The Framing of No Child Left Behind

This article was originally published by Eric Haas of the Rockridge Institute on June 15, 2007.

The No Child Left Behind law is up for reauthorization, and various interest groups are weighing in to shape the updated law. Over the next few weeks, I will be analyzing the logic of the various positions based on the underlying frames and metaphors that these groups use to present their positions on education and the reasoning that supports them.

Having been a involved in education for a number of years as a teacher, principal, and university professor, I am keenly interested in education policy and practice. Currently, the No Child Left Behind law is the driving force shaping education in the U.S.

In this post, I am going to examine the basic frames and metaphors that influence how some of the key interest groups communicate the ways they want the No Child Left Behind law to be re-shaped by Congress and the reasoning that support their positions. I will be examining the positions of two key groups here—the Bush Administration, represented by its Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and the National Education Association (NEA), the largest professional educator organization, or union, in the U.S.

Both Spellings and the NEA state that they want to reach the same general goals—e.g., preparing all students with the skills they need for the 21st century and closing the achievement gap between student groups. They also both advocate for similar (but not exact) total packages of programs—a mixture of standards, tests, and student and school supports. But the programs they want prioritized or emphasized within their total packages as the keys to improving U.S. schools are different, even contradictory. For example, Spellings wants standardized tests to continue as the central means for improving U.S. schools, while the NEAs want the priority to be changed to providing the individual student and school supports necessary for assisting each child to learn. The logic of these different program emphases for achieving the same general goals can be understood from the frames and metaphors through which they reason about education.

In her June 9, 2007, editorial in the Washington Post, Spellings advocates for increasing the use of state-based standardized test because they are resulting in and “revealing improved student performance and a narrowing achievement gap across most of the country.” On the other hand, the NEA, in its July 2006 report “ESEA: It’s Time for a Change!” specifically rejects standardized tests as a “flawed one-size fits all accountability system” (p. 18). The NEA wants NCLB to shift emphasis to supports for students’ individual learning needs, like smaller classes (p. 22), and to use multiple assessments that include not only standardized state tests, but also “teacher-designed classroom assessments collected over time” and “portfolios” (p. 20). These assessments are better, according to the NEA, because they go beyond the paper and pencil only, limited-subject, snapshot measure of a standardized test and because they measure an individual student’s intellectual “growth and progress over time” (p.18).

The large differences in the presentation of the efficacy of using standardized tests to improve student learning derives from fundamentally different frames and metaphors that Spellings and the NEA use to reason through and communicate about education. Spellings’ proposal is based on a production frame for education that is built on metaphors that include schools are factories, ideas and information are solid objects, student minds are empty containers, teaching is information-object delivery to fill the containers, and learning is information-object reception by opening up one’s mind to be filled. The NEA’s proposal is based on a nurturance frame that is built on metaphors that include schools are gardens, minds (and sometimes classrooms) are soil, ideas (and sometimes students) are plants, teaching is gardening, and learning is growth. I will examine each frame in turn.

The production frame is one of the most common frames for education and schools. It is this frame that provides the logic for the No Child Left Behind law which emphasizes standardized tests, as well as parental choice and the reconstitution of schools that do not meet their annual testing targets (known as making AYP—adequate yearly progress).

The power of the production frame derives from the programs and activities—like standardized tests—that derive from it. If one sees ideas and facts as discrete objects that can be poured into the empty minds of students, then lecturing would be an effective (and efficient) method of teaching. Further, if students are not learning something, then lessons should be broken down into smaller pieces and spoon fed to the students (ideas as food objects). If students still aren’t learning according to the test, then they must not be trying or they are resisting because all they have to do to learn is take in the information the teacher has delivered; other students are learning the same information in the same way, so they can too. Similar logic applies to the teachers of these students—the teachers of underachieving students must not be trying hard enough or doing what they are supposed to be doing to deliver the same information that other teachers of other students have been able to deliver. Punishment, often phrased as the only true form of “accountability” for both students and teachers, then becomes the preferred method of motivating improvements in learning and teaching.

Given that knowledge comes in the form of discrete objects, then schools can be run like production facilities; in other words, businesses, or better yet, factories. Following this logic further, teaching, or delivering the knowledge objects to students, can be made more efficient through “mechanized” or pre-packaged programs of one-size-fits-all scripted units that dictate every action by both teachers and students. Students then become the product of schools, and we measure the quality of schools by the standardized test scores of students, their products. Improvement then means doing what other successful schools (high test scores) have done successfully in other places with other students.

The education logic of the production frame makes little sense if one understands education through the nurturance frame and the gardening and growth metaphors. The nurturance frame is common, but is currently less popular (at least among politicians and policy makers) than the factory frame. The logic of the nurturance frame provides support for more holistic teaching and assessment measures, like the Socratic method and project-based learning.

Under the nurturance frame, teaching and learning is a cooperative activity between the teacher and student. Learning takes place as the student (or anyone) internalizes and reshapes information and experiences into new understandings. This happens automatically, unconsciously; however, learning cannot be mandated or completely controlled. It can, however, be invited and enhanced. Thus, teaching involves nurturing students—understanding their needs as individuals and providing a rich, and sometimes individually tailored, environment in which each student can grapple with and eventually internalize a new, more sophisticated understanding of what he or she is studying. Like a plant, a student’s understanding will thrive when it gets attention tailored to his or her individual needs, gifts, and interests.

Under the nurturance frame, it makes more sense to assess learning holistically, using projects and real-life activities and through descriptions of progress (intellectual “growth”), as much as possible. Further, assessment is integrated into each student’s learning activities, rather than being done as an external process, by and for others. What the teacher does or says is not expected to be absorbed directly by the students. Rather, like the air, soil, and water that a plant converts into its green structure, students construct their knowledge from the resources and experiences provided to them by the teacher and student understandings will look and be different than exactly what the teacher taught. Thus, the teacher and students must continuously assess and communicate about lesson goals and student progress. Under the nurturance frame as opposed to the production frame, the teacher is more likely to be a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.

Given the interactive and individual nature of learning, standardized tests are not the primary measures of program quality and success. Learning success is measured by satisfaction in one’s progress, one’s love of learning, and the quality of individual, real-life projects done by the students. In fact, too much emphasis on standardized tests gets in the way of learning—as one anti-standardized test saying goes, measuring corn more often doesn’t make it grow any faster or taller.

Given the emphasis on individual growth and the interaction between a knowledgeable teacher and the student, those who advocate for education under the nurturance frame want more resources put into professional development for educators and for individual student support, including resources to develop more individual education plans for all students as well as more money for school breakfast and lunch programs, than for pre-packaged curricula and standardized tests.

There are more metaphors and frames that people use both consciously and unconsciously to reason and communicate about education (e.g., learning or education is a journey—”I just passed my test”). In the upcoming posts, I will explore some of the specific language that evokes the producation, nurturance, and other frames, along with their conceptual metaphors, as they come up in discussion and debate on NCLB. I will also continue to examine the prevalent production and nurturance frames in two specific ways: (1) how are these frames supported by current research on learning, teaching and assessment? And (2) how do these frames influence how we understand the purpose of education in U.S. society, the successes and failures of U.S. education, and the means for improving student learning and schools?

If you have any comments on the framing of education and the NCLB authorization, please let me know.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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