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NCLB Outrages

NCLB and the Plight of Imagination

No matter what level you teach, these students are heading your way. They will have learned that school is a joyless place where mindless repetition and strict compliance with instruction are the most valued behaviors.

Much has been written lately about the impact NCLB is having on K-12 education. It’s hard to pick up a paper or listen to a new broadcast without reading or hearing at least on story about the latest state legislature to protest the lack of funding behind that law, or one school district, or group of parents, or educators lamenting the death of creativity and flexibility in our classrooms. These are all serious issues, but I believe there is something far more insidious going on. Here is the lead from an article in The New York Times a few months back: “The new federal emphasis on accountability in education reached Nate Kidder recently in the form of his first standardized achievement test. Nate is four years old.”

Craig Ramey a professor at Georgetown University who advised federal officials about the test Nate was taking had this to say in its defense: “If you were the head of any industry I know—automobiles, pharmaceuticals, take any product you would use—you would have a quality assurance system in place to determine how your product is faring in terms of quality.”

“…[T]ake any product…” That should tell you anything you needed to know about the philosophy behind the federal testing mania. I looked up Dr. Ramey’s credentials. This is what his former university had to say: “During the past 30 years, he has led research and development teams involving over 500 professionals and 14,000 children and families in over 40 states.” Given the large number of children he has worked with, I wonder how he missed the fact that they were human beings, not widgets.

Here is another quote from a paper in Ohio: “The preschool girl almost broke Mary Bishop’s heart when she tried to answer a question on a new standardized test for 4 and 5 year olds in Summit County’s Head Start program. Bishop asked the girl to identify the letter D. ‘Diane starts with this letter. Is this a D?’ the girl asked. Bishop wanted to hug the girl. But Bishop could not reward the girl for giving the correct answer. For those 15 minutes she wasn’t a teacher, she was a data collector for the federal government.”

Ever read Brave New World? Remember the part where the babies were brought into a room full of flowers, and then given electric shocks to dissuade them from the aesthetic because it would get in the way of their productivity as workers? The corporate desire to create compliant and productive employees is clearly at work in the direction the Bush administration would like to take Head Start.

Here’s what Dr. Edward Zigler, the founder of Head Start has to say about the test: “The poor quality of questions in this test range from being culturally insensitive to failing to take into account the very diverse life experiences and backgrounds of Head Start children and families.” Head Start is the number one “customer rated” government program. In other words, Head Start had a higher user satisfaction score than any other government agency and quite a few private companies such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Research collected over the 38 years of the program by federal and third party researchers indicates that Head Start children are “ready to learn,” less likely to fall behind, and stay in school more so than non-Head Start children from similar backgrounds. Many of the most forceful supporters of Head Start are former Head Start kids.

This is institutionalized academic child abuse. The Head Start program has organized an advocacy site http://www.nhsa.org/advocacy/index.htm
to get the word out to the public and to legislators about the danger. No matter what level you teach, these students are heading your way. They will have learned that school is a joyless place where mindless repetition and strict compliance with instruction are the most valued behaviors.

It is crucial that we take back our schools from the Drill, Test, Punish crowd while we still can. The fruits of their attack on the public school are already beginning to be seen. Read this quote from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Here are some of the things kids at Garfield/Franklin elementary in Muscatine Iowa no longer do: eagle watch on the Mississippi river, go on field trips to the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History and have two daily recesses.”

Why? Because Franklin was on the list of schools not meeting NCLB goals two years ago. As a result, the school turned its focus to meeting the benchmarks in reading and math. And they did meet those goals. As the article reports: “The percentage of fourth graders who passed the reading test rose from 58% to 74%; in math, the proficiency went from 58% to 86%. Last year Franklin was removed from ‘the bad list’ as one child called it. Through rote drills, one-on-one test talks and rigorous analysis of students’ weaknesses, Franklin has become a reluctant model for the rest of the nation.”

To avoid the federal hammer, Franklin made a pact with the devil. And the devil came through. But what was the devil’s price? The article again: Teachers “bemoan a loss of spontaneity, breadth and play—problems money won’t fix…They’re not learning civics, history, geography—a lot of essential skills that they’re going to need to become good democratic citizens.”

And there is the point. Education in a democracy is not just about contributing to the corporate bottom line, it’s about making a life. It’s about contributing to the community, and the larger society. It’s about learning that responsibilities go beyond self and extend to those less fortunate. It’s even about watching eagles on the Mississippi River. Nothing in NCLB speaks to citizenship, the founding principle of schools in a democratic society. Nothing in NCLB speaks to the development the student outside of their ability to read and follow directions.

This manufacturing philosophy that dehumanizes children and deskills teachers stands behind government “accountability” programs. Ask yourself as a trained and experienced professional teacher, does this make sense to you: “Mia Davis zipped through the picture quiz, counting all 20 boxes on the page without a slip. But words like ‘horrified’ and ‘swamp’ threw her off when she was asked to find the illustration that best matched the word. And she didn’t know how to answer a question based on a bar graph of pets preferred by children—dogs, cats or rabbits. Mia is only 4.”

— Fred Barton, editor SLATE newsletter
SLATE, National Council of Teachers of English


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