Well, What Do You Know? A Discriminating Look at the No Child Left Behind Act

By David Moscinski

The prime expectation of the No Child Left Behind Act is that all students become proficient in Reading and Mathematics. It mandates annual student testing, along with a comparison of the results obtained by majority and minority students. This mandated comparison has revealed the existence of an “achievement gap” between and among student sub-groups. This article looks at what we “know” about this gap and how our knowledge may unintentionally support it.

What is the relationship between knowledge and expectation? Does what we know determine what we expect? The obvious answer is “Of course it does.” Pragmatically speaking, isn’t that the purpose of knowledge – to tell us what to expect? Let’s take a closer look at this relationship.

In 1686 Sir Isaac postulated the Laws of Motion, the third of which is “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Nearly three hundred years later knowledge of this law and what to expect because of it ultimately put an astronaut on the moon. Feeling safe in expectations based on this knowledge, people will enter long cylindrical tubes that propel them six miles into the sky at speeds in excess of five hundred an hour to destinations thousands of miles away, usually without hesitation. Expectation based on knowledge is deeply ingrained in our psyche.

It may not even be unusual for expectation to take on a life of its own. The ancient Roman poet Ovid in his work Metamorphosis records the tale of the Greek sculptor, Pygmalion who fell in love with a beautiful statue he had sculpted. He petitioned the gods to give him a spouse as lovely and as perfect as his statue of ivory and according to the legend they did. Pygmalion’s man-made expectation thus became reality.

Eliza Doolittle and Learning Expectations

A wonderful artistic example of expectation comes from the words of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney speaking flower girl in the 1964 Learner and Lowe musical “My Fair Lady.” In the musical, based on the novel Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, a prominent elocutionist, Professor Henry Higgins places a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering. He wages the Colonel that with three months of his training he can expect a lowly flower girl, played by Audrey Hepburn, to become a society accepted lady. Professor Higgins does succeed and wins his wager, but not for the reason he believes. In a poignant scene Eliza states the real reason behind her transformation:

I should never have known how ladies and gentlemen really behaved, if it hadn’t been for Colonel Pickering. He always showed what he thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a common flower girl. You see, Mr. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will.

In education, the work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen in the 1960’s established the relationship between expectation, whether real or perceived, and student performance. In their book Pygmalion In The Classroom published in 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobsen described the results of an experiment in which children were pre-tested with I.Q. tests before the start of the school year. Teachers were then given the names of 20% of students who had tested as being “latently gifted.” The teachers were told these students could be expected to “blossom” in the coming school year.

Unknown to the teachers however, the students had been not been selected based on test results, but rather had been assigned at random. When post-tested at the end of the year, students who had been expected to blossom scored significantly higher on the I.Q. test. Rosenthal termed this the Pygmalion Effect. It occurred because in his words :“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.”

The Iowa Lighthouse Study, conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards and published in September of 2000, further supported the importance of knowing what to expect, this time at the school board level. The purpose of the study was to determine what influence, if any, school boards could have on student achievement. For the study test districts were matched on as many variables as possible, then divided into “high” and “low” achieving districts based on their students’ test performance on annually administered state tests.

The study found that board members in high-achieving districts had significantly different knowledge and expectations than those that existed among board members in low-achieving districts.This knowledge and expectation set the tone for the district’s culture. Board members in high-achieving districts:

Consistently expressed the belief that all students can learn and that the school could teach all students. This “no excuses” belief system resulted in high standards for students and an on-going dedication to improvement. In low-achieving districts, board members had limited expectations and often focused on factors that they believed kept students from learning, such as poverty, lack of parental support or societal factors.

Looked at another way, board members in high achieving districts became The Little Engines That Could that pulled all the girls and boys of their district over any potential “gaps” in their learning.

A final thought on the subject of expectation comes from the recently published book The Social Conquest of Earth by biologist Edward O. Wilson. In his book Wilson states:

Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or were divided by their preference for some abstract painter over another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their “opponents” to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent. The prejudices asserted themselves even when the subjects were told the in-groups and out-groups had been chosen arbitrarily.

How does all this relate to the NCLB and closing the “achievement gap”?

If we “know” that minority students do not test as well as their counterparts in the majority, does this imply anything about our expectations for them? Like Pygmalion does our knowledge sculpt what we come to expect? Does our knowledge form our expectation? If it does, how does this help eliminate the “achievement gap”? Would education be better off simply expecting that all children can lean regardless of any cultural, ethnic, racial, income or any other quantifiable variable? Does saying that that all children are created equal, but then sub-dividing them according prescribed variables result in treatment like Eliza Doolittle received, as the instructional equivalents of Cockney flower girls? Or, are they treated like the majority students, as respected members of society?

Based on the results of Rosenthal’s study, what are the instructional behaviors likely to produce results which close the gap or even prevent it from forming? The Iowa Lighthouse Study suggests closing or preventing the gap starts at the top with the Board of Education and the firm belief that all children can learn and can be taught in their schools, regardless of circumstances. These school board members and their instructional staff have expectations for all students and excuses for none. Led by this attitude of expectation for all, they get what they expect.

And what about Edward Wilson’s findings described in The Social Conquest of Earth?

Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong.

This is perhaps the greatest caveat concerning NCLB, the required disaggregation of data by minority groups with the resulting “achievement gap.” Taken together, do they form a self-fulfilling prophesy that is the basis for a new, but subtle form of discrimination? If we truly believe that all are created equal and that all children can learn, let’s begin by examining our expectations based on these beliefs.


David Moscinski is the District Administrator for the School District of Stockbridge in Stockbridge, Wisconsin. Stockbridge Middle School has been identified as “Exemplary” by the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators for five years. Student proficiency results there have been in the upper 10% of all middle schools in the state. In 2014 Newsweek named Stockbridge High School to its “America’s Top High Schools 2014” list as well as to its “Beating the Odds: America’s Top High Schools for Low Income Students.”

Mr. Moscinski has also had articles published in the “American School Board Journal,” the American Association of School Administrators “School Administrator” and the Wisconsin School News. His article “Proficiency For All?” was selected for inclusion in the 09-10 McGraw Hill Annual Editions – Education.


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