Some Children Must be Left Behind

Friday, November 25, 2005
Education is a nearly trillion dollar industry in the US, accounting for 7.7% of GDP in 2001 (about $925 billion in 2005 - that’s all education spending, from pre-kindergarten through graduate/professional school). Only Denmark (8.4%) spends a greater percentage of GDP on education, and no country spends more per person.

That’s a lot of money. Ideally, it would go where it will do the most good. Which is why, if I were giving awards for rhetoric that makes my skin crawl, the simple title “No Child Left Behind” would win, hands down. It screams equality of outcomes, and since you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, I assume this means we’ll be making dog treats out of everyone.

All right, granted, there are some students who simply lack the hardware to succeed, that’s not the problem I have with the NCLB concept. The framers of NCLB can be forgiven for not naming it “No Child Left Behind (Except those with mental retardation, who will necessarily be left behind but helped to lead normal lives as much as possible)”. The key to education for most students is motivation to learn on the part of the student. I firmly believe that a bright, motivated student will easily outperform a bright, unmotivated student, even if the unmotivated student has all the advantages money can bring to the classroom, while the motivated one reads from a mildewed text in a lonely (but quiet) cardboard box.

The problem is this. As a practical matter, “leaving no child behind” means that we spend a disproportionately large amount of resources attempting to improve the achievement of the least motivated students, and a disproportionately small amount attempting to improve the achievement of the most motivated students.

This strikes me as a counterintuitive approach, because generally the greatest return comes from investment where there is the capacity for rapid growth, and the obvious place to look for potential growth is where the conditions for growth already exist.

But then, maybe tremendous potential lies dormant in the least motivated – if only we could find a way to unlock it. How much growth can we get in that case? Lots. Sure, tons. But clearly, as long as they remain unmotivated, we will get none. You can plop a tub of Ty Nant in front of your horse, but if the dang thing isn’t thirsty, it isn’t going to drink. Likewise, you can provide the best teacher, the best text, and the newest classroom with the fanciest technology, but if the student doesn’t want to learn, you can’t make him learn. Forcing him to sit in the classroom does no more good than forcing the horse’s head into the water – he still won’t drink, but he might try to kick you senseless.

So the next question is – how much can we expect to increase unmotivated students’ motivation to learn? (Without resorting to standard Behaviorist techniques like electric shock, food deprivation with small reinforcing doses of food and other plainly objectionable means, of course.) There are at least two issues we need to deal with.

First, we need to overcome the active motivation not to engage in learning – and that motivation can be powerful. Some students see the entire educational system as an adversary – and learning as capitulation. Others face peer pressure (like the stereotypical, but (at least at one time) common, admonition that studiousness is “acting white”).

Second, we need to create positive motivation to learn, because we need to overcome the disincentive that results from the simple fact that learning requires effort, and our students, being earthly life forms, will normally avoid exerting effort. Standard cognitive theory says this requires us to create an expectation that performance will result in something good happening, a belief in future reinforcement. This is a tricky thing to accomplish, because it demands at least three things – ensuring that students see their current work as essential to the future positive outcome (but is Social Studies germane to becoming an engineer?), ensuring that students actually think the future outcome to which current performance is tied is a positive one (do I really want to be an engineer?), and ensuring that students see the outcome as likely given that they actually perform right now (if I do this, will I ever get hired anyway?). And now. And now.

As far as I know, we have no idea how to accomplish these things in any practical way – and that’s as far as the analysis goes, or needs to go for the present. Returning to the question “How much can we expect to increase unmotivated students’ motivation to learn?” the answer is – currently, not much at all. And until we figure out how to create motivated students, the only way to get any return for our investment is to invest in those who are, for whatever reason, already motivated.


terrye said...

I don't think the motivating idea behind NCLB was to simply throw money at the problem.

I remember years ago reading about the improved literacy figures in Texas after then Governor Bush enacted new standards in education. It seems to me the idea was to take that example and expand on it at a federal level.

I do not have children but I pay taxes to support the education of of other people's children. Why should I consider one group of childen more deserving than another? After all none of them are mine. But then again I am not a libertarian.

I certainly do not think that money alone is the answer and motivation can have more to do with the family and personal experience than with any government policy; however, I also think that far too many children were leaving school without a basic grasp of reading and writing and that is not just about motivation, that is about the skill of the teachers and the integrity of the system.

Buddy Larsen said...

Right, Terrye--but putting the system aside and looking at the student, my question is, where's THIS question: If demoting academic standards in favor of the 'self-esteem' of the less gifted/motivated, then it can't help but hurt the gifted/motivated. So who has spoken for them, all these 3 and 4 decades of 'enlightened' teaching?

Rick Ballard said...

Picking Gramscian lice out of the federal bureacracy is going to be a very long and tedious process. The Department of Education should not exist (on a federal level) and NCLB is simply a legislative effort to wrest control of the Democrat Ministry of Truth from the twits seeking to collectivize all of education.

Unfortunately, the key voucher provision was successfully gutted by the educracy so we are left with a kludge of a political product that can't fulfill its intent.

Morgan's main point is absolutely on target. The answer to "Why Johnny can't read" is in most instances "Because Johnny is dumber than half the posts on any given fence". Applauding Johnny for doing a wonderful job of breathing is one means of creating a rent seeker with a stronger sense of entitlement than reality supports. A fine addition to the Democrat base.

We won't see any further significant effort on voucher reform until after the '06 elections. The issue is too easy to turn on its head and argue as a "Republican meanie" point. I'm sick of the Reps shoveling money out to "improve" their image put that's what pols do. Principles and politics just don't synthesize very well.

who, me? said...

For some reason, I'm connecting the dots around Texas: Lyndon Johnson spent some early years as a teacher, and apparently was much influenced by that experience. Having moved to Texas almost 20 years ago, I can say there's something very touching particularly about the Hispanic children, whose learning styles and priorities seem vastly different from the Anglo ones I remember as a child. It may be the imagery of sweetness and pathos that one sees -- a combination of emotional and perceptual stimulus -- that affected both men.

Or maybe not. Just a random impression.

The gifted-and-talented issue is a different can of worms. With some of the problems of teacher-quality, there is some danger of both incomprehension and envy of the truly G&T.

Rick Ballard said...

LBJ is one of the more complex and interesting Presidents. There is no denying his empathy for the disadvantaged and even less hope of denial of his ability to turn that empathy for political gain. I've just started Caro's book on his years in the Senate and noted that Caro framed the work against the Civil Rights Act. Certainly it was LBJ's greatest achievement but definitely a mixed blessing.

Syl said...

I think one of the basics of NCLB was some type of testing. The kids in your school don't make the grade, you no getty no money.

But then the schools started bitching that they needed the money FIRST so they could make up and administer the tests.

That's the way it ever goes.

'Who, me?'

Your thought about the influence of Texas may be instinctively correct. I don't know. Bush never indicated he was a fiscal conservative and his heart and pocketbook seem as large as the state.

Morgan said...


why should I consider one group of children more deserving than another

In my view, we should be concerned with getting the most educational bang for our buck out of the system. I agree with you that creating literacy is important, because it provides an enormous bang for the buck, and I also agree that that the system often fails to create literate students in the most creative and disheartening ways. Still, I'm not convinced that any great percentage of children get through 12 years of school without having had literacy there for the taking. They simply refused to take it.

In the end, I'm all for providing educational opportunities for those that want to take advantage of them. But you don't make someone want to take advantage of those opportunity by providing them.


Ack! Don't conflate gifted with motivated. The gifted/not-gifted continuum is far more difficult to analyze, and I think far less relevant to the problems in our schools. The self esteem movement, which may help motivated but struggling students maintain their level of effort is far more pernicious with unmotivated students - to them it is a reward for not trying.

Rick Ballard: Johnny is sometimes as dumb as a crate of hammers, but frequently he's just not willing to put in the effort required to learn. I'm perfectly willing to allocate more resources to slow learners who will make of it what they can, but allocation to those who will chew the resources up and spit them back in my face is not for me.

Who me?: I don't know what prompts politicians to grab a slice of utopia and spread it with marshmallow clouds, but Texas-sized sweetness and pathos is as good a guess as any.

Morgan said...


Testing is the best thing about NCLB, though I'm not sure tying it to funding makes sense. I think the real problem is one that is currently mostly outside of the schools' control.

On the other hand, school districts can always find ways to use the next dollars even less efficiently than the last.

Buddy Larsen said...

Morgan, thanks for the read--I so conflated from the perspective of "product". NCLB is simply about measuring, and from that POV kids ranged along the continuum of motivated and/or gifted will 'produce measurements' according to their 'mix' of these two attributes--and I think that's the proper macro goal. The highest measurements in the most fiscally efficient manner--with an eye on diminishing returns, in this world of scarce resources.

One day in the perfect world, these beneficiaries of liberal attention--from racial minorities to K-12 students AND many teachers--will wake up and start the tarrin' an' featherin'. The alarm clock will be made-in-china.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Good points.

I remember well my impression of my students in Florida--American students, black or white, were by and large lazy and unmotivated and didn't get alot out of school. The minimal amount. Haitian students were motivated and polite, worked hard and got decent grades. Cuban students were highly motivated and were absolutely superb. A class full of Haitians and Cubans was a joy. A class full of Americans was something to dread.

Yes, motivation is far more important than talent in many cases, and, given the plasticity of the mind, it's often hard to tell the difference anyway.

And what, in modern America, is motivating young students to study boring books with little obvious relevance to their personal lives? I remember teaching a math class at LSU. I asked the students what the formula for the area of a circle was. Only a couple out of these 30 college students knew the answer. Then I asked them who had the best deals on hamburgers this week. 29 out of 30 were eager to tell me. They knew a lot about the mathematics that mattered in their lives. In that case they were highly motivated.

Which brings up another issue you didn't touch on. The presumption of all these federal programs is that all students should be motivated to learn traditional education. I have a lot of doubts about that. Why should they be learning pi-r-squared instead of burgers/99-cents? And why is it presumed that making every child in America into an engineer will give them a job? Most of the professional engineers I know feel that their jobs are very tenuous. There simply isn't enough demand to meet the supply.

vnjagvet said...

The basic tools of education have not changed for centuries. They remain reading, writing and 'rithmetic.

For at least 100 years, they have not been "taught to the tune of a hickory stick".

The notions that these basics cannot or should not be tested (no matter how vociferously shouted by the teachers' unions and the education administrative bureaucracy) are not emprically true.

In education like in war and in business, results matter.

And results are not measured by dollars expended per student. They are measured by the degree to which each student has acquired the tools of education.

But there is a problem that Morgan identifies which is not addressed by testing. That is the problem of the "anti-education culture" described by Bill Cosby and others.

How do you deal with a group of students that are intentionally against participating in compulsory education? It is this group that accounts for vast expenditures of money and untold frustration for teachers and administrators.

No too long ago, such anti-social behavior was addressed by the criminal justice system or local charities or church organizations. The YMCA and the Boys Club, for example, were founded to deal with youth who were not fully engaged in the public educational system.

Could it be that there is still a place for such organizations for that kind of social problem?

Morgan said...


It almost sounds like you'd advocate finding out what motivates a student first, and teaching to the motivation. That would simplify things.

We can't teach to the goal of being a savvy buyer of burgers, though (I know, you're not advocating that - have them calculate the best deal on pizza, and they'll learn how to calculate the area of a circle, or at least learn that DEAL is proportionate to R^2/PRICE). But education is still supposed to prepare students to be productive and participating members of society, without knowing what form that productivity and contribution will take. Do we need to come up with a clever, short-term relevant way to teach every concept?

Good parents drive into their children's heads the notion "this is for your future", and in addition they set up the incentives within the home to guarantee some measure of accomplishment - mixing long and short horizon motivators. I wonder how helpful the long-horizon motivators really are, the short-term ones work.

vnjagvet hits on the inability to use short-term motivators (no hickory sticks) in the modern classroom, and all too often the incentives at home aren't structured to encourage learning. That leaves educators with the daunting task of overcoming any resistance to education and the inherent antipathy due to the effort learning takes using only a vision and a promise.

Morgan said...


Part of the problem is that administrators don't back teachers' attempts to stop the disruptive behavior of the unmotivated students. I was in a conversation with a teacher yesterday, and he told me about a run-in he had with a student who was deliberately disrupting the class, essentially daring him to do something about it. He sent her to the principal's office. The principal sent her back, and upon arrival she announced "the Principal says you can't send me out of the class for talking". So he took the entire class to the principal's office (the "never leave your class unattended" rule has been strictly enforced ever since a teacher did so and a young lady performed oral sex on about a dozen young men while she was away - I guess the teacher was away for some time).

And then the principal chewed him out, telling him that he needed to handle this in the classroom through better "classroom management techniques", and so on. In front of his entire class.

Fortunately the girl chose that moment to mouth some extremely profane derision ambiguously directed at my teacher friend or the principal, at which point the principal suspended her, extended the suspension when she protested, and told her she would not return to the school next year when she protested some more. I suspect that if my friend had the ability to do that, he could manage the classroom just fine.

I have a million similar stories. This was just yesterday's.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

I long ago decided that America is going to get the educational system that America wants. While there is a small fraction of society that believes in education for the sake of education, most Americans don't see much point to it and they aren't going to convey any enthusiasm to their children as long as they don't. So the children aren't motivated.

When I was in grad school I travelled quite a bit in Germany. Everywhere I went, when people learned that I was a student in the University, they were impressed. All walks of people. The only comparable thing here is being a physician. If you're at a party or a bar and tell people you're a "doctor" (i.e., physician) they will immediately be impressed. But if you tell them you're a mathematician or engineer they'll look at you strangely. As a Russian friend pointed out to me, there is no word for "nerd" or "geek" in Russian. There is no corresponding disdain for technical ability in Russian culture. Is it any surprise that Germany and Russia have produced disproportionate numbers of first-rate mathematicians?

Germany remade its educational system from the top down. I very much doubt that a bottom-up democracy such as the United States will ever be able to accomplish that. Although I wouldn't want to underestimate the desire of the Ivy-league-trained self-proclaimed elites to seek to impose some things on everyone.

The only factor, in my opinion, that has allowed the United States to even have a few top-caliber scientists is the traditional Anglo-Saxon tolerance of eccentricity. It's still ok to be a "nerd" in this country because we tolerate weirdoes. But being viewed as a barely tolerable eccentric weirdo is precious little return on years of incredibly strenuous effort, to return to your original theme of motivation.

Morgan said...

It's still ok to be a "nerd" in this country because we tolerate weirdoes. But being viewed as a barely tolerable eccentric weirdo is precious little return on years of incredibly strenuous effort, to return to your original theme of motivation.

Don't I know it.

vnjagvet said...


I agree with your last point.

Classroom teachers need the ability to run their classrooms. Without it, they are working with(at least) one hand tied behind their back.

Some very few are still able to control their class by virtue of their dedication, talent and ability. That, sadly, is not enough.

terrye said...

No doubt there needs to be discipline. I know I grew up in a time when a teacher could use a paddle.

I also grew up in a time when people were taught to read and write and do simple math as a basis for their education before they got out of the third grade.

Kids do not even learn history anymore.

KDeRosa said...

Maybe Johnny's not motivated because he was never properly taught how to read and do math.

Read the article I linked to and then tell me if you still want to blame children for not learning or if you think the responsibility lies with their teachers and schools.

Morgan said...


Thanks for the pointer to the article. I especially appreciated the information about Project Follow Through, and will follow up to see what else I can dig up about it. If you have additional information on it that you would be willing to share, or can point me to more information, please let me know.

I agree that teaching methods are partly to blame for the failure to teach students to read.

However, in my mind as I wrote this were a number of incidents involving students who clearly had the skills to do what was asked of them, but who refused to do it - students who were not motivated, as opposed to unable, to do what was required. I still believe that is the primary problem in our schools.

Clearly, though, not teaching the fundamental skills will prevent achievement (as well as sap motivation). I'll make it the subject of a future post.

KDeRosa said...

Lots of good Project Follow Through Stuff here. Bear in mind that many of the Project Follow Through losers are still in widespread use today.

Now take a look at the City Springs school in Baltimore. Graphs here. Most recent results here. City Springs school uses the Project Follow Through Winner. Its students used to perform in the teens (i.e., two - three years behind grade level) and now perform in the 80 - 90+%.

You would have probably considered most of these children to be unmotivated and/or disengaged prior to the curricular change. (If not in elementary school, then certainly by middle school.) This would be like saying the Russian people were unmotivated under communism and that's why that economic system failed. It's the bad system, not the people.

Rick Ballard said...


If you would care to expand your comments further, I'll be happy to publish them here. Click my name on the Contributors list for the email address - you can put the title and body of the piece in an email.

You make some excellent points that are worthy of further discussion.

mayfieldga said...

Motivation to learn equals mental reward recieved for mental work expended. There are two very large varibles at work here schools have taken no interest in using, but would make a world of difference to our students.

1. The first variable/tool involves learning how our individual environments greatly affect our ability to think, learn, and have motivation to learn. When we are attempting to perform any mental work, our minds are working on many minute and some more substantial layers of mental friction some consciously but most subconciously.

Try to picture an upright rectangle representing our full abiity to think and learn. Now begin at the bottom drawing in narrowly spaced, horizontal lines to represent layers of mental frictions our minds are dealing with both consciously and subconsciouly. What space we have left at the top represents our leftover ability to think and learn. Some students and adults are working with two or three times as many layers of mental frictions as other students and will have to work two or three times as hard to receive the same mental reward. Motivation in mental areas equals mental reward received for mental work expended. We cannot provide everyone with a nice stable, knowledge rich environment, but we can help everyone learn how to approach their individual environments more delicately and correctly to continually improve. Since we are all affected to some degree, we all need to understand how to more permanently reduce those layers of mental frictions that hurt thinking, learning and motivation to learn.

We can all begin to slowly understand how elements in our individual environments come together to create mental frictions when we beome conscious of them. Then we can not only begin to understand and resolve them but also change weights and values that caused those mental frictions to occur. This means we have a way to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions to continually improve thinking, learning, and motivation to learn.

2. The second variable/tool involves learning how improper pace and intensity in approaching any mental work, situation, problem, or academic greatly affects thinking, learning, and motivation to learn, especially long-term motivation that leads to more complex skills over time. As our pace and intensity in approaching any mental work exceeds our immediate knowledge and experience, we create much greater mental friction that further hurts our ability to think and learn. We need to begin teaching everyone how to approach newer mental work, situations, problems, academics at a slower pace at first. As we gain knowledge and experience, our pace and intensity will increase naturally and factor naturally over time. Newer and more complex knowledge and skills can then be added on to with equal enjoyment. Proper pace and intensity is extremely important for long-term motivation mental areas.

In addition, the length of that leftover space also represents our length of reflection time or time to think more deeply and to consider longer term consequences and rewards for a course of action. As layers of mental frictions accumulate higher and higher, they create both psychological suffering and shorter reflection time. This makes many escapes such as drug/alcohol abuse, violence, and suicide that much more appealing in view of the immediate release or removal of psychological suffering created by extremely high layers of mental frictions.

These tools with many applications are on my old site at
My newest varsion is free for all on request. Feel free to make copies of all files.