What the (NCLB) No Child Left Behind Act and the IDEA, the nation’s special education law, can learn from Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

My stepfather often told me that if something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not. P. T. Barnum put it this way, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” As the Madoff story unfolded, many of us wondered—how could so many ‘affluent and smart’ investors and charities put all their money in one basket and believe it could earn 12% year after year after year? Perhaps they just wanted to believe.

So now, let’s turn to the NCLB. Another wish dream? It mandates that all children be proficient in reading, writing, and math by June 2014. We want to believe that all children can learn the same standards and that education is the great equalizer. So we make the leap. We mandate it in federal law!

Yes, this law has done a lot of good. It has helped many children reach higher than we might have expected, and focused on academics for all children. All to the good. But, as with all laws, the challenge comes at the edges, where the fit is not perfect and the details build cynicism and threaten to destroy the enterprise. The law’s mandate for ALL is off the mark. It focuses on four student groups: those in poverty, members of racial minorities, non-English speakers, and SWD. The law encourages heightened focus on some groups that who are close to passing (the ‘gap’ kids), but not on others, including bright kids who passed these tests long ago.

As I write this, my local paper reports that several schools here—one of our nation’s education bright spots—“need improvement” because two groups, SWD and English language learners did not reach the standard. This ‘news’ is repeated in communities around the nation. You can’t have 12% growth investment year after year (unless you live in a pipedream). You can’t have all children meet the same standards, year after year, unless you jiggle the numbers.

Alas, some jiggling is happening. For example, Massachusetts, known for its excellent standards and very test, allows invalidating ‘accommodations’—without reporting that fact. Thus, some SWD have ‘read-alouds’ on reading tests (and adult reads the test to the student). Some students are provided with calculators on questions that measure calculating. Then they pass! What does that pass mean? Who does it help?

Other states have abandoned the effort to measure calculation skills altogether. Everyone can use a calculator! Some allow ‘read-alouds’ after the primary grades, even when measuring ‘reading.’ Others lower the bar for all and ‘dumb down’ the curriculum—all in the name of all means all. How can we then know if students can read and write and add and subtract?

I was moved by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s call to stop lying to students–when we lower standards and pronounce students ready to graduate from high school–even as they still lack basic skills. A breath of fresh air!

When faced with impossible targets, contortions occur. We no longer measure what matters. Very sad.

We want to believe that miracles come true. But they should not be the basis of public policy. A dream is no more appropriate in the education than in the investment world. I urge the Obama team, in reviewing and reauthorizing the NCLB, to set realistic measurements for all children, including the move to a ‘value added’ scoring system. Teachers and students need to work together for true education accountability, not simply for numbers that look good but fall apart upon review.

“The case for working with your hands.” A fascinating article about just that–how the author became a motorcycle mechanic (and author) and how the manual trades may be making a come back in our economy. You can find it at


Many of us in education have long argued against the dilution of vocational and technical training and the elevation of academics and lots of testing for all. This article by Matthew B. Crawford is taken from his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft.

See also another new book, Blue Collar and Proud of It– Success Outside the Cubicle, by Joe Lamacchia. He runs a million dollar lawn care company in Newton, a Boston suburb. http://www.bluecollarandproudofit.com/about.html

Let’s hope these books help lead us out of our lopsided educational system–academics for all. Nothing else. One size does NOT fit all–there are lots of great ways to create a successful life.


I was just googling on a lovely Sunday morning and came upon this 2004 article I wrote…. Perhaps you have not read it. Here it is! Even back then in 2004, we were seeing games going on in some states with graduation tests… and how they choose to get students ‘through.’ These tests were designed to make diplomas meaningful again. Yet, some policies invalidate testing and will not tell us if students actually can read and write and do math at high school levels. Again, let us ask: with these policies, are we doing the right thing for kids and for our country? I have my doubts. And you? Would love to hear!

Check it out! MassINC’s Spring 2009 edition is here. Its cover story focuses on special education in Massachusetts–particularly its high cost (approaching $2 billion a year) and effect—“but there is little evidence that the state’s huge investment is paying off as hoped.” The article is found at:


It raises many challenging questions… as it follows the state over the past 10 years, when Massachusetts abandoned its “maximum feasible benefit” standard and moved to the (presumably, lower) federal FAPE standard–providing a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities. In spite of the fact that the change in law was expected to cut the numbers of students eligible for special education and reduce costs, and “prevent the spiraling costs of special education entitlements from derailing the state’s education reform effort,” this report highlights the fact that these goals are unmet.

Since then, the numbers of students receiving special education services has risen. Costs continue to rise, taking funds away from other programs. For example, in Boston, while schools cut budgets across the state, special education funds “escaped virtually unscathed.” One superintendent asked, “How do you set up a class of human beings who are entitled to an education [while] everyone else gets what’s left over?”

The article speaks about private school tuition costs (about a quarter of the state’s special education spending), transportation costs, disparities between communities, and other costs and asks the question: are we better off now than then? That is, have we succeeded in educating children with disabilities, are they passing the state’s graduation requirements, including the test, the MCAS, are gaps narrowing betweeen special and regular education students, are gaps between wealthy and poorer communities narrowing? Etc. The article concludes that our efforts are not paying off as hoped or planned.

A thought-provoking read. Your thoughts?

NAEP Update!

I am honored to let you know that I have been appointed as a member of the NAGB (National Assessment Governing Board) Expert Panel on Uniform Rules for Testing Students with Disabilities (SD) on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). This test is often called ‘the nation’s report card.’ It’s supposed to be the common yard stick for measuring our nation’s students. The NAEP is a voluntary, representative test–given across the country at the 4th and 8th grade levels. Over the years, issues have arisen about HOW the test is administered to SD and to English language learners (ELL). These issues involve the exclusion of such students and the inconsistent use of accommodations on the test.

The Expert Panel is supposed to provide recommendations to the NAGB so that, in the future, the test can be given under uniform rules.

The work of this Panel is supposed to be completed by this summer. Any ideas? Pass them on to me.

Thank you and wish us luck! Our nation needs the NAEP to be a gold standard of validity and reliability.

It’s 2009. A high school student in a fine school district describes how classmates get disability diagnoses in order to take the SAT with extended time. The student asked the parents to be taken for testing. They refused.

What a sad chapter in the college application saga. It followed the College Board’s 2002 policy. The College Board no longer flags SAT scores. Thus, no one (such as a college admissions office) is told how SAT scores are achieved and which ones were achieved under the nonstandard condition of 50% or more extra time!

This all reminds me of the March 31, 2006 ABC News story. http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=1789267 It reported on this very situation, ways that some students get extended time on the SAT (and ACT), calling it ‘the rich kids’ loophole.’

This ABC News piece grew out of a story I wrote back in 2003, ‘Disabling the SAT.’ It described how the College Board decided to allow extended time on the SAT without marking the fact that the test had been altered. Henceforth, there would no longer be any flag to indicate that the test was not given under standard conditions and no one would know! It was a new day, ending test validity and transparency.

Among its many flaws, the College Board’s policy belies transparency. How ironic, since ‘transparency’ is everyone’s favorite word these days, from Wall Street to the schoolhouse.

You can find the story on my website, www.schoollawpro.com, or at

Sam Abrams did a follow-up on the unflagged SATs, focused on Washington DC.

This turn of events in the college application saga is so sad, unfair, and totally lacking in transparency.

You may enjoy seeing these stories.

In case you missed it, excellent front page story–


Another thought about this. We now have about 1 in 10 students in US schools classified as English language learners! A huge increase of 60% between 1995-2005. Yet, schools are confused about how to teach these students and prepare them for life…. Policies are all over the place–no consensus nationally about how to tackle this challenge. And, in terms of long-range results, the story is not clear.

I still believe in immersion. See my last blog.

As well, the article mentions the use of accommodations for students on state tests–teachers reading test questions orally and recording student answers (so they don’t have to write them). I wonder: do these accommodations help students? or just lead to good scores on standardized tests. You decide.

The front page piece is at:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/us/15immig.html?pagewanted=5&ref=education

My thoughts? Immersion in regular schools works. As a foreigner in a strange land four times (twice for me and twice for my children) having to learn a new language fast, I can tell you that immersion works best. Consider, in fifth grade in New Jersey in the 1950’s, I have been forever grateful that my teachers did not speak any Dutch. I learned English fast. As an immigrant to Holland two years earlier, I had learned Dutch fast–immersion in a regular school. As an adult, when my own children had a chance to learn French, my oldest went to a regular high school and learned French fast. The younger child was put into a separate elementary school class for French learners and learned far less French or anything else!

I have learned that children want to learn, make friends and fit in. Let them go. They will learn. Immersion works.

Your thoughts?


There’s so much to write on this question–millenia of experiences–so I will resist the urge and just add a couple of ideas.

Yesterday, I visited a California charter school. It was lovely. It had great programs, students, teachers. Everything there seemedto be working on all cylinders.

During the tour, the elementary school principal then told us, “If I could get moms to put them to bed early.”



If… moms and dads would talk to their kids, what a huge difference that would make for children in school.

There is lots of research on this. If parents talk to children–about anything and everything–that experience makes a huge difference for children in school, especially for reading, vocabulary, readiness for learning.

See several examples:

And from the Nataional Institute for Literacy

And across the pond, see this BBC report on the importance of talking with children. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6336221.stm

If…moms and dads would feed kids good stuff, and not just donut holes, sugars, and more carbs!

If…to quote our President, moms and dads would turn off the televisions and computers and help kids to do their homework.



If…what would you add?