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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind?

"What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook."
-- Henry David Thoreau

President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has been surrounded in controversy since it's inception. All aspects of the program, from its funding (or lack thereof) to its use of standardized testing, has come under attack from both parents and educators. For reasons of budget and time, schools across the country have been cutting art programs, foreign language and physical education classes, field trips, and even recess due to NCLB. Making cuts in areas that are outside the "meat and potatoes" portion of everyday curriculum is obviously an unwanted, and for many, shocking side effect of the NCLB law, but looking from a broader perspective, these are more than immediate set backs for school kids, they're a perpetuation of a system whose very design is flawed.

A about a year ago, my father told me, "Getting you through school was the hardest thing I think I've ever had to do." He wasn't talking about paying for college either; he was talking about literally getting me through school. I hated going. I missed so much class that every year of high school my dad and I had to appear before the school's attendance appeals board, which was basically where we sat in front of five faculty members while my dad begged to get my class credit back.

My abhorrence of school stemmed from early experience with "honors" curriculum. I was no Doogie Howser, but I had my fair share of being labeled "gifted" at a young age. And as I grew older the ease at which school came was coupled with my growing independence and disregard for authority. I knew, short of physical violence, that nobody could make me do anything, so therefore I should do what I wanted. Consequently, since the adults at school couldn't lay a hand on me, and since school was becoming increasingly boring, I stopped trying. And once I stopped trying, I never had any drive to start again.

The reason I lacked motivation wasn't because I was some sort of boy genius -- I was far from it -- it was because I wasn't learning anything in school -- and I wasn't supposed to. I knew that school wasn't about getting an education. I could get Cs and Ds all the way through and no one would care, but if I was late for class or wrote something in the school newspaper to rile up my fellow students, then people were breathing down my neck. School in the United States is about standardization and discipline, and has been from the beginning.

School is still set up to teach kids that following directions is an end in itself, rather than merely one means of learning. Critical thinking isn't taught, only memorization and regurgitation. How likely is one to retain something they read if it was forced upon them? Only as long as is needed, usually until the next test. School teaches kids to believe everything that comes out of their teacher's mouths, and while the facts that teachers are passing on are probably all true, this method ingrains a passivity in children that is carried throughout their lives. In order to successfully get through school, one must learn to endure extreme boredom, must follow directions to a T, and mustn't question what they're told.

There are, however, many bright spots in school that act as counterweights to this rigid structure. When kids' days contain time where they are free to do things on their own terms, whether it's painting, creative writing, sculpting, playing music, exercising, or even just freely socializing with their friends, they get to nurture the curiosity and experimentation that are such vital aspects of personal growth. And things like foreign language classes and field trips give kids a chance to learn and experience things existing outside of their classroom and culture. Aside from not wanting to completely disappoint my parents, these types of activities played a big part in preventing me from quitting school all together. Unfortunately, it's these bright spots that are falling victim to No Child Left Behind.

Many programs are being cut for the sake of preserving time in order for students to focus on approaching standardized exams that measure schools' achievements for NCLB. It's becoming more common for recess and field trips to fall by the wayside when time is an issue. The Washington Post reported that at Bradley Hills Elementary in Bethesda, MD only had time for two field trips last year, as compared to their normal five or six, and quoted Donald Alvey, secondary education director for Spotsylvania County, VA as saying, "Our principals are most protective of preserving class time, especially as the testing draws near."

No field trips? That's callous. I mean, what was better than hopping on a bus with your friends and going to the state capital or natural history museum? Everyone high on excitement and diesel fumes, comparing what was inside our packed lunches, laughing, shouting, bouncing! We were ripe for learning, little sponges in Alligator shirts. I remember field trips; they were fun and engaging, unlike sitting in class having facts pounded into my head for an upcoming test.

NCLB has also constrained schools' already tight budgets because often times schools end up having to bear the financial burden of the testing required by NCLB. They also are required to pay for children being bussed in from other schools who did not meet the achievement goals that it sets out. When money is tight and schools have to choose where it's allocated, usually programs like art, physical education, after school clubs, home economics, and other life skills types of classes get cut from the budget.

What's worse is some schools aren't cutting these programs because they don't have the money; they are cutting them to spend it on consultants who advise on how to keep up state and federal performance targets. The Washington Post reports of Raymond Park Middle School in Warren Township, IN who lost two art teachers and cut home economics but hired an "education consultant from Texas, preaching a business-driven model known as total quality management, [who] has reorganized the curriculum into three-week chunks, each of which leads up to a test."

Doesn't that say it all? Our school system, which was constructed to turn out direction following, inside-the-box-thinking, employees and consumers, is now cutting its only programs that promote free thinking and expression in order to run itself more like a business. Total quality management.

These poor kids. Imagine school, kindergarten on up, without painting, music, kickball, home-ec, and assemblies -- assemblies for God's sake! Even if one was a bookworm, or hated music class, or looked funny in gym shorts, I can't imagine anyone enjoying school without these things. They broke up the day. We knew that, rest assured, if we can just make it until ten a.m. then long division will be over and we'll get to go spend 45 minutes finishing that clay effigy of Optimus Prime in art class.

Some say that focusing more on core curriculum is the only way to "improve" our schools. To anyone making this argument, I would say that you are an excellent example of how our schools fall short -- by perpetuating the norm and for a lack of creativity.

Last September the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development performed an international survey of education based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds attending both public and private schools. When the survey was completed, Finland came out on top as having the world's best schools. (The US ranked in the middle of the 31 countries tested.)

Finnish children don't start school until they are seven on the theory that through play, they will come to love learning. Once in school, the kids take 15-minute breaks every 45 minutes in order to stay focused and fresh. Students must learn two foreign languages, and art, music, physical education, woodwork and textiles are required curriculum. As long as schools teach the core national curriculum they are free to do it as they please -- inside, outside, with books, without books, however.

I'm not suggesting that the United States immediately move to adopt a Finnish type of school system, or that the Finnish system is perfect. But I believe thinking outside the box when it comes to children's education, and looking at it from a kid's point of view could prove useful, not only for students, but for our society as a whole. Our so-called solutions to improving schools, like NCLB, reflect the overall principles of the school system in general -- it's a stringent, rigid, restrictive, punish-you-into submission mentality.

No Child Left Behind should be seen as a small portion to a much larger problem, a problem that creates apathy and uniformity in people. It's eating away what's right with school, and making worse a system that, even with these programs, has bored the will and drive to scratch the surface out of many. We, as young people, can't let NCLB make things worse. Getting my son through school shouldn't be the hardest thing I'll ever have to do.

— Dan Weaver
Knot Magazine


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