Today's First Graders: The Children No Child Left Behind Will Leave Behind
NOTE: From Substance, September-December, 2004, p. 24,20.21.
[Kenneth S. Goodman, one of the world's foremost authorities on how children learn to read, is Professor Emeritus, Language, Reading and Culture, University of Arizona. This article was sent to Substance October 18, 2004. ]
Parents of children starting first grade this year may not be ready for what the No Child Left Behind law has in store for their children over the next ten years. Beginning first graders are or will shortly be six years old.
This federal law reaches its full effects in 2014 when these children become 16, the age in most states when students can legally leave school. During those years under NCLB their scores on a single test will dominate their school experience. Under NCLB the federal government requires:
* Every state must test all pupils in all schools in reading and math and starting in 2007-8 in science. The state must set a proficiency level for the test.
* Each school must "disaggregate" pupils into a number of sub-groups.
Criteria include race, ethnic group, income level, second language learners and various categories of special education. Pupils maybe in more than one group, for example, Black, Hispanic and poor.
* 95% of the pupils in each group must take the test or the school is labeled failing
* Every sub-group of pupils is expected to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" each year or the school is failing.
* If a local school district has one failing school it is labeled a failing district.
* In the first year at least 20% of each group must have scores at or above the proficiency score for the school to meet the requirement of adequate yearly progress.
* Each state must set successively higher requirements each year for the percent of each group scoring proficient to meet AYP
* And in 2014, when this year's first graders are legally able to leave school in most states, 100% of students in all groups must score at the proficient level in reading, math and science on an approved test. In Lake Wobegone, Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota town, all the children are above average. Under NCLB, by
2014 all children must be scoring proficient, a term which now applies to the top 20% of all those taking the test. Even those most severely disabled must miraculously achieve this unreachable score.
Mandated Punishments under NCLB
NCLB is a highly punitive law. It provides for severe punishments for failing schools, school districts and even states.
School punishments. If a school is failing for more than two years the school district is: required to permit parents to request transfer of their children to a non-failing school in the district at district expense. Parents of kids in failing schools may also request the school district to provide private tutoring at district expense.
If the school continues to fail AYP, drastic measures are required including reopening as a public charter school; replacing all or most of the staff (which may include the principal); making a contract for operation of the public school by a "public or private entity"; or takeover by the state.
School District Punishments
States are also required to punish failing school districts under NCLB. The law requires:
(1) deferring programmatic funds or reducing administrative funds;
(2) instituting and fully implementing a new curriculum, including providing appropriate professional development based on scientifically based research;
(3) replacing district personnel;
(4) removing particular schools from local jurisdiction, establishing alternative arrangements for such schools' public governance and supervision; and
(5) appointing a receiver or trustee to administer LEA affairs in place of the superintendent and school board.
Under NCLB what controls a child's school experience passes from the teacher and the local school board to bureaucrats in Washington. If the law is allowed to remain in place as it is currently being implemented until it reaches its full effect in 2014 many of today's first graders will be left behind or left out.
Here's what the law will do to the school careers of this year's first graders.
*A third of the schools the beginners enter this year across the country have already been labeled as failing, many for two years which means they are under penalties.
*First graders will be quickly tested and sorted according to their likelihood of failing in reading, writing and math. Many will have already been tested and classified in kindergarten.
*Much of the time in the first grade will be spent on specific practice for the tests. There will be little or no art, music, social studies and play.
*Many first graders are likely to rebel at going to school and cry or fall asleep in school.
*Children will encounter teachers desperately trying to meet the needs of their students while under severe constraints to teach to the tests and follow a narrow methodology.
*Starting 2005-6, all states will be required to test all children in third to eighth grade.
*In second grade next year some children will be failed to keep them from pulling down school scores in the third grade.
*Many of this year's first graders will fail a grade before they reach middle school.
*Two-thirds or more of the middle schools will have been labeled failing one or more years by the time this year's first graders get there.
*Many dedicated and experienced middle school teachers will have moved to primary grades or left teaching because they are judged unqualified under NCLB to teach subjects in which they lack a degree.
*The curriculum in their middle school years will focus even more on preparation for tests and content getting the children ready for high school.
*A third or more of this year's first graders will have failed one or more grades before they finish middle school.
*This is likely to include disproportionate numbers of poor children, immigrants and those of color.
*By the time this year's first graders finish middle school it is likely that they will have attended a school under severe punishment that includes narrowing the curriculum, replacing the entire faculty and administrators or turning the school over to a private company.
*Middle school classes will include substantial numbers of unhappy, sullen, overage pupils.
*Many children will have been suspended or expelled before they finish middle school.
*Special education and second language learners may become so old in middle school that they may drop out without finishing 8th grade.
*There is little chance this year's first graders will attend a high school not labeled as failing.
*High Schools will have curtailed or eliminated music, art, physical education, and vocational programs.
*No pass no play rules will keep many students out of sports, bands, performing arts, and club and special interest activities.
*Many experienced high school teachers will have left teaching because they are labeled unqualified by NCLB or because they oppose the restrictions on their teaching in the law.
*Those replacing them will have degrees or have passed a test in the subjects they teach but have little professional education.
*In high school there will be many severe discipline problems and an increase in suspensions and expulsions.
*Rural high schools will be forced to drop subjects because of a lack of qualified teachers under NCLB.
*Some rural schools may close altogether requiring students to be transported long distances to and from school.
*Half or more of today's first graders will leave school before they graduate high school depending on the community. Many will not even get through tenth grade.
*By 2014 many of today's first graders, particularly in cities and suburbs will be attending schools run by for-profit corporations.
Private schools of highly variable quality will mushroom in middle and upper income communities.
*Application of NCLB to these schools and to charter schools will vary from state to state.
*Funds for the remaining public schools will be greatly diminished as voucher systems are enacted which divert funds to private schools.
How will NCLB produce such dismal results?
NCLB has changed first grade more than any other grade and the changes will become more universal as the laws provisions become more controlling each year. The law dictates how reading, writing and math are taught and tested. Each state must have a proposal approved by bureaucrats in Washington D.C. who may reject methods, materials and curriculum not endorsed as "evidence based" and who may order changes which are then imposed by the state on local schools. This year Texas is threatened with losing their NCLB money because they don't yet have an approved plan.
Under NCLB, state authorities are told which materials, which tests and which methods their teachers may use. This year's first graders are more likely to spend much of their school day on phonics exercises and preparations for tests on reading skills with little time for reading stories and children's books. Writing instruction is likely to be spelling, handwriting and grammar exercises with little time for writing stories and written expression.
Approved state plans must provide for testing children in kindergarten or early first grade with mandated quick tests scored by the test producer. An example is the Dibels.
In New Mexico the teachers enter responses on a palm pilot which sends the answers to the state which then passes them on to the company for scoring the Dibels in Oregon. What comes back is a list of first graders labeled in terms of their chance of failure. The list dictates to the teacher how to group the pupils for instruction.
With NCLB's heavy focus on reading, writing and math, little time in the first grade is available for social studies, music, art and physical education. Science is minimal. Even recess is being eliminated in some schools to give more time to prepare for the tests.
Teachers are given little discretion over how to deal with differences in learners since all must pass the same tests at the same levels. That means that children who pull down the group and can't keep up or can't get a high enough score on the tests will be forced to repeat the grade and eventually forced out of school.
Since each state selects a test and sets the definition of what constitutes proficiency, numbers of failing schools vary widely from state to state - so widely that failing means very different things in different states. Last year Alabama reported 4.6 % of their public schools failed to make AYP. But next door in Florida 87.1 % failed.
Can that really mean that Alabama schools are far better than Florida schools? This year Indiana had 4.1 % of schools failing for 2 years and the District of Columbia had 43.6 %. If a school is failing for two years it is subject to "corrective action."
The law also classifies any school district as failing if one school in it is failing. In Idaho 11.3% of schools have failed for two years but 38.3 % of Idaho's school districts are failing. Nationally, this year almost 20,000 schools will be labeled failing one year and almost 10,000 will be failing for two or more years and are subject to penalties.
But NCLB is like a mortgage with a balloon payment. States can use an easy test or hard one. They can slow down the impact of NCLB or speed it up. But by 2014, in every state, all students in all sub groups must be scoring at the proficient level.
This election year the federal monitors have been lenient a bit in how much they pushed the states. But the pressure will be kept up on states and local districts as these children progress through primary grades. Because all children in every state must be tested in third grade it will be to the advantage of schools to fail children in second grade who are likely to pull down the test scores as third graders. Each year the number of children who avoid failing a year will drop so that by the time they reach middle school an alarming number of pupils will have failed at least one year.
Predictably the toll will be heaviest among the poor, children of color, immigrants and handicapped pupils. These face a double blow under the law. They must all take the same test. And they must pass at the same rate as all other groups in their schools. Studies show that NCLB punishes diversity. A stated purpose of NCLB is to eliminate the gaps between the haves and the have nots in our schools, between poor and rich, between white and people of color.
But the means to that end is to require all students to pass the same tests at the same high levels. And remember, 95% of a group must be present for the test. If parents choose to keep their kids out of the test or the school is hit by flu it fails.
Currently many award winning schools are failing because of a single group such as the English language learners. Scarsborough, New York is a failing district because 15% of parents kept their children home on test days. Scottsdale, Arizona with six percent African American pupils is failing because that one group missed adequate yearly progress. A New Hampshire superintendent says that his schools have
105 ways to fail on NCLB. That means that pupils in the groups schools have not served well are more likely to be left behind or pushed out under NCLB. If a school, or school district, is labeled failing because of one sub group, what will be the tensions that develop between that group and the rest of the students?
By the time current first graders enter middle school two-thirds will be entering schools labeled as failing and when, and if , they reach high school it will be hard to find a school not labeled failing.
Predictions from California, Minnesota and Connecticut are for virtually all schools to be labeled failing by 2014.
Right now, around 30% of students, depending on the state, leave school without graduating high school. Under the NCLB with many more students starting school this year failing at least one grade before they would enter 10th grade that figure is likely to increase dramatically. Research shows that students who fail a grade are unlikely to stay in school until graduation. That will be even more likely in the increasing number of states that will deny a diploma to those who fail to pass high stakes high school tests. And under NCLB high schools have an incentive to get rid of the students who bring down their pass rates. Already a scandal has been exposed in Houston in which over a third of 9th graders left school without graduating but the school system was reporting no dropouts.
When these issues have been raised with the ardent advocates of NCLB, they respond that the law contains remedies to help the failing schools achieve. Parents have the option to have their children transported to another school from a failing school, for example, at the expense of the districts.
But in a city like Chicago, with a high number of failing schools, there are few schools to accept transfer students. In New York transfers have led to severe overcrowding and resulted in more failing schools. In rural areas there are no alternative schools and in places like Alaska there may be no practical ways of transporting students.
Let's suppose, however, that parents choose to have their first grader transferred to a school which is not failing. That means the child is leaving the neighborhood. But then if that school becomes a failing school will the parents again request a transfer? So far, most parents have opted to keep their children in their neighborhood school.
Parents of children in failing schools may also request private tutoring. But NCLB does not permit the local school districts to provide the tutoring themselves; they must contract with approved private providers whose fees range from $40-80 per hour per pupil.
And the tutors provided are likely to have less professional training than the classroom teachers. Furthermore since the help is provided to those whose parents request it, children who need help will not necessarily get it and students may get it who don't need it. Because the tutoring is off site and often after school many parents choose not to request it. The Hawaiian department of education is flying tutors from a private company at great expense from Honolulu to the island of Molokai where the schools are labeled failing.
Another remedy offered to "failing schools" is that the state sends in a team to "help" it become more successful. These teams are trained in the narrow methods and materials the Washington implementers are pushing as "evidence based," They become enforcers limiting the flexibility of the teachers to vary the experiences of learners using their professional judgment.
NCLB has a goal to have "highly qualified teachers" in every classroom. But as the law defines that, this year's first graders are likely to have fewer teachers with professional education and certification. Many teachers are taking early retirement for a variety of reasons. These include restrictions on their ability to use their professional judgments on behalf of their pupils, heavy paperwork involved in NCLB and unwillingness to use methods and materials they don't agree with. These teachers are often replaced with teachers certified through alternative routes with little professional education. The Bush administration has set a procedure for national certification through passing tests with no professional education course work.
Elementary heritage language programs in native communities are disappearing because the law requires that teacher aides have two year college degrees. In many rural communities, those currently working as aides will lose their jobs adding to the high unemployment rates.
NCLB requires secondary teachers to have degrees in the subjects they teach. But most middle school teachers are generalists who teach more than one subject. So when these first graders reach middle school they will be finding highly experienced teachers replaced with teachers who can only teach one subject such as history, or chemistry.
Small high schools in rural areas are being told that the common practice of having one teacher teach all the science courses is unacceptable. If the chemistry teacher is going to teach biology then he or she must take an examination or an additional degree to be considered qualified.
If parents are worried about what the future holds for their kids once they leave school, NCLB has an answer for that too. The law requires school officials to provide the names and addresses of all school leavers to the Defense Department which will be happy to provide employment opportunities.
It should be clear that NCLB would be better called "No child left Unscarred." It is a law that can not succeed in its stated goal of bringing all children to proficiency. If the law was designed to make public schools look like failures then in fact it is likely to succeed. But then what would American education become? It would become a system much like that in many third world countries.
Children of the wealthy would be in private schools. Middle class parents would buy the best education they can afford for their kids with most priced out of the prestige schools. A small number of high achievers would make it through because business needs them to be the technicians, engineers and scientists. And the public schools that are left would serve the working poor providing a pool of cheap labor for business, industry and the military.
Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas yet to come if the terrible scenes he is shown are what must be or whether he has the power to change them. All that I have predicted are the inevitable results of the NCLB law as it is currently written and enforced. NCLB is the product of politicians. Under pressure from parents and other voters, all or some of it can be changed by the politicians that enacted the law. The only way to avoid or limit its impact on our children and young people is also political. It is discouraging that in an election year neither party or their candidates are indicating they will make any changes in the law itself or any long term changes in its enforcement.
At some point this punitive law will implode on itself as it affects more and more children and more and more families. If parents join to support teachers, administrators and school boards in resisting NCLB much of its potential effects can be avoided. But if it takes too long for the resistance to become effective, the damage to public education in the United States may be catastrophic.
Kenneth S. Goodman
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES