NCLB: Still Crazy After All These Years

Recently my congenitally curious immigrant father asked me why a majority of public schools in the United States would soon be classified as “failing” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Legislation. “How is that possible?” he sputtered, barely getting the words out.  That’s when I explained to him that we’re approaching the 2014 deadline when every student in every public school is supposed to be performing at grade level. He looked at me like I had suddenly learned to speak fluent Hungarian. “What?! Every single student performing at grade level? That’s never going to happen,” he said without hesitation.

The aims of NCLB were undoubtedly noble, ambitious and fair-minded. They were also entirely unrealistic. My dad (like most of the general public, I suspect) did not fully comprehend that the law required every student to achieve proficiency in math and reading (as determined by standardized tests). When the law was passed, anyone with a modicum of experience in education knew that the stated goals were simply not achievable. There are just too many factors at play: poverty, lack of support at home, homelessness and transience, or severe emotional, behavior or development disabilities.  So why would policy makers pass a law whose goals were impossible to meet? The reasons are numerous. Some truly believed that schools were capable of offsetting the dire consequences of entrenched poverty. Others thought enough carrots and sticks would enable teachers and administrators to perform miracles.  Some knew the goals were not achievable but did not want to be seen as “lowering expectations” for some students.

So where are we 10 years into our experience with this sweeping, far-reaching education law? A recent report from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing concluded that U.S. students made greater gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress before NCLB was enacted. And despite some modest gains in some academic areas early on, achievement nationally is basically flat, and students in targeted socio-economic groups are not making significant improvement. Students are now drilled in literacy and math, but are correspondingly exposed to less science, social studies and the arts. We are no longer broadly educating our children but are instead working hard to insure that our children are proficient at the limited skillset measured by standardized tests. The report also warned that instead of arenas for complex and deep curriculum, schools have become “data-driven” environments.

A teacher friend of mine recently spoke first-hand about the “data-driven” environment. This teacher is one of the best teachers I know: experienced, hard-working, dedicated, creative and innovative. She truly gets to know all her students and what makes them tick. I would want my own children in her classroom. So it saddened and angered me to hear that she doubts her teaching skills and her amazing intuition about kids. She is demoralized about the whole “data mania” sweeping public schools because of NCLB.  The number crunchers and data analysts don’t know her students, and they certainly don’t understand all the factors (outside her control) that are impeding her particular students’ academic performance. I was reminded of something Kari Louhivuori, a Finnish principal, said to a reporter last fall in an article about the high-performing schools in Finland: “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts. It’s nonsense. We know more about the children than tests can tell us.” My friend’s experience, intuition, knowledge and authenticity with children is not measurable in a tidy, ordered way, so she has been told that she needs to try harder to get her students’ scores up. Imploring exhausted teachers to try harder will not going to fix this intractable problem.

Okay, I’ve done it. I’ve mentioned the F word. Yes, Finland. I know, I know. The United States is not Finland. I only mention Finland’s incredible success because they don’t ignore poverty. The government provides wrap-around services for families through its schools and does just about everything imaginable to erase the effects of socio-economic disparity. They also don’t weed out poor teachers through testing scores; they recruit and hire the best and brightest from the top 10% of college graduates and require them to earn advanced degrees.

I’m no apologist for poor teachers. I certainly don’t want my own children stuck in a classroom with an uninspired teacher who isn’t working hard to motive children. But using a federal law to judge teachers on the basis of students’ standardized tests is akin to using a Kalashnikov to shoot a squirrel. Go to any public school and the parents, administrators, students and the other teachers know what dynamic teaching looks and sounds like. It is not a school day that is chopped up by constant pull-outs related to NCLB testing and “accountability.” It is not a schedule made up of discrete literacy and math activities—without social studies or science. Do we want our children to be truly literate? I mean educated and cultured? You can’t get that from “literacy blocks” devoid of complex content and deep exploration. A teacher recently told me that if one voices concern about the narrowing of the curriculum, an administrator or data analyst will answer with, “You can’t learn anything unless you can read.”  But as Linda Perlstein so succinctly put in her book Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, “Well, you can’t be a scientist if you never learn science either.”

Until we address the critical underlying issues connected to poverty, we will never meet the goals of NCLB.  No matter how talented and dedicated the teaching staff, schools alone cannot ameliorate the effects of poverty. That is the uncomfortable and difficult truth.