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THE NO Child Left Behind Act is the Bush administration’s deeply flawed legislation that claims to be the solution to the many problems of public education. Signed into law in January 2002, it won bipartisan support–most notably, from liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
NCLB promised to close the achievement gap between middle-class suburban students and those at under-funded inner-city or rural schools. Bush and others spoke of accountability and equity, but the critics of NCLB saw through the rhetoric for what the law really is–an attempt to privatize education and transfer the responsibility and cost of educating our children from the federal government to individual and often impoverished school districts.
NCLB is built around the use of standardized tests–with the promise that gaps in testing will be gone by 2014. Progress toward this goal is to be measured by Average Yearly Progress (AYP) scores, with sanctions imposed on schools that don’t make the annual goals.
The law promises parents that their children will be taught by “highly qualified” teachers and allows them to request a transfer to a different school. The law opens the door to vouchers and charter schools, threatens to privatize services currently provided by unionized public school employees and welcomes faith-based groups into school programs. But the real centerpiece of NCLB is standardized testing.
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THE NATIONAL Education Association (NEA)–the country’s largest teachers union–has filed a lawsuit against NCLB, charging that due to under-funding, the law forces states and school districts to comply with impossible demands. School districts are required to implement curriculum, structure and restructure programs, and hire or lay off employees.
Since 2002, shortfalls in federal funding for NCLB are estimated at $27 billion. Ultimately, state governments have made up the difference, putting a further strain on their budgets. This burden has caused a quiet rebellion against the law. The state governments of Michigan, Texas and Vermont are protesting the law and participating in the lawsuit.
However, teachers have a joke about this question: “Republicans won’t fund No Child Left Behind, and Democrats say they will. We don’t know which is worse.” The point underlying the joke is that there’s no reason to believe that NCLB, even fully funded, would really improve the educational system.
For one thing, NCLB’s overemphasis on testing forces teachers to “teach to the test”–by focusing mainly on areas covered in the standardized tests. Currently, math and reading are the most-tested areas–so social studies and science, and even more so, art and music, are shoved to the side.
Most education experts believe that an educational program has to be balanced. Cutting the arts or history to make way for test prep will likely improve a student’s test scores–as will eliminating libraries so that a school can buy required test prep materials or replacing a literature class with a one-size-fits-all scripted reading curriculum. But this does little for students beyond helping them “bubble in” answer sheets.
What does testing really tell us? Crudely, it shows little more than how well a student takes a test and how well a teacher prepared their class for the test.
In fact, testing is big business. Testing companies–especially the ones that also publish textbooks–make huge profits from the tests and supplementary materials that schools are often forced to purchase. According to the article “Testing Companies Mine for Gold” from Rethinking Schools, the two largest testing companies, Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, are billion-dollar giants.
In the same article points out another profitable element of the testing industry: scoring. The General Accounting Office report on NCLB estimates that it costs approximately $7 to score a test with open-ended questions, compared to $1 each for scoring tests with all multiple-choice questions. It is no surprise, then, that under-funded school districts opt for the cheaper, but less meaningful, multiple-choice tests.
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WHAT HAPPENS when a school “fails”? If a school falls short of its AYP goals two years in a row, it becomes a “Program Improvement” (PI) school. PI schools become subject to a complicated, high-pressure timeline in which they are set up to fail. By law, if PI schools don’t make satisfactory progress–as measured by NCLB–at the end of four years, they face major restructuring.
PI schools are supposed to be entitled to extra resources to help them catch up. Do they get those resources? Not likely–hastening the school’s restructuring.
In Oakland, Calif., by December 2004, the district was gripped by the fear of restructuring under NCLB. In the midst of heated and controversial contract negotiations with the teachers union, the state-appointed district administrator–pointing directly to language in NCLB–announced that 13 “Year Four” schools would be converted into charter schools.
Becoming a charter school is one of the NCLB options for a “Year Four” school–along with reconstitution, when the entire staff of a school is transferred, and a new staff is brought in. In many cases, charter schools are non-union, and sometimes even run by for-profit companies.
The most famous charter school corporation is Edison Schools, which was affiliated to Gap Corp. Edison was touted as the solution to the problems in public education when it took over several elementary schools in San Francisco in the late 1990s. But within a couple years, the schools were faring no better, and many suffered from massive teacher turnover.
In Oakland, the state administrator tried to play a clever shell game. Most of the 13 schools on the list to become charters were to be governed by a new company launched and staffed by…the Oakland Unified School District itself!
The school district described these schools as “internal charters”–something that the California Teachers Association says is illegal and needs to be negotiated through the regular bargaining process. This is precisely what school administrators are trying to avoid.
Activists partly backed the district off its drive to charterize. Currently, five of the original 13 schools will not become charters. Teachers were able to prove that they could meet the requirements to restructure by extending the school day (optional, with pay) and reducing class sizes. This was a small but significant victory.
Nationally, the NEA’s lawsuit is drawing attention to the flaws in NCLB. It is highlighting what school districts have had to cut–arts, music, extended-year programs–in order to comply with the law. Fighting against these harsher elements of the law calls NCLB into question as a whole.
Some educators are working to reform the law. But tying funding to scores, punishing teachers and students in the most difficult districts and privatizing public education are not things that can be reformed–nor is the Bush administration likely to let go of these provisions easily.
Pushing for reforms may put a dent in No Child Left Behind, but ultimately, the law has to be scrapped.
Full funding of quality education should be a top priority. Money should flow into the schools until every child has what they need, until every teacher has all the resources and space they need, and until every school is renovated or rebuilt into a safe, asbestos-free learning environment.
Why doesn’t this happen? The politicians say, “You can’t just throw money at the problem.” Instead, they blame the teachers, scapegoat students and parents, and test, test, test. In fact, the U.S. government has always been willing to throw money at the Pentagon, and corporations and the wealthy in the form of tax breaks. But when it comes to education, health care and other services that impact our human and civil rights, they say no. We shouldn’t stand for it.
How the law aids military recruiters
ONE LITTLE- known provision of NCLB requires high schools to turn over names, phone numbers and addresses of all students to the military, or risk losing NCLB funding. Parents have the right to opt out, and many school districts have organized to educate students and families of their rights.
In Montclair, N.J., schools tell parents about the requirement as soon as their child enters 9th grade and follow up with letters home and reminders. The school district reports that at last count, 92 percent of families had requested that their child’s information not be sent to the military. At many high schools in the Bay Area, teachers have organized similar opt-out campaigns.
With the military regularly falling short of its recruitment goals, this NCLB provision is becoming even more important to the Bush administration. The movement to kick recruiters off campuses is a natural ally to the teachers’ unions and parent organizations opposing No Child Left Behind.
JESSIE MULDOON is a teacher in Oakland and member of the Oakland Education Association.