Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What I Think About: NCLB

Imagine you play on a baseball team and the baseball gurus come out and make this statement--all teams must win.  Even though it's a competition, everyone must win.  Impossible?  Who cares--it feels good to have everyone win so figure it out.  But if you don't win, they'll take away your mitts, and your bats, and your baseballs and finally your coaches.  And if you still don't win they'll tear down your team but don't worry, you can go to another winning team--if they'll take you.  Sound nuts?

Welcome to No Child Left Behind.

Upon first hearing, No Child Left Behind sounds brilliant.  After all, who could possibly think any child should be left behind?  Behind the clever rhetoric, however, lies some glaring problems. 

NCLB has a cynical view of teachers. The law naturally assumes that most teachers aren’t qualified to teach, which likely stems from the assumption that teacher preparation programs are all fluff, and to solve that problem demands that all teachers be “highly qualified.”  While it is true that a great number of students are being educated from uncertified teachers, it is also true that there is a lack of government support to get highly qualified teachers into the places that need qualified teachers the most (read: inner city and poor-rural).  Without increased pay and strong mentoring programs many teachers leave the field.  Many more have chosen to give up their profession because of NCLB’s reliance on high-stakes testing to determine teacher and student success.  Such reliance reduces teacher creativity and the joy of teaching is certainly stripped when teaching is done from a script.

In addition to alienating teachers, NCLB is harmful to students.  Of course the students who suffer the most come from schools that are already under-funded and lack resources. These schools are the first to be labeled as in need of improvement and thus, the already limited curriculum and resources are further depleted as a penalty for not being successful.   Schools that are in academic failure, again deemed so merely by a series of norm-referenced test scores that do not translate to post-school success (and who's the "norm" anyhow?!?), tend to forgo the “frills” in curriculum in order to teach the test “drill and kill” style.  As a result, schools have limited or stopped teaching social studies, foreign language, art, P.E. and other “specials” classes and have also taken away recess and field trips.  Teaching the test, as opposed to “real” learning, has caused a decline in critical thinking skills, general knowledge, and not surprisingly, the love of learning.  Students report high stress when testing which is further exacerbated when labeled members of a “failing” school community.

NCLB harms local school districts.  NCLB increases bureaucracy and makes the process of receiving funding a matter of expensive tedious and burdensome reporting.  In addition, local schools in academic failure long enough are at risk of being completely taken over and run by either state authorities or privately run for profit education companies. To ensure that doesn’t happen, many districts sharply lower standards and limit curriculum.  

So you're asking--some district lower expectations and teach less in order to prove they are successful?  Sad but true.  

In one act, the federal government determined what subjects were relevant, focusing on reading, writing, math and a bit of science while social studies and liberal arts courses were relegated as “frills.”  In addition, the government forced the use of “scientifically based” curriculum even though many of NCLB’s tenants are not developmentally or pedagogically sound (side-note: much of the "scientifically based-research" is funded by the developers of the curriculum NCLB peddles.  Is that fishy to anyone else?).  

With such sharp criticism leveled at NCLB, one is left wondering if anyone benefits from such federal control. The answer to such a question is yes.  Students who have always mattered in the education system—upper class white students (yes, I just said that)—tend to fare well under NCLB.  Wealthy schools have no problems hiring highly qualified teachers and resources are not an issue; therefore, students—and teachers—who have access to these schools benefit from NCLB as more funds are added to their schools along with plaques and praises about being a successful learning community.

In contrast, low-income and minority students do not benefit from NCLB for several reasons.  First, schools labeled as “failing” have a hard time finding teachers, especially those defined as highly qualified.  "Highly qualified" teachers rarely work for poverty-level pay in dangerous or remote locations.  Without such teachers, students cannot be expected to achieve and thus begins a vicious circle of making students fail and then punishing them for it.  Secondly, schools that are labeled as failing are stripped of funding.  Some funding goes to supplemental resources or for transporting students to more successful schools.  The irony is the school that could not afford to have good teachers and resources prior to a fund reduction is now forced to try and boost test scores with even fewer resources.  And regardless of NCLB’s claim that no students are to be stuck in a failing school, many are due to the fact that there are not enough seats in successful schools or such schools are not interested in admitting low-income students who may need additional services to help with language barriers or disabilities and who might very well bring down their test scores (and really, don't even get me started on how damaging this act is to English Language Learners or students with different abilities!). 

Thirdly, the “diversity penalty” suggests the greater the diversity in school, including socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, language, and disabilities, the greater the chance that the school will eventually be labeled a failing school.  Therefore, it is obvious that inner-city schools with great diversity but little funding will obviously “fail” while suburban, well-funded schools with little to no diversity will meet NCLB standards with ease.  Finally, many students in failing schools are simply “counseled” to quit school or are held back with the knowledge that retained students have a higher drop-out rate (Thank you Texas Miracle!).  Many schools simply allow the educational sacrifice of a few students (who bring down test scores) in order to continue receiving funding for other students. 

NCLB’s goal is to provide a good education to all students.  Unfortunately, the act seems to compile the complications of inequality rather than ease them.  I can’t help but defer thought to George Orwell’s Animal Farm where the farm animals notice that the farm had gotten richer without many of the animals being richer—only the dogs and pigs seem to have prospered.  And their community commandments were changed to read, "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."  In light of NCLB, such a satire seems prophetic.


  1. Very enlightening! I couldn't agree with you more. I know first hand how schools react to students that are doing poorly in school and are in need of extra help. I've had two close friends that had learning disabilities and in high school were 'counseled' to quit school. These were very intelligent people, might I add, and were being pushed aside so not to make the school 'look' bad. These were individuals who deserved an education and deserved to graduate, but didn't. The purpose of programs like this sound great, but don't really follow through with what they are promising.

  2. Yes and Amen!! Girl you said it so well!

    My kids are so blessed to go to a great school. Awesome teachers, mostly great classmates. But, our school could pretty much be described as your suburban school system.

    I have many friends that teach in other areas and it is APPAULING what they have to go through to keep their jobs, to keep their current pay, and how THEY know they're not teaching how they should be in order to help these kids pass these tests. It is insane...

  3. Amy and Mandy--thanks for your support. It was nice to NOT get hate mail on this (yet).

    Amy--my high school guidance counselor never told me to quit high school but he did tell me that I was "not college material." Three months later I had a 5 year full ride scholarship (which he had the nerve to announce at honor's night like he arranged the whole thing). 13ish years later I'm getting my Ed. D. Ah, the sweet smell of revenge, I mean success :) Ha ha!


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