100% proficiency

In their column for the NYT magazine Freakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt discussed the problem of getting doctors to wash their hands in the hospital. For me there are clear parallels between this phenomenon and NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Doctors were given free Purell hand sanitizer as they pulled into the parking lot, they were "caught" being good (i.e. washing their hands before examining a patient) and given $10 Starbucks giftcards. All this led to an increase from 65% to 80% proficiency in hand washing. Finally, they cultured the doctors hands and then made a screen saver for every computer in the hospital with a picture of the massive bacterial colonies that resulted. This brought proficiency up to 100% (they claim) and it has stayed at that level since. Dubner and Levitt then point out how the solution to a seemingly simple problem (getting doctors to wash their hand before examining a patient) is often incredibly difficult and time consuming. So, what has this to do with education and NCLB? Well, for me it brings out the massive underestimation of the complexity of learning and teaching on the part of almost everyone. This is exemplified in NCLB, which asks for 100% proficiency among students and proposes punitive measures based on standardized test scores as the motivation. If we compare the complexity of getting all american school children to 100% proficiency to getting doctors to wash their hands, it seems pretty obvious the differences in complexity. Yet, with the doctors all the cohersion (both rewards and punishments) could only get them to 80%. Do we really think that we can legislate a solution to the problem of schools failing to prepare our children? If there are kindergarten classrooms with 35+ students taught by someone with emergency certification (i.e. no preparation to teach), what is a realistic level of proficiency for those students? I don't know what the equivilent of the dirty hand as screen saver is for our educational system, but NCLB is not it.

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