Moving Beyond NCLB
There’s plenty of room—and opportunity—for improvement.
By Alain Jehlen
The so-called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which has introduced children all across America to the joys of bubble sheets, comes up for renewal in September 2007. That means Congress will begin considering changes to the law, possibly starting with hearings later this year. Final action may not occur until 2008 or even later, but NEA is mobilizing to play a major role.
"The problems with this law have become apparent in our classrooms and communities across the country and to people across the political spectrum," says NEA Executive Committee member Becky Pringle. "We’re optimistic that Congress can be persuaded to make the major changes that are essential to keep this law from hurting the very children it was originally supposed to help."
NEA President Reg Weaver appointed Pringle to head an advisory committee that is guiding NEA’s work in putting together proposals for Congress and strategies to get them adopted. The committee has held hearings around the country to gather information from members about how NCLB affects their schools and their students, and to enlist their professional expertise in crafting a positive agenda for changing the law.
Members have been telling them of the many ways in which NCLB is distorting the curriculum, is getting in the way of good teaching, and is unfair both to students and educators.
"At the ESP conference, a custodian actually started crying while describing what’s happening to some of his teacher-colleagues," says Pringle. "He said students are so upset that they’re blaming their teachers for having to take all these tests, and deciding to punish the teachers by refusing to answer the questions."
Along with the formal hearings, the committee is also collecting information in many other ways, including the NEA Web site and the work of NEA state affiliates. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, for example, has put together an important collection of NCLB stories, available on its Web site (www.weac.org/News/2005-06/dec05/WisconsinStories.pdf ).
"One sixth-grade teacher said his school is spending so much time testing reading and math, they’ve been unable to focus on science and social studies as they used to do," says Pringle. "And the time used up by testing will force him to rush through the curriculum—so this supposed ‘reform’ will prevent him from teaching the material in-depth. On top of that, the results won’t be valid even for math and reading, because as the test days wear on, the students start putting less and less effort into their constructed responses, so that by the last day, their test booklets are closed and they’re reading novels halfway through the test period.
"So, who benefits from this enormous effort? Certainly not the students."
“At the ESP conference, a custodian actually started crying while describing what’s happening to some of his teacher-colleagues.”
—Becky Pringle, NEA Executive Committee
Pringle adds that many teachers are saying their children are being set up to fail because NCLB ignores the problems caused by poverty and doesn’t even require that students be tested in a language they can understand. "Meanwhile," she says, "hard-to-find special education teachers are changing their field because the Department of Education is still telling many of them they have to get certified in several different academic subjects. This has to stop."
Pringle says she believes members of Congress are ready to listen, but only if they hear from their own constituents.
"That's the bottom line for them," she says. "Our lobbyists provide them with detailed proposals and solid background information and statistics, but when it comes to building the pressure that actually moves members of Congress, their constituents—our members—are the ones who can do that. They are the actual practitioners who see firsthand the devastating effects of this law and understand what it will take to truly help every child succeed.
"NEA’s great strength is that we have members in every state and every congressional district. But we can only harness that strength when our members collectively speak up and take action."
For more information on how to change NCLB into a law that helps educate children rather than just preparing them for tests, visit NEA's Legislative Action Center .