No Child Left Behind: The Quantitative Revolution applied to Public Schools

Earlier, I mentioned how the Quantitative Revolution is destroying academia (both the Marxists and the intellectuals), replacing the “ivory tower” with a scientific-academic-industrial-complex. While there is much to miss in the old way, progress is clearly served by subjecting the universities to the discipline of the market and hard numbers.

Another kind of quantitative revolution is overthrowing the traditional American public school. Traditionally, American schools were a weird hybrid of cultural assimilation, industrial socialization, and leftish fads. The public schools achieved the implied ends well, normalizing immigrants to American standards (often with disastrous results), preparing a large and young workforce for the intellectual laziness of large institutions (often with disastrous results), and encouraging the most observant students to turn against our history, our country, and our values (often with disastrous results).

The man who did – and is doing – more than anyone else to change this is President George Walker Bush.

Given the weirdly Old Left hue of public schools (national culture, industrial employment, illiberal value) — cutting edge for the 1930s — it was wise not to try to save it in a recognizable form. The old rulers of schools — superintendents, unions, and elected local officials – had formed an “iron triangle” of bureaucrats, workers, and politicians who were all supportive of the status quo. Defeating them required depriving the iron triangle of most of its power, turning the rulers of the classroom into more executers of a higher will.

This is what was and is being accomplished by the No Child Left Behind Act. In place of every idea that these people ever had came quality control, numbers that could be measured. What qualities are observed this year? What about next year? Why should the national government support a school if it does not meet quality requirements?

Thus the school traditions of the past are crushed by the need for numbers, reliable numbers.

While the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has some drawbacks, these should even out. NCLB obviously makes education less enjoyable for teachers, driving away the brightest and most ambitious. However the point of quality control is that you can get away with a much duller labor force. Instead of low wages and hoping to get high-quality employees, with quality control you can get low wages and employees capable of performing mechanistic tasks, such teaching to tests. Likewise, NCLB takes away time from exploratory learning which could help the most gifted. However, primary and secondary education should provide the skills needed for life, not compete with other institutions of learning. A gifted high schooler is much better off studying for CLEP or AP tests, or attending (physically or online) an institution of higher education

More proof of the NCLB’s effectiveness keeps rolling in. Stories in the past month on science and reading scores show improvement, especially among the poor, blacks, and hispanics, in places as diverse as , Florida, New York State, New York City, Washington, DC — actually, all across the nation.

Like many conservatives, I was scared of No Child Left Behind when it began. It was an anti-democratic, federal powergrab.

Fortunately, it’s worked. And it’s working.

All that’s need now is continuous tuning, making the measures better, free education of the burden of an education and ambitious labor force, and the eventual establishing of national standards which will make public education a uniform and worthwhile experience for everyone.

Update: This post foreshadows my discussion of how academia works, how science works, and normal science.

9 thoughts on “No Child Left Behind: The Quantitative Revolution applied to Public Schools”

  1. I just had a weird image: instead of public ed as the path to adult, you see it as a router putting specific individuals on any of several paths depending on what suites them.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment!

    The router analogy describes the European education systems pretty well. I used to favor something like that, but I think I am moving away from it.

    Essentially, everyone has both long-term memory and short-term memory. Short term memory is fixed, limited, hard to used, and heavily driven by inheritance. But once something is learned and put into long-term memory, it has unlimited capacity, it’s effortless to use, and is accessible to all normal-functioning humans.

    So I advocate making a high school diploma a standard certificate of accomplishment, which demonstrates that a student is capable of doing x, y, and z. For some students, this will involve more intense work; for others, it may be easy and their time is best spent taking university classes or acquiring a real trade.

    ScienceBlogs had a recent post about academic freedom [1] which argues that high school teachers are paid to teach what is expected. I agree. And high school learners should learn what is expected:

    Academic freedom is vital for healthy scholarship, but there are some obvious cases where it doesn’t apply – most notably in situations where the scholar is not supposed to decide for himself what the content of a research project or lecture should be. Some (but by no means all) government science jobs, for example, aren’t meant to be independent research positions, and those scientists don’t have the same freedom to lecture and publish that academic scientists do. But most obviously, academic freedom doesn’t apply to anyone, high school teachers or professors, teaching classes whose content is set to meet certain curriculum standards. A physics professor does not have the freedom to disregard a department-mandated curriculum in a Freshman physics class, and a high school teacher does not have “academic freedom” to set aside a state or school-board mandated science curriculum in favor of that teacher’s favorite topics.

    What would be the point of that kind of academic freedom anyway? What is it supposed to accomplish? Real academic freedom is meant to keep outside pressure from skewing the work of independent researchers, but in a high school class, the teacher is paid to teach what’s expected.

    This is also part of the philosophy of No Child Left Behind, which may be Bush’s greatest domestic legacy.


  3. NCLB is really about making the schools go back to phonics in beginning reading instruction. It doesn’t say “phonics” anywhere, because the bill actually says that you’re welcome to use whatever form of reading instruction you like, you just have to prove it works.

  4. Purpleslog,

    Thanks for the link!

    Ultimately, we have a fantastic post-secondary educational infrastrucutre. From community colleges to research universities, we know exaclty what we’re doing there. The problem is getting students to that point. That’s why I think high school should focus on getting students graduated with enough knowledge for the college bound to succeed in 100-level courses, and for the non-college bound to be already apprenticing for a trade.


    Pretty close, actually.

    “Whole language” is part of the larger inquiry program of education [1 – h/t to Michael] that doesn’t work without a tremendous amount of guidance. Whole language rarely included that guidance, so all you had was confused and frustrated students, angry parents, and disappointed teachers. Phonics is a reliable method of education that allows easy quantitative measures of ability that predict performance. It’s part of the quality-control model of education that we need.


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