Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What If All Children Can’t Learn?

The fundamental assumptions of NCLB are: (1) all children can learn, (2) all children can learn to the same “rigorous” academic achievement standard, and (3) all students can learn to the same standard in the same arbitrary timeline.

I recently attended the CASMA conference held at ACT in Iowa City. One of the important topics was “efficacy” of K-12 testing and NCLB. During this discussion, Bob Linn provided the “downside” of NCLB testing, while a “rejoinder” was offered by Kerri Briggs of the USDOE. Dr. Linn presented a slide show regarding AYP as required by NCLB and “six major problems of the NCLB accountability system.” Ms. Briggs provided defense of NCLB. Most interesting, at least from my seat, were not the points raised by Dr. Linn or Ms. Briggs, but the fact that no one was talking about or debating the fundamental premise of NCLB that all children can learn. In fact, I seemed to be the only one on the discussant panel who raised the issue. As such, I wanted to repeat here.

First, I have pondered long and hard about the first premise—all students can learn. I have pretty much resolved this issue in my own mind, and I do believe all students can learn—something—given enough time. I have doubts (grave doubts) that all students can learn to the same “rigorous” performance standard, and I know they will not be able to do this on the same arbitrary timeline.

That said, I find two additional things curious about these fundamental assumptions of NCLB. It would be hard to win a debate opposing the first assumption. How could you NOT believe all students can learn? I can see the discussion now: “You mean you call yourself an educator, but you admit you cannot teach ALL of the children?” To put it another way, is it O.K. to leave say one child behind? If not, then we MUST be able to teach all students.

The second thing I find curious would be the logical conclusion that NCLB denies the existence of individual differences. I see individual differences all the time: differences in motivation, differences in levels of preparation, and differences in levels of achievement. If all students can learn to the same rigorous academic standards in the same time frame, why are there still noticeable differences in student achievement? What if all children can’t learn under these assumptions?

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