Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

NCLB, local control, end of course exams, and educating shepherds instead of sheep

How in the world can President Bush claim that NCLB has supported the ideal of local control in U.S. schools? Quite the opposite: NCLB has created a direct lever of control from Washington D.C. into public classrooms all over the nation which were previously controlled primarily by local school board policy and state education policy. These were his words in tonight’s State of the Union address regarding education:

Spreading opportunity and hope in America also requires public schools that give children the knowledge and character they need in life. Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act — preserving local control, raising standards in public schools, and holding those schools accountable for results. And because we acted, students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap.

Now the task is to build on this success, without watering down standards, without taking control from local communities and without backsliding and calling it reform. We can lift student achievement even higher by giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools and by giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose something better. We must increase funds for students who struggle — and make sure these children get the special help they need. And we can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future, and our country is more competitive, by strengthening math and science skills. The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America’s children — and I ask Congress to reauthorize this good law.

NCLB has severely hurt the ideal of local control in U.S. schools by forcing teachers to teach to the test. I know some might claim, “The government doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, they have freedom to prepare their students for the test any way they want,” but the reality has been that high-stakes accountability has led many to a test-centric approach to education which has been harmful in many ways.

I strongly disagree with our President’s contention that “The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America’s children.” It has not, it has harmed public education and should not be renewed. However, we do not merely need to to reject NCLB and keep a 19th/20th century model of read-only education. We have to move forward redesigning U.S. education for school 2.0. We certainly DO need to “make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future,” but we must recognize that the classroom culture promoted by high-stakes accountability does not overlap much with critical thinking and other skills needed for the 21st century workforce.

Some people have expressed hope that at least in the great state of Texas, where our current President started his educational accountability-enforcing political career, the TAKS test may be scrapped. However, many lawmakers seem bent on doing away with TAKS and replacing it with end-of-course examinations. Some claim “Ultimately, the rigor of Texas’ academic curriculum is only as tough as the tests used to measure performance,” but fail to realize that rigor should not be our goal. As I stated in the opening to my MacWorld 2007 presentation, when we start with the wrong questions and goals in educational discussions, we naturally end up with the wrong answers and in bad places.

End-of-course exams represent more of the same test-centric approach to education that TAKS and NCLB have encouraged, only it might even make things worse by further strengthening the strict and artificial content-area focus of many teachers. (Especially secondary teachers.) Why aren’t our leaders talking about the need for thematic teaching and cross-disciplinary learning which deeply connects to as well as develops student schema, content knowledge, and skills? Likely they are failing to discuss this need because the people driving the boat of NCLB-style educational “reforms” do not understand education or the types of educational reforms we need.

This is not a time for despair, this is a time of OPPORTUNITY to speak out and suggest a new vision for the education of learners in the 21st century. Sadly, our President seems committed to resolutely remain on the path of curricular mandates and high-stakes testing which creates fear, destroys creativity and inquiry-based approaches to learning, and drives passionate teachers out of classrooms where scripted “stand and deliver” worksheet feeding is a daily expectation.

It struck me today that a pastoral metaphor is appropriate to the educational reform approach we need in this country. Our school system is largely focused on the education of large numbers of sheep: Organisms generally regarded as ignorant, who are supposed to respond on cue as they are directed to behave, and are not expected to do any independent thinking.

Sheep in a pasture

I think many of the voices advocating for educational approaches which emphasize the development of critical thinking, higher order thinking skills as well as lower-level content knowledge, inquiry-based approaches to education, creativity in project based learning, etc. are really advocates for a shepherd-focused approach to learning. We need to prepare our learners to be shepherds in the 21st century information landscape, not sheep. We are no longer preparing a generation of workers for the factory, we should be preparing a generation of creative innovators and flexible learners for the most dynamic culture and economy in the history of the human race. In that environment, we need EVERYONE to have developed capacities of independent thinking, self-discipline, initiative, and creative problem solving. We need shepherds: leaders, not simply sheep who have been conditioned by years of transmission-based learning to merely do what they are told.

Are you striving to cultivate the skills of the shepherd in your classroom, or are you content to look out at a sea of sheep-like faces and convince them their best role is to compliantly “sit and get” and regurgitate on command, so they can pass whatever test they will be coerced to take this year and earn the right to leave your class and go on to more sheep-style learning?

Choose the path of the shepherd mentor. We shouldn’t be in the business of merely herding and babysitting sheep.

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3 responses to “NCLB, local control, end of course exams, and educating shepherds instead of sheep”

  1. Diana Avatar

    I said out loud.. to a fellow teacher today… that I didn’t want to be responsible for putting any more sheep out into world. And then here you are with the full blown analysis of that moment. Love it!

    Most of the time when people ask what is the most important thing I teach, my answer is that I teach students to think… think for themselves, think critically, but most of all just think. NCLB is a misguided effort to improve a system that needs a revolution, not some tweaking here and there. NCLB cultivates complacency in the area of pushing our average and top students farther, but focusing all attention on the students struggling. There needs to be a balance of attention focused on all levels of learners, not just the bottom and not just the top. NCLB does not encourage this balance. My school certainly knows what happens when 13 special education students fail to read at grade level. But, if NCLB is not the answer, what is?

  2. K Kirkland Avatar
    K Kirkland

    Great blog!!

    I first witnessed the power of project-based learning when I was part of a training team for a management tool that was being implemented into a project-based learning school in the inner-city of Milwaukee, WI. The interest these students had in their education was extraordinary, as well as how engaged and resourceful they had become in creating a project around something they had an interest in.

    The project-based learning management tool is called Project Foundry.

    It’s a web-based tool for the classroom that builds on the strengths of project-based learning. The tool dramatically reduces overhead for teachers, proactively engages students, and easily aggregates school customized assessments.

    Project Foundry captures the process, proof, performance and outcomes of a project to ensure these insightful experiences promote student growth and adhere to educational benchmarks.

    Currently used by 30 schools in 10 states (including the “Coolest School in America” named by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Project Foundry has become the tool of choice to implement project-based learning in schools.

    You should check out their website at