Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has been languishing on the Congressional docket. It got buried under the recent debt crisis debates. Now that Congress has a little breathing room, they should act on reforming it now. NCLB was originally proposed by the administration of George W. Bush and with the help of Senator Ted Kennedy received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress to pass in 2001. The law had worthy goals, requiring the states to: 1) set specific academic standards by grade level, and 2) provide accountability testing to assure the standards were being met by all students. You would think any law that attracts the support of polar-opposite politicians must be a good idea. Not only that, the federal government has committed enormous amounts of money to make it work. Since enactment, Congress increased funding tied to NCLB 40.4% to $24.4 billion a year.
The Obama administration ardently supports NCLB, as expressed by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius in the July 25th issue of Time magazine. She said, "U.S. competitiveness depends on ensuring that all children can reach their full potential. Our reform agenda will help us reach that goal." Now, after 10 years of this grand - and very expensive - experiment in government intervention in education, it is clear that the goal is unrealistic for all children. In my decade of consulting with middle-school teachers, I have learned that NCLB has corrupted public education. Congress needs to stop stalling on a reform bill.
States lower achievement goals, water down curriculum, and incentivize teachers to "teach to the test." Students are sentenced to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. Reading assignments should be authentic, something kids enjoy or know is important. In my day, elementary kids first learned to read from comic books and the funny papers (which aren't very funny any more). And we wonder why so many students, good and bad, don't like to read or school in general. Learning should be fun.
Paradoxically, NCLB has not fixed a main problem it was supposed to fix, poor reading skills. Teacher Kelly Gallaher writes in his book, "Readicide," that NCLB is killing reading. He blames: 1) low expectations, 2) drill-and-kill reading exercises, 3) multiple-guess tests, 4) lack of authentic reading materials, 5) not enough time spent in reading, and 6) inexperienced teachers. Recall Secretary Sebelius' claim that NCLB is helping us reach the goal of helping "all" children. It turns out that only 14% of lower-income children read at grade level. Maybe the government should stop providing so much "help."
As recently witnessed in the Atlanta schools, some teachers and school officials help students cheat or actually change the student answer sheets. Although accountability is supposed to be the watchword, the least accountable are the underperforming students. Many of them could care less. If they fail to measure up, it is the teacher and the school that suffer the consequences. Social promotion is still the common practice.
NCLB corrupts curricula, teachers, and students.
School systems are doomed to fail when they dissipate their efforts and resources on children who are hostile to learning, can't speak English, are mentally disabled, or come from families who are not interested in the education of their children. And we have plenty of failed schools in the U.S. to prove the point. The mentality of progressives that everyone should have equal outcomes is well meaning but destructive. All a liberal society should owe its citizens is equal opportunity.
The premise that NCLB is needed for U. S. competitiveness is wrong. Just the opposite is true. For a country to dominate economically and militarily it must nurture its most industrious and talented youth, not hold them back with educational programs aimed at the lowest common denominator. NCLB has no requirements or incentives for gifted and talented students. Schools devote so much time, money, and energy to underperforming students that they neglect gifted and talented students.
NCLB diverts attention away from practices that might be much more effective. Local school board flexibility and control are restricted. Little attention is given to thinking of new ways of structuring use of time during the school day and school year. Curriculum innovations are discouraged in favor of using only accepted practices and engaging reading materials (I can't believe any first-grade teacher of today would dare using comic strips; I doubt many high school students learn American history by reading founding-father correspondence or the Federalist Papers).
NCLB provides no guidance or incentive for teaching students how to learn as opposed to what to learn. There is no incentive for students to be creative. Indeed, they are often discriminated against for thinking "outside the box" of high-stakes tests.
It is time to get the federal government out of regulating education. It certainly does not have a winning track record nor a compelling plan to get education right. Spending on education goes up every year without corresponding benefit. We do not need the federal government to dictate how schooling should be done. Every state has incentive enough to help its citizens become as educated as possible. The role for the Dept. of Education, if there is one, should be to promote educational research, give advice (not mandates) on standards, and assist the states in developing and disseminating "best practices."
Teachers implore you to write your Congressman to get government out of their classroom.