No Child Left Behind:
The Federal Government’s Attack on Equality and Public Education
On January 8, 2002 President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act into law with overwhelming congressional support.1 The Act significantly transforms education from birth through adulthood. The most immediate and significant reform is the requirement that states develop standardized tests and assessment systems in order to determine whether schools are making “adequate yearly academic progress” (AYP). NCLB became law because it, like the standards, testing and accountability movement on which it builds, ostensibly aims to improve education, especially for those students who have historically been disadvantaged, including students of color and students living in poverty.
However, NCLB, while appearing to be a legislative attempt to improve educational opportunities for all students by setting up a system of objective assessments, instead represents a massive federal intervention into what and how we teach and assess. NCLB reduces educational discourse and practices to raising test scores and providing school choice, therefore eliminating discussion on how we develop schools that enable students from a wide range of cultures and abilities to succeed. NCLB overstates the problems in public education, blames the problems on incompetent educational professionals, and offers standardized testing, school choice and privatization as the remedy.
No Child Left Behind: solving social problems through standardized testing, accountability, and markets
U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige,
under “this new law, we will strive to provide every boy and girl in
If schools do not make adequately yearly progress for two consecutive years, they must be identified as “in need of improvement.” Students in those “schools must be given the option to transfer to another public school that has not been identified for improvement,” (U.S. Department of Education, September 2002, p. 6). Additional requirements are imposed for each successive year that a school fails to meet adequate yearly progress goals. These requirements include providing students with the option of obtaining “supplemental services in the community such as tutoring, after-school programs, remedial classes or summer school,” replacing the school staff, implementing a new curriculum, “decreasing management authority at the school level, appointing an outside expert to advise the school, extending the school day or year, or reorganizing the school internally.” Schools failing for five consecutive years must reopen as a charter school, replace all or most of the school staff who are relevant to the failure to make adequate progress, or turn over the operations either to the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness (U.S. Department of Education, September 2002, p. 6-8).
School districts failing for a fifth year must do one of the following: reduce costs; implement a new curriculum; replace personnel; establish alternative governance arrangements; appoint a receiver or trustee to administer the district in place of the superintendent or school board; or abolish or restructure the school district (U.S. Department of Education, September 2002, pp. 6-7).
Like other proponents of standards and testing, NCLB situates its proposal within a particular view of knowledge and research, arguing that the standards have been objectively determined and that standardized tests provide a valid and reliable means of assessing student learning. Such objective methods are required, they state, because teachers cannot be trusted to assess student learning objectively and accurately. The Parents’ Guide states that NCLB “will give them [parents and communities] objective data” through standardized testing (U.S. Department of Education, April 2002, p. 12). In fact, NCLB repeatedly ridicules teachers and teacher educators, asserting that teachers have often misled parents into believing that their child is learning when they are not and have fallen prey to “education fads,” “bad ideas,” and “untested curricula” (U.S. Department of Education, April 2002, p. 19).
Further, schools can only use federal funding to implement “lessons and materials backed by sound, scientific research [i.e. research using clinical trials]” and linked with objective, standardized tests. “No Child Left Behind ensures every child gets a solid and challenging curriculum aligned with rigorous academic standards.” (U.S. Department of Education, April 2002, p. 9). Consequently, almost all educational research is dismissed as unscientific.
NCLB promises to improve the education of all children through testing, accountability, and school choice and to provide objective information to parents regarding “which schools and districts are succeeding and why” (U.S. Department of Education, April 2002, p. 8). However, none of these promises can be fulfilled. Standardized testing is neither objective nor accurate and educational markets fail to improve education.
Substituting standardized testing and school choice for learning and local involvement in school improvement
testing is neither as objective nor useful as claimed. For example,
Second, whether a school is making AYP
tells us little
about whether a school is succeeding. For example,
Because test scores strongly correlate to a student’s family income, a school’s score is likely to reflect their students’ average family income, not teaching practices or curriculum. Consequently, the largest percentage of New York’s failing schools are found in urban and poor school districts, with 83% of the failing schools in NYC, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers (NYSSBA, March 19, 2003).
To NCLB’s testing requirements schools must demonstrate improvement for all disaggregated groups of students on all the tests, Florida added the further draconian stipulation that no school that has been assigned a grade of a D or F (per the annual rating of A through F) could meet AYP requirements, regardless of actual test scores. Not surprisingly, 90% of Florida’s public schools were designated as failing to meet AYP, and 100% of districts failed.
In New York, where urban schools with
rising scores are
likely to be “failing” to make AYP and suburban schools with falling
likely to be “succeeding” to make AYP, urban teachers working hard at
their schools and demonstrating success are likely to be discouraged if
Third, NCLB promises that students who are in failing schools will be able to move to successful schools. If we assume for a moment that designating a school as failing or succeeding accurately reflects the quality of the school (a significant logical leap), is it logistically possible for students to transfer from failing to succeeding schools? In districts where all the schools of a particular grade level are failing, the only school available would be in another district. If it is a rural school district, the distance to a “successful” school might be prohibitive.
Even when students can transfer to a
students have been reluctant to do so. Few parents and students seem to
that a higher school aggregate test score ensures a better learning
Most students and their families prefer to stay where they are. James Kadamus,
Lastly, the pressure on schools to
raise test scores
has led to districts pushing out high school students who might lower
school’s aggregate test scores or increase the drop out rate.
nationwide,” write Lewin and
Students are being pushed out of
schools to raise test
scores and, then, rather than being counted as dropouts, they are
having transferred to an alternative school or working on a Graduate
Equivalency Diploma (Lewin & Medina,
2003, p. 1). Recent reports on the
NCLB undermines parental, student, and faculty involvement in deciding what and how students should learn. Rather than having educators examine how schools can respond to the students and families in the community, attention shifts to how best to raise test scores so that federally mandated reforms do not need to be implemented. NCLB shifts the control of education from the local community to the federal government and, in the process, undermines teacher professionalism and student learning.
1 NCLB passed in the House 381-41 and in the Senate 87-10.