'No Child' Opponents Criticize Law
Several of the nation's leading critics of the federal No Child Left
Behind education law gathered on a stage in Milwaukee on Friday to
criticize what the law is doing to teaching and learning, but they
offered few specifics when it came to what they want to see in its place.
The general message to several hundred teachers at the Wisconsin State
Reading Association convention at the Midwest Airlines Center was to
fight for letting teachers be the primary deciders of what goes on in
In terms of the long-standing reading wars, this was definitely an
encampment of whole language educators. Reading programs that heavily
emphasize phonics and programs that provide scripted plans for what a
teacher should do with students were on the outs here. Such approaches
are encouraged under No Child Left Behind and are used widely, both in
Milwaukee and nationwide.
"If you're teaching in a school like that, the more miserable you are,
the better a teacher you are," said Elaine Garan, a professor at
California State University-Fresno, one of the panelists.
As for the federal law, "I can think of nothing in my 42 years in
education that I've been as angry about as this," said Doug Christensen,
commissioner of education for Nebraska. He gave the keynote address and
took part in the panel discussion.
Christensen said the law's "adequate yearly progress" system for
measuring schools was doing nothing to improve education, including for
the students most in need of help, and that the system of sanctions
created by the law was headed for "an educational meltdown."
What is needed, he said, is to truly encourage excellence in the work of
teachers and principals and to root the power to improve at the school
level rather than having decrees come from the top down.
Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at the University of
Southern California, said teachers evaluating their students is the best
way to measure how students are doing in school, and standardized
testing directed from outside a school should be minimized. He said the
National Assessment of Educational Progress, a long-standing federal
program for testing samplings of students, was sufficient for making
broader judgments of how children are doing.
When it comes to reading, Krashen said the "obsession with phonics"
should be replaced by "an obsession with libraries" and putting books in
the hands of children.
Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee and past
president of the International Reading Association, said, "The question
that underlies this whole session is, so what do you replace bad ideas
with. . . . We have to have an alternative and, so far today, I haven't
gotten a sense that the panel has an alternative."
In previous times, the answer was to turn to local school boards as a
force for doing what is right for education, he said, and maybe that
should be the answer now.
Efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, with some changes, have
stalled in Congress. Most observers expect there will be no action on it
until well after the presidential election this fall, although President
Bush is pushing for congressional decisions this spring.
Alan J. Borsuk
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES