Put education back in the schools
By Alis Headlam
If you found yourself on a collision course with an iceberg, would you stay the course or try to change it?
We are on a collision course of epic proportions that is already tearing our schools apart and endangering the future of our children. The pathway has a cute title that sounds positive, but the reality is that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is hurting our schools by undermining quality teaching, leaving many children behind and costing taxpayers money to provide services that have been required by law but remain under-funded at the federal level.
NCLB, as it has been commonly known for the past six years, is due for reauthorization this year, yet little has been done to consider any major shifts in its provision, mandates or funding. This is the time for parents, educators, business members and all community members to sit up and take notice. This is the time to voice our opinions before another wave of misguided regulations pushes us further down the path of destruction to the iceberg that will ultimately sink our public education system.
The federal government under NCLB has taken control of curriculum. Schools and teachers no longer have a say in how reading is taught. Tomorrow it will be math and science. The imposition of a simplistic teaching model is detrimental to both teaching and learning, and ignores what good educators know: Students learn in many different ways. Ignoring this is tantamount to child abuse.
The emphasis on accountability has taken us over the edge of a huge cliff. We are hanging from a thread that threatens to cast many students into the abyss of failure. The problem with NCLB is that annual standardized testing is projected as the only means of determining if quality teaching and learning are occurring in our schools. Schools get punished for not meeting the annual yearly progress that increases year by year as standards get tougher and tougher as we move closer to the deadline to meet the federal mandate for 100 percent proficiency.
Children are forced to sit through lengthy test preparation that takes away from learning meaningful curriculum and then required to spend hours taking a test that has little to do with real learning. The results of testing become the goal rather than assuring that learning has taken place. Children are labeled as failures based on a limited notion of learning that ignores a wide range of possible successes that cannot be measured through testing.
Once a school has "failed" to meet their annual yearly progress, they find themselves under microscopic scrutiny by everyone from the federal and state government to their local school boards and parents. Talk about pressure. Who can function under the threat of losing control, of having the workplace taken over by the state, or a fear of losing their jobs? What about the children who are being arbitrarily left behind?
The pressure is enhanced by a fear that is gripping more and more people across the country. It comes from an oppressive regime that is top down, starting in Washington. Anyone who disagrees with federal decisions must be anti-government. Anyone who disagrees with NCLB must be anti-children or anti-school. The truth is just the opposite.
Those of us who really care about children, who really care about what is happening to our schools, know that you can't mandate learning. You can't even define learning in a way that would meet everyone's needs. Learning is an amorphous concept that changes depending on the individuals in any given classroom and the relationship between those individual students and their teacher. No one program works for everyone. If it did, we would be using it. The results of NCLB clearly show that we haven't found it.
Financially, NCLB is not fiscally responsible. It requires expenses that the government does not fund. Mandated curricula and testing are costly. Providing school choice is costly. The local community has to assume fiscal responsibility for the difference.
One of the least known provisions of NCLB is called supplemental educational services. Under this provision, a percentage of Title 1 funds can be used for private tutorial services. Parents whose children attend a school that has not met its annual yearly progress for two years and receives Title 1 funds will receive a letter in the fall of the school year informing them of their right to these services. Eligible children who meet the criteria come from low-income families and are among the lowest-achieving students in the school.
Funds are distributed directly to providers based on highest need of the children. Providers submit credentials and a plan for services. After an initial approval from the state these providers are under no particular scrutiny. Providers may contract services to additional tutors who have not been approved by the state and may not even hold appropriate credentials. There is no accountability system for these providers. State-approved providers cannot be rejected by the district, and only the state can judge whether the program is acceptable or not.
This particular provision devalues the professionals hired in the schools and may take valuable resources away. On the other hand, children who under NCLB are not functioning because of rigid curricular restrictions have the option of seeking alternative instruction. A highly qualified provider who is sincere in working with the schools can offer a supportive program that enhances the child's experience. The provision is really a double-edged sword for schools that lack any control.
NCLB takes professionalism out of teaching. It does nothing to ensure the success of our children. It punishes schools that face greater and greater challenges each year. It is hitting all of us in the pocketbook with its hidden costs and unregulated expenses. We must take the reauthorization seriously. We must let our congressmen know that we support quality education, not federally mandated oppression. We need to give education back to the schools where it belongs.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES