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If I Wrote the Law...


Educators explain what should be kept and what should change in ‘No Child Left Behind.’

By Alain Jehlen

On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a 1,100-page, bipartisan overhaul of the largest federal education aid program. Originally launched in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it has been revised and renamed periodically ever since.

ESEA’s purpose was to provide extra money for schools educating low-income students. The Bush version, however, ordered schools to meet extremely difficult requirements for student test scores or face escalating punishment.

“We expect every child to learn,” said President Bush at the signing ceremony, “and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.”

At first, opposition to NCLB was muted. The law had a wonderful goal and a great name—no one wants to leave children behind.

The arithmetic formulas written into the law, which practically required states to rate enormous numbers of schools “failing,” got little attention at first.

Today, the law is nearly eight years old. It has produced much pain and little gain. According to NCLB’s formulas, roughly a third of the nation’s schools are failing.

There is a plus side: Many educators report that students who in past years were written off, now get more attention because the law makes schools responsible for their scores.

“NCLB has forced special education teachers to ask, ‘Is what I am doing leading to results?’ It forces administrators to say, ‘Look guys, this isn’t working. Something needs to be fixed.’”

—Peg Vanderhoff, high school special education teacher, Algona, Iowa

But by holding all students to the same standard, the law has pilloried children who face extra challenges, along with the educators who try to help them.

“The one thing I would keep in NCLB is the spirit of wanting every child in this nation to receive a high quality education. No excuses.

“One of the many things I would change is the wrong-headed, child-wounding policy of requiring special needs students to test at their chronological grade level rather than at their functional level, reinforcing their feelings of embarrassment and hopelessness.

“We can find ways to measure and correct what the schools are doing without punishing the children.”

—Renee Moore, 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year, high school and community college English teacher, Moorhead, Mississippi

The law’s single-minded focus on standardized reading and math test scores has educators—and many parents—fuming. When NEA Today set up an online discussion board to ask for members’ ideas about the law, the responses were full of phrases like “One-size-fits-all doesn’t work” and “We don’t live in a cookie cutter society.”

”Testing, testing, testing—what is the point? Do we use the data to remediate those who do not measure up? No!

”Today, administrators applaud those teachers who teach to the test—a few years ago we fired those same people.”

—Shelley Dunham, high school special education teacher, Maize, Kansas

”It gets in my way! I am trying to teach American Literature to sophomores. But my principal says that I must spend 40–60 minutes per week (and document such time) on preparation for the state test in reading.”

—Carol Sanders, high school English teacher, Belgrade, Minnesota

”NCLB pits all teachers of elective subjects against one another for that dwindling number of kids who have time to take electives. When kids don’t make standards on the state assessments, they are put into remedial programs, taking them out of the running for electives. This is a tragedy, since often, these are the subjects students are most passionate about.”

—Yvonne Linnabary, high school art department chair, Everett, Washington

Despite NCLB’s focus on reading and math testing, there has been little change in reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Pro-gress, the best national measure of academic skills. Apparently, teaching to the state test may boost scores on that test, but it doesn’t help on other standardized tests, never mind preparing students for life outside school.

NCLB has acquired such a bad reputation that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is looking for a new name.

The law was due to expire in 2007, but it will continue in effect until Congress replaces it with a new version. Health care and the sagging economy have pushed education to the congressional back burner, but NCLB’s turn in the spotlight must come soon, if only because the law automatically keeps raising the passing grade for schools, which will make almost every school in the country “fail” sometime in the next few years.

“NCLB was crafted by politicians. Everybody thinks they are an expert in education because they went to school. Let teachers have input into this bill.”

—Lois Jacobs, retired school librarian, Methuen, Massachusetts

So what would educators do? We posed that question on the NEA Today Facebook page, on a members’ discussion board, and in other ways.

Here’s one reform that many members proposed:

“Compare the same students year-to-year to chart their growth! Isn’t that common sense?”

—Tara Olson, seventh-grade teacher, Red Lake, Minnesota

Under the current law, a school gets no credit for moving a student from far below the standard to just a little below standard. Even Bush Administration officials recognized the absurdity and unfairness of that, and Secretary of Education Duncan makes a point of saying he believes the new law should use a “growth” model.

Duncan also recognizes that it make no sense to use the same evaluation for all students regardless of whether they can speak English or have disabilities. He says he wants to find ways to fairly evaluate special education students and English Language Learners, and he has invited NEA members to make suggestions.

“The testing in NCLB should not be changed at all. Every child should be given the exact same test. If you give different tests, that doesn’t help you know where the problem is and what needs to be fixed. What needs to be changed are the consequences.”

—Ron Benner, school psychologist, Bridgeport, Connecticut

“The big question to me is, what is the outcome we want for kids? Why are we assessing them? Kids take test prep classes for our exit exam at the expense of vocational experience. But they’re not all going to college.

“When a student comes into high school, we should ask, ‘what’s the outcome we all want?’ Then when they leave, we should ask, ‘What have we prepared them to do?’ Every student should have a plan for transition to life after high school, not just those in special education.

“Would that be expensive? Maybe. But we spend millions developing a test, and we prep the kids for it, and we still hear from businesses that kids don’t have the job skills, because what they learned was how to take a test.”

—Ed Amundsen, special education teacher, Sacramento, California

Many educators suggest that the enormous amounts of time, money, and energy now devoted to testing would be better used to implement scientifically proven strategies for improving learning.

“Lowering class size has proven to be the most effective in producing students who can think for themselves, progress academically, and increase test scores. Put our money where research shows it works best. Build more classrooms, hire more teachers, and reduce class size.”

—LaNelle Holland, hospital-homebound teacher, Carroll County, Georgia

And many frustrated educators say the law should spell out the duties of a child’s “first teachers.”

“NCLB has let parents off the hook by [only] holding teachers accountable. The alarming level of truancy, the work habits of unmotivated students, and behavior issues are the factors that affect the failure of students in our education system.”

—Ronda Gupton-Pruett, high school resource specialist Napa, California

Finally, there is a widespread feeling among educators that what happens in classrooms shouldn’t be dictated by the federal government.

“Eliminate all the AYP goals and testing BS. It doesn't work. It's destructive. Return to ESEA as it was prior to the Bush years. The original intent was to focus additional resources for kids who need extra help.”

—Cal Halliburton, Middle school technology education teacher, Ames, Iowa

Some suggest that Congress look in the mirror if it wants to see who’s not doing right by children.

“AYP should be changed to AYF—adequate yearly funding. Give Congress a report card to let them know if they're providing AYF to public schools. They haven't for decades.”

—Carl Clausen, Visual Art teacher and Teaching Academy director, Bellevue, Washington.

Leave “NCLB” Behind.

To help Secretary Duncan come up with a new name for NCLB, NEA has set up a discussion group to gather members’ suggestions.

The proposed new names cover a wide range.

  • Idealistic: “Support All In Learning” (SAIL)
  • Hopeful: “Shared Responsibility”
  • Cynical: “No Child Left”
  • Descriptive: “Test, Test, Test Till They Drop”

Most of those who commented on the discussion board want Congress to quit trying to put a spin on the law and go back to its original name: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Duncan has also asked NEA members for examples of fair and accurate ways to assess the achievement of students with disabilities and students who don’t speak fluent English. Offer your ideas here.

Read what other people have to say about how NCLB should be changed, and add your own ideas here.

There’s more information here about NCLB and NEA’s work to change it.

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