Some doubts about No Child Left Behind

August 07, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

On July 24, President Obama presented to the nation a plan for education costing more than $4 billion. While No Child Left Behind was not mentioned, the increase in funds blunts some of the charges that the law is an "underfunded mandate." The president also made a pitch for more charter schools. NCLB and charter schools need a full study and report before more is committed for their support.

There should be little friction created if caring citizens, in the name of transparency, request an independent study of NCLB. This law reaches into classrooms and the lives of so many young people that we should be sure it performs the functions we really want. What is the status of teacher morale and is "teaching to the test" controlling the input of subject matter more than is desirable? Further, what should be done if students with very good scores also present complaints about NCLB?


Could it be that NCLB is something like having a bear in the room? It is too big to scare, too big to shoot and miss, and would wreck the room if you try to get it out of the house? NCLB was created in the name of accountability. It is, then, important to state that any criticism of NCLB should not be construed as objections to accountability, but only to how it can best be done. In addition, no particular educator should feel threatened; they are doing the best that they can to carry out the demands of a law they inherited.

The most repeated complaint directed at NCLB is that it has altered the way teachers approach their daily routine. Before NCLB was operative, teachers made their own tests leased upon what they taught. The content of each course of study had been determined by committees of teachers of each subject. Latitude was given for the inclusion of special topics of interest by teachers and students.

With the advent of NCLB, primary focus shifted to meeting the demands of still another test -- this one imposing threats for shortcomings. In previously given teacher-made tests, students had optional remedial opportunities to redeem a failed test. This important, redemptive process is not open in a one-chance NCLB exam. This forces teachers to madly cram and "teach to the test." This also results in test makers being the real determiners of what content is taught.

The individual test scores are then used to rate the success of the teacher, the school, the county and the state. All teachers are put in the position of improving test scores of one test regardless of the socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, familial, geographic, physical or intellectual variations that exist in any particular classroom. Again, this is why they are driven to "teach to the test".

A side effect of this one-test policy is that a "piling on" takes place. In other words, there is cumulative result of falling behind early in a student's career which makes them lag further and further behind. A student is then overwhelmed by a sense of drift. This might happen in the course of a school year under usual conditions, but surely must be more prevalent under NCLB.

This was the situation three of four brothers faced before entry into the Navy during World War II. Raised in an economically challenged family, there was a relentless need to work. Fatigue and distractions brought about a serious lack of interest in classroom activity. Our failure was not the fault of any teacher. There was not a teacher on the planet that could have turned the situation around. Only time, maturation and a change of setting could alter that dismal state of affairs. Because of this early experience, I have great empathy for what teachers are expected to do. But, it is a certainty that we would have failed even more quickly if NCLB had been in operation.

One more point of concern relative to NCLB and its one-test, score-based measurement of achievement is that it is at odds with what is known about the bell curve. Characteristics such as intelligence are distributed along the lines of that curve. If the assumptions relative to that curve are correct, those on the lower end of that distribution will struggle and may never reach the score required for success. They may eventually drop out of school.

The slogan, "No Child Left Behind" reflects more of a political statement than a realistic educational program. One ideally wishes that no person will fall short of their hopes or those of their family. But native endowments are not equally distributed. In the end, my fear is that the expansion of the reliance on tests as the primary source of measuring success is mistaken.


Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.



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