Loopholes in NCLB


By Jerome Dancis, Associate Professor Emeritus, Math Dept., Univ. of MD

 Math Education Website: www.math.umd.edu\~jnd


As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said [1]:  You all well know that it is hard to teach what you don't know. When we get to 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, we see a lot of students start to lose interests in math and science, and guess why, because their teachers don't know math and science ... [since the teachers] are struggling with the content [themselves]. So I agree we can use a ton of these [Race to the Top] resources to send teachers back to schools and universities ... to get the content and knowledge they need to be able to teach.

[For teachers to] know the content is a step in the right direction. A great great use of one-time [Race to the Top] money is to give teachers content knowledge they need that will stay with them forever.


If a first grade teacher read at the fifth grade level, we'd be outraged. But what if she had only third or fourth grade mathematics skills and lacked the conceptual understanding needed for teaching mathematics?  Unfortunately, this is the reality for all too many licensed K – 8 teachers in this country. [2]


1.  Big Problem.  Certified teachers with insufficient content knowledge, including Math teachers who do not know the Math.  This contributes to states setting low standards for students.


NCLB to the attempted rescue. Teachers must be "highly qualified".


Loophole.  States get to set the standards as low as they please for "highly qualified".

For example, about a dozen states use the absurdly low-level Praxis II Middle School Math Content Exam as a criteria for their designating "highly qualified" Middle School Math Teachers.  But, middle school Math teachers get to use calculators on this exam, so no need for "highly qualified" Middle School Math Teachers to be fluent or even knowledgeable in Arithmetic. 


Possible plug for loophole.  NCLB should require states to implement the recommendations of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in mathematics courses and programs for prospective and current teachers of mathematics and science in K-8 on their licensing tests for "highly qualified" teachers.


Loophole.  Mathematics supervisors, Mathematics coaches of teachers and writers of NCLB mandated state Math assessments are not required to be "highly qualified” in Mathematics.



2.  Big Problem.  Students not learning enough.


NCLB to the attempted rescue.  Required standardized tests.


Problem.  NCLB mandated state Math standards and assessments contain parts that are Mathematically wrong and parts that are unclear, ambiguous and incoherent, also unteachable.


Possible Partial Solution.  All NCLB mandated state Math standards and assessments, should be checked by a college professor of Mathematics (with Ph.D in Math), to insure they are clear, non-ambiguous and coherent and that the Mathematics is correct.


Loophole.  States get to set the standards as low as they please.   The lower a state sets its standards, the easier it is for its schools to meet the standards.


Example.  The MD Grade 10 NCLB Math exam is so low that students can easily pass it, but not know enough Arithmetic to avoid remedial Arithmetic when they enter college.


NCLB Back-up for its attempted rescue.  The NAEP exams are supposed to expose and embarrass states whose NCLB exams are too easy.


Loophole. The NAEP Grade 12 Math exam's questions appear to be mostly Grade 8 level Math.  Scoring proficient on Grade 12 NAEP Math means being proficient on Grade 8  Math.  Students can pass it, but not know enough Algebra to avoid remedial Algebra I when they enter college. 


Possible Partial Solution.  Have states collect and publish the percentages of college freshmen, who need remediation in arithmetic and Algebra and reading and writing. [3]


Ready for college. To survive the first year of college, students need the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (and Arithmetic-based Algebra).


Algebra Possible Solution.  Let each state's Grade 10 NCLB mandated Math exam be based on the Arithmetic and algebra questions on a college placement Math exam (In Maryland, all the community colleges agreed (c 1998) on the same placement exams and cut scores for remediation).  Scoring advanced on the exam should mean that the student will not need remedial Arithmetic or Algebra I, if and when they enter college.  The cut score for proficient could be set as low as the state desires.


Loophole.  NCLB does not mandate that any students need score advanced on state assessments.  This pressures “poor” schools to just teach the easier 60% of the state standards – enough for students to score proficient.

[1]  This was Duncan’s answer to my question; May 11 at Brookings Institution (broadcast on CSPAN).

[2]  Relatedly, read “Making the grade: New math standards for teachers” on Boston.com, Sep 11, 2009.  To read this, click on the link below or cut and paste it into a Web browser:

www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/09/09/making_the_grade_new_math_standards_for_teachers/?s_campaign=8315     The author of this article, Richard Bisk, Chair Mathematics Department at Worcester State College, teaches a Professional Development Math Content Course.


[3]   For example, the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s (MHEC) Student Outcome and Achievement Report (SOAR) at www.mhec.state.md.us/publications/research/AnnualReports/2008SOAR.pdf