NCLB Recommendation 2: Growth Model

Here’s the second post in my continuing strand sharing the recommendations on NCLB’s reauthorization made by the 50 State Teachers of the Year. In this document, the TOYs argue in favor of a growth model for measuring student achievement:

Needed change:

Develop a growth model for measuring individual student achievement.

No Child Left Behind set out to close the achievement gap. If the law is going to achieve this goal, we need to acknowledge the growth of struggling students while challenging our gifted students, particularly in lower-income schools.

Why the change is needed:

Nearly all the rewards and punishments in NCLB focus on how many students are testing at "proficiency" by the end of the year—a middle-of-the road benchmark determined by each state. If we can focus instead on how much progress each student has made over the course of the year, we do two things:

1. Create an incentive for the best teachers to take on the lowest-performing students. The same applies to the best principals taking on the lowest-performing schools and the best superintendents taking on the lowest-performing districts.

2. Encourage all students to continue improving their academic skills. Students who enter the year far below grade level usually need more than one year to become proficient, even when they are provided with an excellent teacher. Affirming their progress toward proficiency is critical to their success. Students who enter the year far above grade level should be pushed just as hard as their peers to excel.


Aaron entered my 2nd grade class as a non-reader. By the end of the year, he had advanced to a level 24 as measured by the Developmental Reading Assessment, just shy of the level 28 designated as "proficient." His remarkable achievement should be acknowledged as a success on the part of Aaron, his family, his teachers, and his school.

When Maria entered my 2nd grade class, she was already reading on a 4th grade level. In lower-income schools like mine, the staff is often desperate to raise standardized test scores to avoid being put in school improvement—a designation that tends to stigmatize the school as a failure, drive away qualified staff, and strip both resources and autonomy from the school community. A child like Maria will pass with a "proficient" score whether or not she is pushed to achieve her full potential.

In my class of 20 lower-income students, Maria is one of six in the Gifted and Talented program. These gifted lower-income students have the brilliance and the academic skills to go to great universities someday, and they have the first-hand knowledge of their neighborhoods to transform their communities. If they are to develop perseverance, intellectual risk-taking, and joy in their work, these students must be challenged.

A growth model meets the needs of students at both ends of the spectrum, the Aarons and the Marias, by pushing them to achieve their full potential. It provides the most meaningful measure of effective teaching, particularly for teachers in lower-income schools. A growth model also provides the most effective means of attracting and retaining highly effective teachers, principals, and superintendents in our neediest schools.

7 thoughts on “NCLB Recommendation 2: Growth Model

  1. MC

    “After all, if I come to school… each day well prepared, and energetically and enthusiastically provide the best possible educational opportunity, how can I do more? How can I rationally be held responsible for more? ”
    The fact of the matter is that schools are not industries and students aren’t widgets – we can’t control the”raw material we are given to be sure our “product” is of uniform high quality. The notion that we can take any child – motivated or unmotivated, gifted or developmentally delayed – and produce a highly achieving graduate is nonsense. And yes, it’s rhetoric.
    My grandfather’s motivation for getting an education was that he wanted to stay out of the coal mines! Our modern culture – the American, good-time culture – produces large numbers of children who have no internal motivation and have neither parents nor a harsh real-world environment providing external motivation. Why study chemistry when you can play video games, text message your friends on your cell phone, or watch TV downloads until 3 in the morning?
    Wait a few decades – I predict that we’ll see similar problems cropping up in other countries where the affluence is growing rapidly.
    My next question to those who presume that enough “good” teachers (as opposed to we who are in the classrooms now) will turn around the American culture is: where are these people going to come from? I am considered a good teacher under most measures. High test scores. School leader. Mentor to new teachers. And every year I wonder if this should be my last. The rewards are few, the demands many. My analytical and problem-solving skills would be valued elsewhere far more than they will ever be valued in a school.

  2. Mike

    Dear Parry:
    Glad to hear from you again, and thanks, as always, to Bill who provides a venue for rational discussion.
    Indeed we are professionals, but sadly, not in fact. Several marks of true professions are that those in the profession set education/entrance requirements, set compensation and police the profession. This is true of doctors, lawyers, and to a somewhat lesser extent, university professors, but certainly not true at all of K-12 teachers. I don’t suggest that we should not strive to the utmost standards of professionalism, but only point out reality.
    Now, as to responsibility. In my professional practice, I am anything but unaccountable. In fact, I’d like to see more of my principals in my classroom and have more time to engage them in discussion about our practices, but that’s not the way things work. I am more than happy to accept responsibility for those things over which I have actual control, but not for those over which I have no control.
    As a general rule, I have, in each of my classes, students who choose to do little or nothing. We always get along well, they’re almost always bright and capable, but they choose to do virtually zip. As a result, they frequently fail the class and do not progress as much as they should/could. I also have students who choose to do only enough to barely–and I mean barely–pass the class. Finally, I have students who pass, but who don’t come close to working as hard as they could or should to gain the knowledge and skills I make available to them each and every day.
    For each of these students, I encourage them, reinforce them, send letters to their parents, call their parents, etc., but the same results occur each and every year. How then can it be my responsibility when the first student chooses to fail? When the second student barely passes, but only progresses 60% or so as much as they could? When the third student only progresses 70% or so as much as they could? Please keep in mind that my mandatory, yearly test scores for all my students are in the 90s (passing), and far above the state average, yet some of the same kids who pass the test fail the class.
    I literally cannot do more, and I am quite simply unwilling to assume more of a parental role than I am already forced to assume. And, to get back to the original topic, I don’t want the DOE as my parents.
    I suggest that, considering that we are each responsible for our own education (with parents taking up the slack for kids who can’t or won’t realize its importance), that teachers bear 50% of the responsibility, and kids and parents 50% as well. After all, if I come to school (after decades of preparation to merely earn and maintain my credentials) each day well prepared, and energetically and enthusiastically provide the best possible educational opportunity, how can I do more? How can I rationally be held responsible for more?
    That, you see, is political rhetoric, not real educational practice. It’s politically easy and desirable to hold teachers completely responsible for outcomes, and politically damaging to do the same for students and parents. And of course, if the measure of success is a single score on a yearly high stakes test, it’s very easy to keep score. That’s politics. It’s not nearly so easy to keep score if real educational progress for real individuals is measured. That takes knowledge, work and can’t be reduced to sound bites. But that’s real professionalism. Isn’t it?

  3. Parry

    Great post. Thank you for taking the time and energy to respond in such detail.
    Three points I would make in response. First, in no way did I intend to suggest that the line near the end of my post (“left to their own devices…”) was a direct quote from you, but rather that it was a summary of what I read as one of your central points. If that was not clear, please accept my apologies.
    Second, you talk in detail about “local” control of education. Here in North Carolina, where I work, K-12 education is a right granted in the state constitution and financially supported, primarily, through state funds (most counties in NC receive at least 60% of their total ed funding from the state). To my mind, this means that the state has a constitutional and fiduciary responsibility to ensure that children are receiving the education that is their right. While the state grants individual districts the authority to run local schools, the state is still in charge. And when it’s public money that is being spent, the state absolutely needs to practice oversight.
    You make a strong argument that the federal government’s role in education is overly large and cumbersome (you would probably just say “unnecessary”). I think that the opposing argument (and one that I have seen Bill discuss on this blog) is that the states simply haven’t done their job, and that is why the federal government stepped in with NCLB—it is basically “get your act together” legislation. Ultimately, I agree that states can do a better job managing K-12 education than can the federal government, and I wholly agree that federal mandates and intrusion breed many negative consequences. At the same time, however, the previous status quo led to enormous inequities. You say that these inequities could/should be fixed at the local level. But when no one is fixing them, shouldn’t someone step in and do something about it?
    Finally, you say that, “Teachers don’t download education, they provide the opportunity for students to attain it. If a student does nothing to take advantage of that opportunity, whose fault is their lack of accomplishment?” Here, I think, is the crux of our disagreement. I believe that educators are professionals, and that it is their professional responsibility to ensure that students are academically successful. In my mind, to suggest that we simply provide the “opportunity” for an education is to diminish our professionalism and our importance. Yes, there are a tremendous number of outside factors (factors over which we have no control) that enhance or inhibit our ability to ensure children’s education, but in my opinion this does not absolve us of our professional responsibility. We are hired because we are supposed to do all the things that you outlined in your first post—identify individual student needs, individualize instruction—and it is our ability to do those things despite challenges that marks us as professionals.
    Whose fault is students’ lack of accomplishment? Ours. The blame may not solely rest with us, but our professional competence and our professional responsibility as publicly paid educators demand that we accept a good share of it. If we are willing to accept the praise for successes, we must also be willing to accept the blame for failures.

  4. Mike

    Dear Parry:
    Thanks for your kind comments regarding dedication and talent. My concerns are not so much that federal intervention might hinder talented and dedicated teachers and students (there seems little doubt that it does), but that apart from that hinderance, is it unnecessary, even destructive.
    My hiring example from my last post reflected my belief in minimal standards for educators, one of which should be the ability and will to identify individual student strengths and weaknesses and the ability to deal with them. This would seem to be a minimum requirement for teaching competence, not something of which only the best and brightest are capable.
    I was a bit disturbed by a quotation in your post: “left to their own devices, without oversight or accountability, all public school teachers will independently ensure that all students receive a high quality education.” The context of your comments seems to suggest that I made that direct quotation. I’m sure you didn’t mean to make that suggestion as even a casual perusal of my post reveals that I made no such comment, nor can my comments be construed to suggest that.
    Just to be clear, I understand that not every teacher is a good teacher, that not every school provides competent educational opportunity, that not every principal is competent, and that inequity, as you term it, exists. The main thrust of my argument was and is that there is no problem in local education–and by design, all American K-12 education is local education–that cannot be solved locally. Federal intervention is unncessary, harmful, has myriad negative unintended consequences, and is even dangerous to liberty.
    Yes, inequity exists, and it will always exist. Most teachers will be adequate, some will be exceptional, some substandard, and the same is true of human beings in every field of endeavor. It is very easy to say that equal educational opportunity is so important that federal control is justified. But whenever anyone wants to justify a political program by saying “it’s for the children!,” we should all check our wallets and bar the doors.
    Name the problem in a given school, and local mechanisms are in place to deal with it. That a teacher might be unqualified and mediocre, that a principal might not be competent, that a superintendent might be more concerned with building a stadium than student learning, that a school board member might be in office to engage in race baiting or to increase their bank account is not an argument for federal intervention, but for local citizens doing their democratic duty. That is the ultimate accountability and oversight. Pretending that federal mandates and high stakes tests solve local problems is a smokescreen that absolves real local responsibility in favor of filling out federal paperwork that gives the appearance of performance while little or nothing changes in the classroom. Another thrust of my argument is that gestures like NCLB are political, not educational. They make life easier for politicians, but they do not solve real educational problems where they legitimately exist and hinder education where the problems don’t exist, as you so correctly observed.
    Freedom, democracy, federalism if you will, are all about individual responsibility. Federal “oversight” is all about the abrogation of responsibility. It’s about surrendering our ability to act, to control our destiny, to those in DC who are only too happy to tell us what we must do. They, you see, are alone sufficiently evolved to know what we should do, what is good for us, if we weren’t so stupid, prejudiced, mean-spirited and unenlightened to grasp the ultimate truth they alone know.
    Bad teachers, principals, superintendents? Fire them (anyone who tells you this can’t be done is lying). Bad school boards? Vote the bums out of office. This, of course, requires that citizens assume personal responsibility, educate themselves, and act. Clearly, none of this can be done by NCLB or the DOE.
    There is no doubt that some problems in some places will be inadequately addressed or won’t be addressed at all, but that’s part of the price we pay for liberty: the freedom to succeed or fail through our own efforts.
    A major part of the problem in the educational debate is that politicians avoid like the plague any mention of parental or student responsibility. Is not each individual responsible for their own education, and is not education a life-long process? Are not parents responsible for forcing their offspring to do what they lack the wisdom to understand is good and necessary for them? Teachers don’t download education, they provide the opportunity for students to attain it. If a student does nothing to take advantage of that opportunity, whose fault is their lack of accomplishment? Politicians, despite their complaints about all powerful teacher’s unions, know that there is little political price to be paid for denigrating teachers and holding them solely “accountable,” but a huge price to be paid for demanding that every parent in America do their parental duty and that every student actually put forth some effort.
    Do you notice how much I’ve been discussion politics? Because NCLB is a political construction, it’s dissolution will be a relief in that it will no longer hinder those who are already doing well. It is certainly not solving the educational–not political–problems of those who actually have problems.

  5. Parry

    You sound like the kind of teacher I would want working in my building: someone who is dedicated and talented, and someone who sets high expectations for his students and himself. Unfortunately, I completely disagree with your post.
    From my reading, you make two arguments. First, that a teacher like you (dedicated, talented, etc.) is going to ensure that every student makes academic growth with or without a standardized test waiting at the end of the year. I’ll bet you’re absolutely right on that point. In fact, teachers like you might even be hindered by the bureaucratic requirements of NCLB and standardized testing.
    Your second argument is where I strongly disagree. You ask the rhetorical questions: “[I]f we were principals, would we hire any teacher we knew to be incapable of effectively determining individual student needs and individualizing instruction throughout the school year? Would we hire any teacher whose only means of teaching was to teach to a middle of the road test for all students, and whose only means of evaluation was the scores generated by the single test?” Your answer seems to be: Of course we wouldn’t! In other words, all those millions of teachers in classrooms all over the country must be similar to you: dedicated, talented, etc.
    Unfortunately, decades of educational research contradict this assertion. Teacher effectiveness varies widely across classrooms throughout the US, and under-privileged children are significantly more likely to be taught by less experienced and less effective teachers. Not all teachers are “good”, and not all principals are independently able to help struggling teachers become good. It would be wonderful if every teacher were like you, if every principal could somehow make less effective teachers more effective. But that is simply not the case.
    Without oversight and accountability, the K-12 public education system became one in which inequities were systemic. Some children received fabulous educations, while others received almost no education at all, and oftentimes these disparate outcomes occurred within the same district or school. There were a lot of different reasons for this condition, but the condition existed nonetheless. State and federal accountability is in large part a reaction to these inequities.
    So while I agree that effective teachers may be frustrated and even hampered by some of NCLB’s provisions, I simply see no evidence for the argument that “left to their own devices, without oversight or accountability, all public school teachers will independently ensure that all students receive a high quality education”. It hasn’t happened yet, so what makes you believe that the disappearance of NCLB would somehow make it come about?

  6. Bob

    Good post, again, Bill. You have implicitly distinguished two competing public policies that will likely continue to plague educators. It’s hard for us to balance public interests and student personal interests in classrooms. But that’s what we get paid to do.
    NCLB establishes a framework for states to set minimum academic performance expectations in order to address public interests. Your suggestions appear to give priority to student personal interests without necessarily violating public interests.
    Teachers as individuals and as aggregates can promptly implement your points without changing NCLB or other public policies interests and without more money.
    Kudos to you and others who assembled testimonies on our behalf!

  7. Mike

    May I once again suggest that we evalute these issues in simple terms? Before beginning to ask questions that assume that NCLB is (A) always going to be with us, (b) is necessary, and (C) is in any way helpful, we must be certain that the problem we are addressing is such that if cannot be effectively addressed without federal mandates and intervention.
    With this particulat issue, can we effectively, on the local level, within individual schools and classrooms, evaluate individual children so that each student is taken as far down the road as their abilities and work ethic will allow in a given year? Can this be done without one, mandatory, high stakes test?
    Two centuries of experience in American education clearly indicate that the answer is yes. In fact, if we were principals, would we hire any teacher we knew to be incapable of effectively determining individual student needs and individualizing instruction throughout the school year? Would we hire any teacher whose only means of teaching was to teach to a middle of the road test for all students, and whose only means of evaluation was the scores generated by the single test? Do I really need to answer?
    Clearly there is nothing new here. What we’re suggesting is what all good teachers do. If a teacher is not doing this, nothing prevents a principal from assisting them in becoming a better teacher. This being the case, how does the intervention of the federal DOE in any way assist us? Is it necessary? No. Is it helpful? No. Expensive, ill-informed and intrusive? Absolutely.
    “But,” the federal educrats and politicians say, “how will we know how one student compares with another? How will we know how one state compares with another?”
    “None of your damn business,” we think. But being polite, we would probably say something like “America has led the world in every way since its founding and no federal intervention in education was necessary. If we’re so worried about such matters, our state educrats, instead of spending most of their time dealing with massively expensive tests, can actually get on the road and get into classrooms and see real teachers teaching and real students learning.”
    “But the tests! What about the tests!?
    “Ever heard of the SAT? ACT ring a bell? Go away and let me teach.”

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