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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind's Fifth Birthday: Mostly Unhappy Returns

Jerry's essay has generated quite a bit of discussion, which you can read by going to the url below.

by Gerald Bracey

On January 8, No Child Left Behind turned five. A lot of people hope it won't live to be six, including some people who not only supported the law, but actively worked to put it in place.

For instance, the National Council of Churches backed the law initially but in a December, 2006 letter to Ted Kennedy concluded that "the law has undermined education for our nation's most vulnerable children..." The Council asked him to work towards "remedying the many injustices that have arisen during the first five years of the implementation of NCLB."

Michael Petrilli, who labored for four years at the U. S. Department of Education to make NCLB succeed, wrote "I can't pretend any longer that the law is 'working.'" I still like its zeitgeist....but let's face it, it doesn't help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law's nonsensical provisions."

USA Today reporter, Greg Toppo, celebrated the birthday by pointing to five big effects:

1. It's driving teachers crazy.
2. It's narrowing what many schools teach.
3. It's making the school day longer.
4. It's changing how reading is taught.
5. It's causing 'invisible' students to get attention.

Numbers 1 and 2 are clearly negative. People are divided on #3 and the jury is out on #4. Not even #5 is unambiguously positive--special education kids are being forced to take tests they can't cope with while people whose English is fragile must take the test in that language. Note that Toppo did not say "It's causing kids to learn more."

I have experienced no change of heart. Newsday ran my first anti-NCLB article in January 2001, a full year before Bush signed the bill into law. NCLB struck me as just another of Bush's Orwellian-doublespeak-named programs like Clear Skies, Clean Waters, and Healthy Forests. It would transfer tons of money from the public sector to the private, reduce or kill the power of the teachers unions (two Democratic power bases) and to bring substantial portions of public schooling under private control (the original proposal contained vouchers that kids could use at private schools).

Independent of whatever motives lay behind the law, I extracted Seven Deadly Absurdities of No Child Left Behind from the logic of the law itself.

1. The law uses the phrase "scientifically based research" 111 times and requires schools to justify programs in terms of scientifically based research. But there is no research that supports the law's approach to education.

2. The law is based almost entirely on punishment. Most schools have 37 subgroups that they must report on and failure of any one subgroup will lead to sanctions.

3. The law demands that all students be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. You can have a meaningful definition of "proficient" or you can have 100% proficiency. Not both. (See blog from January 2).

4. As a consequence of #3, the California Department of Education projected that by 2014, the law will label 99% of its schools as failing. Calculations for the six Great Lakes states produced an average of 95% failure.

5. The law requires that if any subgroup fails to make "adequate yearly progress" for two years in a row the school must offer all students the opportunity to transfer to a "successful" school. The school could be working for 36 of the 37 subgroups but the whole school gets clobbered anyway.

This choice option is a farce both in cities, where there are no seats, and in rural areas where the nearest school might be a two-hour drive away (except in some parts of Alaska and Hawaii where students must appropriate an airplane). And, in a perverse twist, it is usually the higher achieving kids who change schools, further weakening the "failing" school.

6. The law measures school quality almost entirely in terms of test scores in reading and math. This ignores that Asian educators admire U. S. schools because of American kids' creativity. Naptime in Kindergarten and recess in elementary school? Canceled to practice for tests. Arts, music and PE? Forget it. If a child in kindergarten today writes a book about his school experiences 30 years from, it will likely carry the title Everything I Needed to Know about Sound-Symbol Correspondences and How to be Burned Out as a Learner by Third Grade I Learned in Kindergarten.

7. The biggie: One hundred percent proficient means no white-minority achievement gap and the law assumes that schools can accomplish that all by themselves. Don't worry about poverty, parenting, inadequate pre-natal care or eye, ear, nose and tooth problems that go untreated. Forget that schools only have children for 9% of their lives from birth to age 18. The law insists the schools be omnipotent.

Will Congress reauthorize the law in 2007? People are divided. Most think it is politically a too hot potato to handle until after the 2008 elections. That would stick American kids, teachers, and administrators with another two years of misery.

— Gerald Bracey
Huffington Post


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