No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has rightfully been a frequent target of criticism and complaint from a wide variety of people involved with education. Teachers, students, parents, administrators and other public education supporters have roundly deplored this current reauthorization of federal education legislation. Those critiques have been detailed, extensive and powerful and have resulted in a wide network of individuals pushing for change in our national approach to education.
As NCLB is up for renewal this year, and as the currently war-beleaguered George Bush continual turns it to prop himself up, the time to increase that strong voice of criticism is here. Legislators from both sides of the mainstream political divide continue to support NCLB with only the mildest of changes (see a previous School Beat for more background.) Given that they live with neither the limitations nor the strengths of our educational system or with the consequences of federal legislation that is either punitive (NCLB) or insufficient (special education funding for instance), the only way this law can be challenged is through basic grassroots mobilizing and time-honored attention getting.
This Saturday, April 14th, we will have an opportunity to do both as a nationally advertised rally in protest of NCLB is occurring in San Francisco in front of the Moscone Center (747 Howard St) between 9:30 and 11am. More details about the event and links to related organizations and efforts can be found on the blog of San Francisco Unified School District School Board member Eric Mar (http://edjustice.blogspot.com/), including a petition to download from the Educators Roundtable website that calls for the complete elimination of NCLB. Following up on all of this, on June 4th there will to be a Committee of the Whole meeting of the School Board focused on NCLB.
Protesting NCLB feels good and publicly demonstrating dissatisfaction is important, but discussing this policy in a reasoned fashion with others takes a substantially more nuanced approach. NCLB is a tricky bit of legislation because in our soundbyte, reductionist world, it’s easy to hold onto the ostensible premise—all children should have a decent education—without looking underneath to see that those words are just veneer hiding a pretty grim attitude towards our nation’s children and the educators who work for them. At the same time, it’s just as easy to get caught up fighting for survival in the quicksand of test-scores, targets and threats of punishment, so much so that we have little perspective or energy to call out how much damage this legislation is actually creating.
Another effect of NCLB is that it has reduced our expectations of our public education system. Our desire for institutions that can help children develop into independent, creative, critically thinking, responsible adults, has been transformed into aspirations for precision-engineering organizations that can assure accurate responses on endless sheets of standardized tests. As with so many other parts of social life, this transformation reflects our cultural attraction to simple numbers that describe—or obscure—complex realities.
Our hopes are being watered down at the same time we are being told that expectations are rising. Take for instance the much heralded fact that NCLB requires for some, but not all schools, the disaggregation of test scores by socio-economic categories. This incomplete data provides a simplistic, misleadingly narrow view of a profound problem—that on a large scale our nation is still failing to educate African American, Latino and poor students in the rigorous and complex ways that it does with many (but certainly not all) other students.
The strong, intentional message of NCLB is that test scores, and in particular the test scores from materials created by mega-publishers like McGraw Hill, accurately describe the extent of the problem (a gross understatement) and that practicing at the tests used to generate the scores will not only increase the numbers (likely to be true), but will mean that these struggling students are actually learning more or better or whatever the adverb of the day happens to be (quite unlikely to be true).
All in all this results in practically nothing in terms of improving educational outcomes and the educational experience of students who have been least served both before and during the NCLB era. It does however generate the illusion that something has been accomplished and that perhaps is the most destructive outcome that could be imagined; where there is the illusion of progress, there is less likely to be considered criticism, demand and ideas for true progress.
NCLB is dreadful legislation. The only two good things about it—acknowledgements that poor students, students of color and differently-abled students have the right to be well-educated and that parents are essential in creating successful schools—have turned out to be desiccated bones cast our way for the purposes of distraction as opposed to meaningful transformation. It’s time for a change.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).Filed under: Archive