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.