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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind: A Misguided Federal Government Intrusion Upon Public Schools

We missed this when it appeared in the Delaware County (PA) Daily Times on Sunday, 6/10/2006, but, sadly, it is just as true today. This would be a good piece for teachers to distribute to parents.

By Joe Batory

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal legislation passed by Congress in 2001, sounds so much better than it is. This deceptive law with its “catchy” slogan on the surface portends to offer some ultimate strategy for improving American education.

However, far from addressing significant issues involved in educational improvement, NCLB is really a “political sleight of hand” from Washington, DC. For all that NCLB might seem to imply, it is little more than a multi-billion dollar standardized testing program forced upon public schools and wrapped up in pious wording to make politicians look good. Ironically, prior to NCLB being enacted, USA students were already among the “most tested” in the world.

Before his untimely death in a plane crash in 2002, Senator Paul Wellstone publicly lamented the excessive overemphasis on standardized testing which lies at the heart of NCLB. One of the few elected officials courageous enough to challenge the White House on this matter, Senator Wellstone summarized NCLB this way: “It works well on a bumper sticker for politicians…but it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, this high stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.”

A position paper from the National Council of Churches eloquently summarizes what NCLB fails to address: “In these times, when childhood poverty across America is shamefully so widespread, when many families are under constant stress, and when too many schools across our land are limited by a lack of funds and resources…we cannot possibly believe that improving public schools is simply a matter of concentrating on schools alone.”

Essentially, the Bush administration and its subservient Congress are using the annual test score results mandated by NCLB to threaten and shame schools into improvement. However, Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, has termed NCLB as a misguided federal effort “to bludgeon schools to greatness.” Dr. Houston goes on to emphasize that this agenda of coercion is wrong and has never worked anywhere in the world.

“Policymakers have oversold the public on the notion that test scores are the best way to hold schools accountable,” Says the Great Lakes Center For Educational Research & Practice, which has noted that the intense pressure of these high stakes tests on schools to avoid being labeled as failing has in many cases pushed schools off course.

Indeed, NCLB is forcing widespread and unfortunate detours away from meaningful education. These days, many schools are: spending too much valuable pupil time on test preparation; teaching test taking skills; reducing classroom activities that focus on higher order skills such as creativity, analysis and synthesis; narrowing the curriculum, i.e., de-emphasizing and/or reducing the amounts of time spent by students on any subject areas not directly related to NCLB testing; cutting back student activity in music and the arts; and in the worst cases, doctoring the test results for better results (cheating!).

Arizona States University’s David Berliner and Sharon Nichols, co-authors of a report entitled “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing,” present this sobering summary from their research: “Now we see a kind of mentality seeping into the schools, where generations (of students) are being trained to beat the system. Learning subject matter in depth is no longer the goal of schools involved with high stakes tests. We are witnessing proof of a well known social science law, which basically says that the greater the pressure to perform at a certain level, the more likely people will find a way to corrupt the system and achieve favorable results.”

Added to all of this is a basic issue of equity. Dr. Berliner has documented with great detail the impact of poverty of hundreds of thousands of public school students, so much so that it often overwhelms almost all other educational interventions at their schools. And yet, the focus of NCLB is on regularly embarrassing and discrediting many schools and students from the most disadvantaged areas of our nation that need help and support the most and then classifying them as “failing” or “in need of improvement.”

What government chooses to ignore is that there are tremendous funding inequities among schools. Literally, thousands of America’s schools are sorely lacking in educational resources, personnel, facilities and instructional materials.

Public schools hardly exist in some vacuum. For the political establishment to unilaterally dump all of the problems of American society on the doorsteps of schools by waving a magic wand of more standardized testing may be politically expedient but it has little impact on meaningfully improving educational quality. The realities of each community’s financial resources, local economy (job opportunities), socio-economic status, extent of diversity, quality of parenting, community role models, peer influences, and the extent of substance abuse are just some of the variables that affect what happens in its schools.

In a nutshell, schools and the society that surrounds them are directly linked. The federal government’s one dimensional obsession with standardized test results as the “end all solution” for education conveniently serves to divert public attention away from the responsibility of elected officials to meaningfully address educational inequities and other needs that exist in American society and its schools.

An editorial in The Minnesota Daily on March 8, 2006 offers perhaps the best summary of the inherent flaws in NCLB as follows: “What is joyful about learning, and what makes us want to learn as much as we possibly can, are the intangible qualities of creativity, curiosity, compassion, wonder and joy. By reducing human effectiveness in education to paper, pencil and marking ovals, we are cheapening and even destroying the fundamental inspiration that drives learning….We will not produce world class thinkers or artists or scientists through threats or fear or punishment. Education is not---and has never been---a coercive act imposed by government on its people. Nor is it, except in extremely authoritarian societies, so strictly controlled, mandated and circumscribed by bureaucrats and politicians.”

In summary, the millions of things that public schools do each and every day for young people can hardly be quantified into test score results! Additionally, schools with a majority population of disadvantaged pupils as well as schools that educate a student body characterized by heterogeneity of race, class, and socio-economic status cannot simplistically be compared to schools with largely white, affluent pupil populations.

It is ironic indeed that the development of the NCLB legislation involved so little input from those who best understand teaching and learning---principals, teachers, students and parents who would have certainly told our elected officials that schools are not manufacturing plants and students are not robotized widgets rolling down an assembly line.

There are millions of complex human challenges and individual needs inside our nation’s schools that will take vastly more than the threat of test scores to make a difference for the better. Tragically, what the NCLB legislation reveals more than anything else is an “out of touch and off-target” federal government with no concept of the “real world” challenges and the priorities for educational improvement inside America’s public schools.

(Joe Batory was superintendent of schools in Upper Darby from 1984-1999. When he retired, he received the prestigious Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators. Batory is the author of three books on school leadership available at: www.rowmaneducation .com)

— Joe Batory
Delaware County (PA) Daily Times


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