactly what achievement was, is and would be.

There would be no argument about what achievement was. Achievement was and would be measured by two factors, and two factors alone.  One was an English Language Arts exam known as the CST in California or the STAR test nationally. In fifth grade, this was an examination of approximately 65 questions.  Students would read roughly 10 passages and answer several questions about each.  They would also answer questions about vocabulary and grammar. The other exam was the CST Mathematics test, which was roughly 50 questions for fifth graders.

All CST/STAR examinations were multiple-choice A-D.  Students were scored based on the percentage they did correctly and were marked as either far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. Proficient meant they solved enough questions to be considered grade level.

No Child Left behind had an elegant goal. (see graph). It was overwhelming as a teacher to see it in its simplicity.


I can still remember sitting in a chair, at a teacher meeting just before welcoming in my fourth class of 4th graders seeing this chart in 2003.  Nationally, only 40% of our students were grade level ready entering the school yearly and our school was even lower. But, regardless of societal problems, regardless of personal goals, family goals, language ability, or student capability including those students with special needs, regardless of home life, every child would be proficient in grade-level reading and math based on the STAR test. Some schools, of course, were a lot closer to the 100% target, and others were not.  Over the course of the next 11 years, each school, each year would make small gains until eventually, they reached their target. This was called “annual yearly progress” and it was sacred. So long as our school stayed on course, we were ok.  We were left to our own devices and means. And the federal and state governments gave us loads of money! Fall below the AYP expected though and the yearly welcome back to school meeting looked a lot different.

There would be no excuses, there would be no mention of the factors teachers might believe contributed to achievement because these were used as excuses by teachers for why their test scores were not higher in the first place. I remember once a principal telling our staff, “Until your class has 100% proficiency please do not tell me you are an expert in a particular area of literacy or math.” That was the beginning of your student’s test scores being the only indicator of their success, and of yours. For good or not, this was NCLB for veteran teachers and for new.

Some schools were already quite close of course and these schools clearly then had effective teachers, as this was the number one indicator of student success.  But some schools didn’t.  I belonged to one such school. My school was a can’t school.  And we were all to be trained up.

And hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars even, were thrown in my direction. As I coached, as I planned, as I graded, as I collaborated and as I taught.

But somehow, along with the entire nation, we just couldn’t seem to improve my effectiveness in the classroom.



Nowadays, I find that teachers, administrators, and students like my son, know that a difference exists between certain schools, whether they are public or not.  Terms like “good schools”, “bad schools” are thrown around in casual conversation now, as parents go shopping for the best opportunities for their children to be educated. Test scores, published in newspapers yearly and found easily accessible on the web are often a large part of this conversation. Whether this difference is necessary, harmful or helpful, mightbe debated ad nauseum. But certainly, no one can fault a parent for wanting to find a good place for their child to learn.  What I wonder though is if most in the public realize how schools who could and schools who could not make their “annual yearly progress” benefited more or were harmed more by policy meant to close the gap of achievement between the two?  Who would help them to understand if there were any negative side effects of NCLB? The spokesman of the program himself, George Bush? Politicians maybe? Would documentaries funded by the Koch brothers help show the work quality teachers were doing in “bad schools” before NCLB or would they simply suggest that the best thing to do was to get your child out of one in the first place? Read from the NCLB parent literature at the time and you wonder why anyone would have stayed in a public school in the first place.

Would politicians tout various programs raising better learners and citizens, despite steadily decreasing test scores nationally despite any other factor now? There is no arguing that an achievement gap existed prior to NCLB but who was going to evaluate it’s effectiveness not based on their newspaper and looking at reading and math scores? Who was going to suggest that the billions of dollars spent on education in NCLB were paying for salary, training, food, adopted materials and technology that wasn’t fixing the core issues in the first place? Would anyone make a case that an achievement gap wasn’t being fixed, at least in part because of the various policies created by politicians and administrators hellbent on test scores in the first place?  Where were the throngs of people, teachers included, speaking up about what NCLB policy looked like?

I think it’s interesting to note that there was actually some who did. A book was published in San Diego for example that went virtually unread. In it, the author, a teacher, highlighted many fallacies of NCLB.  Chief among them was her declaration that she was targeted for not teaching to the exam. Although her administrator, peer coaches and superintendent would not call it that. She was simply refusing to raise her children’s achievement.  She did not care about them, or the achievement gap. She wasn’t interested in data or research or best practices and she wasn’t an expert. She was and had been a failure for many years. She was collecting a paycheck.

I wonder if, at the time, teachers and administrators really understood what the changing rhetoric about teachers in public schools meant for the general public; A public which has always and always will want what is best for their children. As we will see, the public responded to this constant barrage of rhetoric, and in droves. The great charter school movement began shortly after NCLB policy was enacted. Almost as if it was designed that way.

When I discuss the idea that some schools are “bad” and some schools are “good” based on reading/math scores with many people interested in such things, often the answer from us both seems confused.  As a teacher, I will usually point out the different ways in which we are asked to instruct the children, the various programs that exist in order to help us do that that aren’t found elsewhere.  Parents on the other hand, often tell me what a better school has that a bad school doesn’t. What those differences are run the gambit from more involved parents to the children themselves, to better instructors, to fewer students in a class, especially indicative of charter and private schools. Another interesting phenomenon, is a great movement exists now in parents who do not necessarily wish to have their children enrolled in schools who are pushing for higher and higher test scores.

When I ask about why different schools teach in different ways, I often hear something like, “Well, of course, certain schools have to be more serious about test scores because some areas have students with less serious students because of home life, perhaps the teaching is worse, or there is a higher number of students in class, I’ve heard there is poorer and more aggressive behavior in classes, etc”. Many people seem to suggest that maybe the teaching isn’t as good in these areas and has a serious effect on the way the school runs its business of educating minds. Many other views probably exist, and perhaps there is merit in these views, maybe all of them, maybe none.  Personally, in my 20 years of teaching, I have seen several poor educators, but of them, I can only count on one hand. Personally, in my 20 years of teaching, I have dealt with many students and their parents whose frame of mind is at odds fundamentally with higher achievement for themselves and many times for the others around them too.  I am not here to argue there aren’t a few ineffective teachers at schools across the US, nor that teacher efficacy can’t be improved.  I am not here to argue that student behavior and a culture of parenting that doesn’t expect straight A’s from their children isn’t helping either. I am however here to talk about what you may not know, and that is the effect that policy has had on the factors of learning. In fact, I do and will argue a case that teacher firings should be made easier and that NCLB was a wedge in the cordwood of teaching practice which had grown stagnant to some degree. However, to me, the more sinister disservice to students and the reason for a difference in the can and the can’t schools that is both harmful and detrimental to the future success of children there is a simple thing. It’s easy. Why it exists is logical, and easily and simply put as well. It is the accidental or purposeful effect of systemic and intentional programs meant to close the achievement gap themselves. Along with the others that are thrown around in casual conversation and read about in yahoo stories purporting that a school lunch cook didn’t allow a child to eat that day, the idea that policy itself has had a detrimental effect on our schools needs to be addressed.

It is the constant nagging notion that policy itself has transformed our schools into something we never intended to happen that for years has led to my desire to write about it.

And if, like me, you have noticed something is different about school, and if like me you still believe we can right the ship of public education and that it may in fact be worth saving, allow me to tell you a few stories.



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