March 20, 2018

No Child Left Behind Comes to Campus | From the Bell Tower

Problems that led to the demise of K-12 education could be easily ignored by higher education. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was designed to improve the quality of American education. The products of that program, now headed to our campuses, will get our attention.

Librarian educators know the challenges of activating students in their instruction sessions. We want to connect with our students in ways that lead them to think critically about the resources they choose and be able to thoughtfully synthesize information into well-written documents. That gives us something in common with our faculty. They too want to reach students in ways that achieve deep, not surface, learning. Well, we may all be getting exactly what we don’t want—the result of No Child Left Behind. These students are far less inclined to think for themselves because their education was largely focused on preparing for and passing the next test. At least that’s the warning coming from our colleagues in K-12 education. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration. Perhaps we have nothing to fear. Then again, perhaps we ought to take a closer look under this particular rock.

From the horse’s mouth

If there is something here that higher education needs to know, it can thank Kenneth Bernstein. He’s a high school educator in the Washington, DC, area, and has taught since the introduction of NCLB in 2002. We may know that NCLB, as a program, has a reputation for teaching to the test. It does involve standardized testing of K-12 students at the state level, and there are severe consequences for school districts. Schools that do well continue to receive their funding. Those that do poorly are subject to serious requirements for improvement, such as restructuring or the replacement of staff members. So there is considerable incentive to teach students to do as well as they can on these NCLB exams. Bernstein claims that even those who teach at selective higher education institutions will begin to notice a shift in their incoming students.

Beware the students

What has Mr. Bernstein so alarmed? For starters, the tenth graders that he sees are information deprived. He finds that the content they’ve learned in his area, social studies, was so tailored to the assessment process, that the students actually know little of what he expects at this level. You get the impression that Bernstein would want to correct that problem, but as an NCLB educator he spent so much time preparing students for tests that he rarely got to the serious subject matter. Perhaps of greater concern to faculty and librarians is the deficiency in writing ability. Owing to the heavy use of more cost-efficient multiple-choice exams, the NCLB generation rarely writes, and they certainly experience few opportunities for writing essay responses that require analytical, deeper thinking. When it comes to AP exams, writes Bernstein, students actually succeed with writing that scores points but is technically poorly constructed. Low expectations, he suggests, are what we should hold. “Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them”.

Sooner than expected

Bernstein’s warning suggests that those of us in higher education need to prepare for an onslaught of smart but ill-prepared students—in the near future. But according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bernstein’s concerns are surfacing much sooner than expected. At a recent conference of the American Association of Law Schools, faculty shared observations that their students’ writing is the worst ever seen. They shared anecdotes about students incapable of writing business letters or the increased time required to interpret students’ written essay answers. They also complained of students having far greater expectations for learning how to give the right answers. In far less supply are students who can demonstrate the ability to learn on their own. Ironically, given their dissatisfaction with the quality of their students, the law professors were left to contemplate how their own admissions emphasis on GPAs and LSAT scores was contributing to the problem. The NCLB generation is here now.

Can’t Write, Can’t Research

To what extent the NCLB phenomenon will rear its ugly head in the academic librarian’s world it is difficult to say. Being somewhat disconnected from our students’ work products and class discussions, we are less likely to notice the degradation of writing skills or their ability to participate in thoughtful, intellectual interaction. It may be more noticeable when our efforts to engage them in active learning seem more difficult than in past years. If Bernstein is correct, the deeper research needed for good writing will surely fall victim to teaching to the test. In more impoverished urban school districts where federal funding is like water to a man lost in the desert, librarians and libraries are already becoming remnants of the past, perhaps sacrificed so that more instructors and time is devoted to test preparation. These students come to us devoid of more than just writing or independent thinking skills; they lack virtually any prior knowledge of even the most basic library skills. Looking ahead, perhaps the challenges that the NCLB generation brings to higher education could be a rallying point for faculty and academic librarians. If Bernstein is right, we’ll need each other to figure out how to help these students build the skills and confidence needed to do more than take tests.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. NCLB seems to have been a colossal failure (at least in so far as children’s education is concerned; it’s probably worked out fabulously for those who want to produce testing materials or who think vouchers are the future). it’s hard to find anyone who can defend it. The focus on giving the “right answer” is at such cross purposes with information literacy (or any other higher order reasoning). Have you seen anything about how (or if) the Common Core will prepare or fail to prepare students for college? I’m unclear how it and NCLB will coexist.

  2. Hmmm. Hadn’t we already been complaining for many years that we were getting more and more incoming freshmen who were unprepared for higher education? Can we lay *all* of the blame at the feet of NCLB or is it just amplifying the problem?

    As I read, it sounded to me as though the tests are not a problem per se; the problem is that students are not being tested for the qualities we desire.

    Since we have to deal with the consequences of work done by others, higher education ought to be quite vocal and persistent in helping to shape national standards, if we are to have them, and the ways in which those standards are implemented, so that we actually get something useful from them. A measurement that’s easy to make but tells you nothing is a waste of time and effort.

  3. There are certainly higher hopes for the common core, but there are many who are doubtful it will be any sort of improvement over NCLB. I imagine that as long as they tie funding to student achievement we won’t see much progress. Another concern is the migration of this approach from K-12 to higher ed. Low grad rates = reduction in state funding.