Jerry Pournelle: No Child Left Behind? History Lessons from Chaos Manor

Our Jerry Pournelle has some hard arguments against the “No Child Left Behind” initiative in US education. Here’s what’s wrong with education today … — Injustice means treating equal people unequally — and the treating of unequal people equally. That’s why I say the U.S. education system is unjust.

But before we discuss what ought to be done about it, everyone needs to admit that the largest budget item in each and every state in the union is poorly spent.

Our education system is in shambles. Every week Moore’s Law makes more jobs obsolete. Last year there were fewer new jobs created than there were people who gave up looking for jobs.

Problem is, our potential middle class graduates are emerging with lifelong and crushing debt. So now college graduates wait on tables. I did that, but it was in order to get a college education.

Something is wrong.

In this column, I’m mainly responding to a note I received from a reader, in which she criticizes my previous arguments about No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

My problem with it? No Child Left Behind mainly incentives teachers to get students from grade D to grade C level, rather than enabling B students to get to an A.

If there were some attention built in for brighter kids, this wouldn’t be all that bad. But usually there isn’t.

And it’s the bright kids our increasingly technological society needs.

And not everyone will participate in the new tech economy. Kids need to learn useful skills and neither our universities nor high schools act as if they get that. So the real tragedy is that the kid who has to struggle to get a C in high schools of today likely hasn’t learned anything that’s of much use for his life moving forward. He isn’t going to college — and he isn’t getting trained for jobs he’d otherwise be able to get.

According to my wife, an expert in these matters, after about 1950 the official policy of the State of California was anti phonics. The policy, as adopted by the State Board of Education and enforced by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, held that learning phonics was not the same as learning to read. And that meant teachers should not waste time teaching phonics.

It was during this period that most of today’s tenured professors of education began entering the university system. Told to believe that phonics was useless, they as a result did not truly learn how to teach small children to read.

Few professors of education have ever actually taught anyone to read, yet they are still expected to teach undergraduates in education how to teach reading.

The result was a predictable one.

Eventually, the former Superintendent apologized and admitted he was wrong. But California’s education system is still a wreck.

It’s a state where, if you’ve got 60 percent of high school kids reading at grade level, your high school is considered to be a good school.

And consider that phrase — “reading at grade level.” All that guarantees is the student is able to read works with a set of pre-defined vocabulary words. So you can translate that phrase as really meaning “only 40 percent illiterate.”

How are these kids not to be left behind? That’s another tragedy — and a total mystery.

As the costs attached to education get higher and higher, the results get ever more dismal.

While it better to have a real education guided by teacher who care and carefully direct, it’s true that the brightest kids are able to take advantage of new tech and, even, to learn on their own.

I learned in Capleville. But later, when I arrived at Christian Brothers and found intellectually qualified teachers, I learned a lot more.

As for the reader who wrote “in the context of “America hating its bright kids” the suggestion is that NCLB, in requiring more resources in the form of teacher attention and time, is directed to low-performing children. That makes those resources less available for bright and/or self motivated children.

The implication is that schools and teachers can tell which children are brighter and which ones are stupider — and that unimpeded freedom to direct attentions as they see fit would lead to a better allocation of resources.

The reader wrote: “Respectfully, this is not true, and is in fact a load of horse manure. Indeed, you yourself have noted your wife’s success in teaching children who arrived at her classroom with piles of paperwork from previous ‘teachers,’ proving that these children could not be taught.”

There is no need to be respectful of the view the reader inferred from my writing, though I didn’t intend to imply that at all.

In fact, I never in my life have indicated that it would be a good idea to give school teachers – teachers who are public employees, after all, and paid by taxes extracted from the citizens – “unimpeded freedom to direct their attentions as they see fit.”

And I don’t think the government should require me to pay taxes that allow school teachers to indulge their whims at any cost.

Certainly it’s true that competent teachers can determine which children would benefit from education and which would benefit more from learning skills.

For a long time they did determine just that.

I am not astonished that this seems incredible. But I do invite your attention to the education textbooks of the first quarter of the Twentieth Century or, for that matter, most of the writings on education from the Nineteenth Century.

Back then, it wasn’t considered likely that any large percentage of student would make it to college or, even, if they would benefit from going there.

The need to select a small minority for college preparatory education generated a lot of stress. And no wonder.

Fortunately, that isn’t the problem today.

The GI Bill fundamentally changed that notion when educators discovered that many more students than just the small selected group of elite students really would benefit from higher education.

That’s why the university system in the United States was, for awhile, pretty much open to anyone. Not just the rich or the super bright.

I am a product of that era.

Between the Korean GI Bill, my willingness to wait tables for my food and my high school curiosity about electronics, I was able to get an undergraduate assistantship in my senior year. And I managed quite well. So did many others who would otherwise never have become college graduates.

But this does not mean that everyone can or should attempt a world class university prep education.

Bill Gates once said that every child deserved a world class university prep education. What a great mistake that statement was.

A world class university prep education doesn’t prepare students for a lot els.

The GI Bill experiment demonstrated that a larger portion of the population ought to go to college — more than the traditional fraction expected before World War II. But it also generated enough results that now allows us infer that, while more than 10 percent of high school kids should “go to college and get an education,” it isn’t true of the whole student body.

The evidence also showed that the universities didn’t allocated resources wisely — or optimally. Traditionally universities were set up to turn out “educated people,” but not just that. They also were expected to fill the professions — a requirement that is different. No one expected a doctor nor a lawyer to be “educated” in the traditional sense of that term. Later came engineers and technologists.

The result was C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and, finally, the Voodoo Sciences. We’ve been over that again and again.

Bottom line: The school system is supposed to be an investment in the future. It is supposed to prepare future citizens to be productive and responsible members of the community.

At the same time, no one ever designed universities to accept huge portions of the population, many of them students who were uninterested in getting “an education” as traditionally understood.

Rather, they wanted to learn how to get good jobs. How to make a good living. And they wanted to learn how to be productive and responsible citizens. This is what the high schools were designed to do.

And there we stand.

As we have it now, at least half the kids in most high schools aren’t learning much that is going to help them later in life. And if a student happens to be in a class that’s contantly disrupted by discipline issues resulting from the mainstreaming of students who ought to be somewhere else, well, that result is predictable, too.

And inevitable.

The end result is no one gets any education at all.

All kids are not equal. Does that mean that potential engineers or physicists or chip designers or computer programmers – students who excel at manipulating abstract symbols and doing mathematics – are “better” than those whose talents lie more in salesmanship, customer service, music, clerical work or home management?

I agree with those who say schools should insist that their teachers truly teach something.

My solution is to return the real control of schools to locally elected school boards, boards who represent the taxpayers and have to pay the teachers and the rent on the buildings and the administrators and all the other frills and necessities.

If it’s necessary, subsidize the poorer districts and supervise them even more heavily to assure that they spend money to buy worthwhile teachers.

But I must insist again: Unless those who have the ability to learn the prerequisites of technology are caught early and given the skills to learn, society is not getting a proper return on its education investment.

It would be great if we could pick out who, among the bright kids, will be the future Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak or who will be the next great philosophers and statesmen.

But we can’t.

Fortunately we don’t have to.

But we damned well do need to decide who should get a world class university prep education and who ought to learn a lot about the manual arts. And yes, we’ll provide bridges from one track to the other. And we will not always get it right.

But we definitely can do better than schools with 60 percent reading at grade level.

And that’s no horse manure. Nor bull manure, for that matter.

From Chaos Manor for, I’m Jerry Pournelle.

Here’s the letter I wrote my column in response to:
via Chaos Manor. That’s below the fold.

Dear Mr. Pournelle,

I have greatly enjoyed you writing, both in books and in your blog. Some years ago, we purchased, used and enjoyed Mrs. Pournelle’s “Uncover to Discover” reading instruction program.

It pains me to speak in favor of governmental, especially federal regulation. However, I must say something in favor of No Child Left Behind.

In the context of “America hating its bright kids” you have suggested that NCLB, by requiring more resources, at least in the form of teacher attention and time, being directed to low-performing children, makes those resources less available for bright and/or self motivated children. The implication is that schools and teachers can tell which children are brighter and stupider, and that their unimpeded freedom to direct their attentions as they see fit would lead to a better allocation of resources.

Respectfully, this is not true, and is in fact a load of horse manure. Indeed, you yourself have noted your wife’s success in teaching children who arrived at her classroom with piles of paperwork from previous “teachers” proving that these children could not be taught.

Teachers and principals, unhampered by formal accountability for the progress of every student, and insulated by modern school rules and policies from contact or observation by parents, as well as by the fact that employed, lower income mothers (& fathers) may not have the opportunity to even try to observe or be involved in school day activities, will nurture the children they choose to nurture, and ignore or neglect those they choose to neglect. Absent NCLB, or some work-alike objective test that “outs” and penalizes failure to teach, or try to teach, every child, some children will spend their days in time-outs in the hallway, or the principals vestibule, and no one who cares will even know.

I speak feelingly, because I am the parent of a very bright little girl, who tested into the kindergarten class of a magnet school for highly able children (one of the top 2 scores of the 1,200 children who took the test that year), and then spent a very large part of the year sitting in the hallway. Mostly for fidgetting in class. Also for getting a drink of water out of turn, for running (not walking) to the bathroom, for giving away her sparkly pencils, for exclaiming during Pres. Obama’s speech, talking out of turn, spilling milk, getting a paper towel without permission, removing her coat without permission, and so on. Not always good behavior, and certainly difficult, but also not outside what a teacher ought to be able to handle.

Next, we enrolled her in a Montessori school with an excellent reputation, and a large percentage of Notre Dame professors among its parents. This school, in explicit opposition to NCLB, eschewed ALL testing of any kind whatsoever. Evelyn had one very good semester there; it even undid much of the harm inflicted the previous year in kindergarten.

Then, the teacher was diagnosed with cancer, stage 4, and very rightly turned her whole attention to her own health and survival. Unfortunately, the school did not secure a regular substitute teacher for her … and the class drifted, for the balance of that year and the entire next year, too, when the previously excellent teacher was back, but still ill, distracted, and functioning sub-par. We and various other parents met with the principal, individually and in groups, and we received promises and assurances which we gave too much credence.

In third grade, we had our daughter’s achievement tested by a third party and found, as we should have realized earlier, that her formal education had essentially ended at the first semester of first grade, and she would have been better off playing in her sandbox and helping me with housework the next year and a half.

Here is what I think happened: The teacher had excellent abilities, but she was sick and tired, and so she directed her limited energies towards those children who were easy, or whose parents were able to be present – or drop in unexpectedly – during the school day. And (she directed attention toward) the more difficult children, which would certainly include my highly active, imaginative and inventive daughter, who spent vast amounts of time banished to the hallway or to the secretary’s office. I heard later, from other parents, that my daughter was hardly ever actually in the classroom. I wish they had told me at the time.

An annual test, such as the Iowa test used to be, would have been of great service to our family. Indeed, my greatest problem with the testing requirements of NCLB is that it does not require ENOUGH testing; a lot can be lost between third and fifth grade.

Yours, Karen R. Hammond-Nash
South Bend, IN


  • Jerry, I’ve been thinking a lot about a tangent of this. What is college really preparing our kids for except a lifetime of debt? I have 3 kids. The deep belief that college is the single most important move for a high-school grad is butting up against what I see around in the new reality. What are these degrees preparing our kids to do? As always thanks for a great post.