Reform School: How No Child Left Behind ruined American education. A dispatch by Kim Mance for Babble.com

In 2002, at the height of his first-term popularity, President Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill into law. The law required each state to set a standard by which to judge its schools. The Four Pillars of NCLB were more accountability for results, more freedom and flexibility for states and communities, more choices for parents, and a commitment to the use of proven education methods. 

Sounds good, right?

There was a blitz of positive attention. A Business Week cover story compared Bush’s law to Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and JFK’s race to the moon. Story after story reported on the wonderful federal grants going to help states with education reform.

At the time, I thought it seemed reasonable, too. Finally, schools and teachers would be held accountable for student performance and communities could decide how to address their own unique challenges.

But as has been the case with other Bush policies, this one had massive hidden costs.

The many teachers I spoke with for this article unanimously agreed that NCLB’s emphasis on testing makes their job harder, more stressful and more frustrating. The major problem? Creating one standard for all children is impossible. The teachers spoke of the limited individual attention they could give students due to the narrow objectives of the all-important federal test scores.

The Department of Education insists that educators aren’t forced to teach to the test: “Curriculum based on state standards should be taught in the classroom. If teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested – and probably much more. In that case, students will need no special test preparation in order to do well.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Some kids have special needs. Some kids have a bad year. But NCLB essentially forces teachers to get the grades up at all costs, because the school’s very existence is on the line. Schools and districts that don’t make annual progress goals could go into sanction, whereby the schools can be closed, transferred to the state, sold to private corporations, or transformed into charter schools.

The bureaucracy involved can drive a teacher crazy.

Mel Powers, a special education high school teacher from New Jersey, describes walk-throughs by district administrators who evaluate whether miniscule requirements are in place, such as detailed testing goals being written on the chalkboard each day. “We have problems with gangs and teen pregnancy,” she said, “and they’re worried about whether I have the right testing sections written on the board.” She likened No Child Left Behind to “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

The burden on special needs programs has been especially tragic. Powers works out the standard Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with each of her special needs students. The IEP exempts them from passing the state test to graduate. And yet, they are required by NCLB to take the test anyway, and their IEPs are not taken into account when evaluating the scores. This results in a lowering of the entire school’s overall academic performance, making special needs children a disproportionate burden on the school.

Due in part to its special needs program, Powers’s school showed low test scores. Thanks to “accountability measures,” the beloved principal was fired a week before Christmas break, sinking morale school-wide. Test scores have continued to drop.

In 2006, nearing re-authorization of the law, Mr. Bush was greeted with applause during these remarks to the NAACP: “See, we must challenge a system that simply shuffles children through grade to grade, without determining whether they can read, write and add and subtract. It’s a system – see, I like to call it this: We need to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The profound disconnect between this lofty goal and everyday classroom reality is vast.

One of the well-intentioned NCLB objectives is to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students by providing more choices for their parents regarding their education – for example, giving them the opportunity to switch to charter schools.

Steven Cugley, a twelve-year teaching veteran who works at a Los Angeles junior high, illustrates the difficulty of making this aspect of NCLB work for the kids who would benefit most from it. Cugley was concerned about a smart student’s failure to ever turn in his homework. He tried several times to contact the boy’s mother. After having no luck, he made a home visit, but no one was there. As he drove down the street, he found his student collecting cans to get money to buy himself dinner.

“We’ve got kids who aren’t thinking about homework or test preparation; they’re worried about finding food,” Cugley said. “This kid’s single mother with eight children works three jobs just to pay rent and try to provide for her kids. She doesn’t have time to oversee his homework, much less his education. There are many parents who are simply not going to go through all the paperwork required by No Child Left Behind and aren’t able to give the required volunteer time to get their children into a charter school.”

Click for President Bush’s speech on No Child Left Behind.

Schools serving underprivileged students bear the brunt of the policy’s sanctions. The schools serving underprivileged students, the supposed beneficiaries of NCLB, bear the brunt of the policy’s sanctions. And teachers like Cugley, who are actually passionate about helping these kids, aren’t getting any support. Conscientious teachers like him go above and beyond out of genuine concern for their students each day. The standardized test doesn’t take into account the many factors that make a great teacher, or a student with true potential in the world.

In 2006, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, which sought to increase investment in research, development and encourage entrepreneurship. This billion-dollar initiative would strengthen education in the U.S. by improving math and science education and foreign language studies in high schools.

Again – sounds reasonable, right? But there’s a major downside to this too.

Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving, a maker of educational materials for high-performing math students, says this policy requires schools to devote all their resources to helping below-average students meet basic requirements, not in helping above-averages students flourish: “The schools now have even less incentive to develop [high performing students’] skills. So, the top students need to go elsewhere for their education. That’s good for my company, to be sure, but not so good for the future of science, technology, medicine and anything else in this country that requires top minds.”

Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor agrees, remarking recently at a conference in New York City that, “One unintended effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is intended to help fund teaching of science and math to young people, is that it has effectively squeezed out civics education, because there is no testing for that anymore and no funding for that.

“And at least half of the states no longer make the teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation. This leaves a huge gap, and we can’t forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America has always been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge and the skills and the values to sustain our republic as a nation, our democratic form of government.”

It’s not just civics that’s taken a hit. Everything not on the standardized test is falling by the wayside.

The Department of Education insists that NCLB gives school districts “unprecedented flexibility in how they use federal education funds.” Schools are free to hire more teachers, improve training, and increase teacher pay. Unfortunately, those flexible funds often go to pay for consulting services to help the schools meet the standards dictated by NCLB.

Some schools pay private companies to provide tutoring for students with low scores and some hire consultants to optimize the curriculum to get better test results. Teacher training revolves around improving scores. These companies, many of which include no one with a background in education, are in high demand.

Every teacher I spoke with for this article had a similar response when I asked what changes needed to be made: less emphasis on standard scoring, and more emphasis on the whole child.

Click for Barack Obama’s speech on No Child Left Behind.

John McCain called teachers “resistant to change.” To that end, they all want to see more money for vital social services like school-based health clinics. Children’s home life and access to basic things like food and health care are not separate from their learning experience.

What’s the future of No Child Left Behind this election year? It is a major policy question on which the presidential candidates diverge.

Despite offering mostly glowing remarks about No Child Left Behind, John McCain has said on the campaign trail that some reforms are needed. But he fell into lock-step with the Bush Administration’s contempt for educators when he said he feels the problem is mostly that teachers simply need to “Join us in trying to improve education in America rather than, apparently, being resistant to change.”

Barack Obama disagrees. In a recent speech he said, “I believe that the goals of this law were the right ones. Making a promise to educate every child with an excellent teacher is right. Closing the achievement gap that exists in too many cities and rural areas is right. More accountability is right. Higher standards are right . . . Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.”

With this important election approaching, education reform remains a key issue. No Child Left Behind’s future is back in our hands. Scientific tests can’t evaluate the actual needs of individual children. Fortunately, voters can.

Photo Credit: Pat Glennon

Article Posted 10 years Ago

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