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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind emphasizes test-taking over a love of learning

Ruben Navarrette's screed was so bad I refused to post it. But if you want to read it, here it is.

By Nel Noddings

Columnist Ruben Navarrette tried to defend the No Child Left Behind law by trashing the National Education Association. ("NEA intent on gutting No Child Left Behind," July 22.) His defense failed. NCLB is a deeply flawed law and should be repealed or drastically revised. NEA aside, here are some of the things wrong with NCLB.

It asks the impossible of schools that all children will be proficient in math and reading by 2014. It leaves the definition of "proficient" up to each state, and the definitions vary greatly. For example, some states claim that 80 percent of their students are proficient while the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds only about 30 percent proficient. Still, heavy penalties are placed on schools and districts that do not make adequate yearly progress toward the 100 percent goal. This is a no-win situation. Those who make it will do so by demeaning the idea of proficiency; those who do not will suffer both professional and financial consequences.

NCLB is hurting the very kids it purports to be helping. Supposedly, the law is intended to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities. However, it is mainly black and Hispanic kids who are being retained in grade and deprived of high school diplomas.

NCLB is gutting the curriculum. Many youngsters spend most of the school day on worksheets focused on preparation for standardized tests. While wealthier kids still have art, music, drama and physical education, many poorer students experience little beyond test preparation. Even in wealthier schools, concentration on test trivia is driving out social studies, inquiry, experimentation and reflective discussion.

NCLB is demoralizing teachers. In talking with teachers all over the country, I hear again and again that some of the best teachers plan to take early retirement. Forced to use scripted lessons, their creativity is squelched; their devotion to teaching the whole child is scorned.

NCLB is having a corrupting influence. Educational researchers have collected convincing evidence that cheating has increased cheating by students, teachers and administrators. In many districts where there is no actual cheating, questionable practices are used to take advantage of loopholes in the law. Good people who want to protect their schools from the consequences of landing on the "failing" or "needs improvement" lists engage in practices they abhor. When a law makes good people bad and bad people worse, it is a bad law.

The standardized, high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are making children ill. We have reports of fourth-graders sleepless in the nights before the tests, of kids throwing up on the tests, of eighth-graders gloomily convinced that they will never pass the high school exit test. Instead of looking forward to high school, they dread it.

We are now spending billions on tests their construction (often shoddy), administration, monitoring, scoring, recording, interpreting and reporting. Some of this money would be better spent on smaller classes, salary incentives for teachers to work in inner-city schools, appropriate resources and enhanced teacher training.

Perhaps worst of all, NCLB tends to distract citizens from the acute social problems that our country is unwilling to address. With its high-flown rhetoric "no child left behind," "all children can learn," "no excuses" and the like, it demands that schools cure our social ills. The schools can't do it. Kids really do have trouble learning when they come to school with toothaches, poor vision, incipient diabetes and generally inadequate health care; when they come from impoverished homes, inadequate housing and unsafe neighborhoods; when their parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet.

NCLB is bad not just for poor kids, but for all kids. It distorts learning into test preparation and works against the development of intellectual habits, critical thinking and the joy of learning. NEA is generous in wanting to revise it. I'd get rid of it.

Nel Noddings, Ocean Grove, is an adjunct professor of philosophy and education at Columbia Unversity. She is Lee Jacks Professor of Education Emerita at Stanford University.

— Nel Noddings
Asbury Park Press


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