I read an illuminating and provocative essay recently about how, and why, the No Child Left Behind Act has failed—and I thought it worth sharing in this space. It happens to have been written by my older son, Nate Dolin, as a paper for his Junior year history class. He became interested in this issue having volunteered in several public elementary school classrooms, having worked with special needs/autism spectrum children and tutoring kids who struggle in their public middle school… and having been faced with numerous inequities, subsequently found himself wondering why things are as they are.
So, if we want our kids to be encouraged to consider growing up to help, perhaps even to step up and educate, the next generation of kids… our future grand children, we are well-served to deepen our understanding of why things may be as they are.
The No Child Left Behind act seeks to leave no child behind in terms of academics, but the intentions of the act will never be met. Even though President Bush claimed that the act was having a “dramatic effect” in 2008, the average white student scored 28 points higher on the reading section than the average African American student, and 26 points higher on the math section.[i] Since the White students are obviously not inherently smarter than the African American student, what is causing the immense score gap? Is every child in America really treated equally? If society believes all children should have an equal opportunity for education, why are the most disadvantaged children being left behind, why is excessive testing proving to be more harmful than beneficial, why can’t the “supposed” intentions of the act be met, and why do some argue that the act was intended to benefit the economy rather than the children?
As unfortunate as it is, money has a giant impact on education, and for this reason the rich are able to dominate the public school system and are able to skew the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act so that it benefits the economy and large businesses more than it does the children attending public schools.[ii] Despite whatever the NCLB act claims about education and academic excellence, it is argued that the NCLB’s public statements about improving education were primarily made to mask the economics intentions of the NCLB act.[iii] After multiple years of being deemed a “school needing improvement,” a school is forced to bring in free after school tutoring for the kids.[iv] Since the standardized tests usually become more difficult every year, some people are very skeptical about the act, including Arne Duncan, who estimated, “four out of every five of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are likely to receive failing grades under the NCLB act in 2011.”[v] Because of this huge companies such as Sylvan are able to make tons and tons of money.[vi] Shortly after the act was passed Sylvan claimed that its profits had doubled from the previous year.[vii] This is incredible considering that Sylvan is a nation-wide company that was already successful prior to the NCLB act being passed. Also, if public schools fail to pass annual exams for enough years in a row, the schools essentially get into a lot of trouble, and have to fire all the teachers and faculty and completely start over again, or merely turn into a private school.[viii] Most private schools make profits, and this again is beneficial to the economy. Unfortunately, when such an emphasis is put on the well being of the economy, the well being of hard-working teachers is often forgotten. With all the emphasis on passing tests, public school teachers across America are forced to “worry more about raising tests scores than promoting meaningful learning.”[ix] Teachers, therefore, must use valuable class time teaching their classes how to fill in bubbles rather than how to think critically and analytically. A study showed that many kids, who had mastered the art of choosing the correct bubble, were “unable to express themselves, particularly when asked a question that required them to think about and explain what they had read on the test.”[x] This narrow-minded way of educating is not only wasting public school teacher’s abilities to teach kids ways of critically thinking and analyzing that could be useful later in life, but it’s useless and disrespectful to teachers who want to teach more than the highly praised skill of filling in bubbles.[xi]
After many years of the NCLB act, many states learned about and seemingly unfairly took advantage of the immense leeway and personal standards that they were allowed to hold their schools to. The NCLB act does not adequately fund schools to a level needed for optimal success, and schools know that if they are “in need of improvement” the NCLB will, ironically, not help them, and will merely force the school to use its funds to bring in tutoring programs that aren’t affiliated with the school.[xii] It is clear that no school wants to have their funds deducted, but in order to make sure this doesn’t happen, many states have decided to lower the difficulty of their exams so that they can claim to be “improving” and “showing success,” and maintain their funding which wasn’t even enough to start out with.[xiii] For the officials in charge, lowering the difficulty of the tests so that the students succeed “is reminiscent of shooting an arrow into a wall and then drawing the target around it.”[xiv] By lowering the bar our schools are able to superficially succeed.
The NCLB’s goals can never be met because they are ridiculous in that the intentions of the act are border-line impossible to achieve. By just 2014, the act claims that every student in America will be “academically proficient,” hence the name No Child Left Behind.[xv] When the act says “every” child it is being dead serious, and therefore claims that special needs children, children who don’t speak English, and children growing up in rough neighborhoods where education is not valued are all going to be academically proficient by 2014.[xvi]
The NCLB act aims to diversify America’s many cultures, but it has done the opposite. With all the new private schools being built, the wealthy class is becoming more and more tempted to turn to private education.[xvii] Even if a family’s individual child is doing fine on the standardized tests, the child’s family may still be wary of the school their child attends, if it is considered a “failing school.” The family and their child may either choose to turn to private education, or move to a neighborhood in which the public school is better, and this neighborhood will probably be a wealthier neighborhood than their current one. When a school is “failing” or “in need of improvement” the teachers are immediately and unjustly blamed for their student’s low marks on their standardized exams.[xviii] Some public school teachers are frequently given students who don’t even speak English, or possibly some students that have disabilities, and are inherently a couple years behind their classmates. The NCLB act shows no mercy to these children, and forces them to take the standardized tests, and if they refuse the NCLB counts their scores as zeros.[xix]
The importance of having driven and achieving peers is often overlooked, and sometimes even forgotten. Having smart, bright, interested and driven classmates seems nearly imperative to achieving excellence at an elementary school level.[xx] This is because students are inclined to act as their friends act, and therefore a student surrounded by other students who care about their work is much more likely to succeed at school than a kid who lives in the ghetto and is made fun of for even attempting to do homework.[xxi] After a school is deemed “in need of improvement” for multiple years, the school is supposed to offer every attending child the option to switch to a more successful school, and if the child accepts the school must also provide adequate transportation to and from school for the child.[xxii] It would seem as if many children would capitalize on this opportunity, but in California ninety-nine percent of students offered the chance to attend a better school declined the offer. This high rate of children declining the opportunity seems very odd, and could be because of multiple reasons. The first reason is that a “school in need of improvement” doesn’t want to spend money on transporting a child who doesn’t even attend their school to a different location, but rather use the little money and resources that they have on improving their own school. A second speculated reason is that people just don’t care enough about education to want their child to switch schools.[xxiii] A final is that some cultures look down upon education, and many students find themselves “swimming in a tide of popular culture” where “even middle-class students are influenced by a culture that says it’s simply not cool to be smart.”[xxiv]
In conclusion, the NCLB provides minimal support to schools in relation to the destruction that it is causes across America, regardless of if the act actually has good intentions that just don’t work, or if the act was passed so that specific businesses could flourish, the act is not succeeding. Many issues with the act include: leaving special-needs kids, and kids who don’t speak English behind, failure to repair the racial score gap on tests, and the fact that the act gives schools way too much leeway to create their own “proficiency” standards.
1. Sam Dillon, ‘No Child” Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html
2 Deborah Meier and others, Many Children Left Behind: How The No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press,2004), 97.
[iv] Diane Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010),
[v] “No Child Left Behind Act,” New York Times, March 10, 2010, http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/no_child_left_behind_act/index.html.
[vi] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 87.
[vii] Ibid., 87.
[viii] Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 97.
[ix] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 79.
[x] Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 108.
[xi] Ibid., 97.
[xii] Scott Franklin Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools: Why NCLB will fail to close the achievement gap-and what we can do about it (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2010), 109.
[xiii] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 82.
[xv] Nanette Asimony, “State falling way behind No Child Left Behind,” Sf Gate, September 5, 2008, http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-05/news/17158335_1_test-scores-student-testing-adequate-yearly-progress.
[xvii] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 80.
[xviii] Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 108.
[xix] Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools, 7.
[xx] Ibid., 30.
[xxii] Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools, 7.
[xxiii] Sam Dillon, ‘No Child” Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html.
Abernathy, Scott Franklin. No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools: why NCLB will fail to close the achievement gap- and what we can do about it. Michigan: the University of Michigan, 2007.
Asismov, Nanette. “State falling way behind No Child Left Behind.” Sf Gate, September 5, 2008. http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-05/news/17158335_1_test-scores-student-testing-adequate-yearly-progress
Dillon, Sam. “’No Child’ Law Is Not Closing A Racial Gap.” New York Times, April 28, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html
Meier, Deborah. Many Children Left Behind. Massachussets: Beacon Press, 2004.
“No Child Left Behind Act.” New York Times, March 10, 2010. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/no_child_left_behind_act/index.html
Ravitch, Diane. The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing And Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Many thanks to Nate for allowing me to share this with you. Here’s to making the choice ourselves to leave none of us behind.
Namaste, BD & NateD