One of the most widely criticized educational policies of recent years was / is No Child Left Behind. It is widely referred to an ineffective policy (or legislation). Despite high hopes and bipartisan support, the policy has not worked out as planned. This paper delves into the problems with No Child Left Behind -- and will present the changes that could make it stronger and more effective.
No Child Left Behind -- The Problems and Criticisms
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation (signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002) was launched, according to authors Deborah Meier and George Wood, in a bipartisan spirit in order to do something "positive in the wake of the terrorist attacks" of September 11, 2001 (Meier, et al., 2004). In the Introduction to their book, Meier and Wood, founding members of the Forum for Education and Democracy, explain that NCLB was born at a time when America was trying to "rediscover its footing" following 9/11 -- and it seemed timely to do something positive for the children of America.
The nearly 1,000-page legislation was critiqued by essayist Allie Kohn as "Trojan horse for those who would challenge" the idea of public schools being valid, Meier reports. Kohn also wrote that NCLB was a "ticking time bomb set to destroy…" public schools, not build them up (Meir). This book was written just two years after the law was put on the books, but in those two years there were numerous negative things said and written about NCLB. The concerns after two years were due to: a) underfunding (the Bush Administration cut funds from the original legislation estimated to be more than $12 billion); b) teacher quality (based on test scores) came under scrutiny; c) the law demanded that disabled and students with limited English become proficient (but that was not realistic); and d) limiting evaluations to test scores does not help improve education.
Meanwhile, a far more contemporary book by award-winning author Diane Ravitch points out that NCLB has serious problems that relate to ethics, ideology, and policy. When President George W. Bush went on the campaign trail to promote the idea of the legislation, he referred to NCLB as "the Texas miracle," asserting that the "…testing and accountability had led to startling improvements in student performance" (Ravitch, 2013). Bush claimed that graduation rates were up in Texas and that because test scores were higher that the achievement gap (between white students and minority students) was "narrowing" (Ravitch).
The law required that every state must test every child every year (in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading); moreover, the law required that the test scores should be reported by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status and even for those with limited English competency. Those schools that couldn't produce better test scores year after year, were at risk of having the school closed and/or the staff fired. Ravitch claims that even some "…excellent, highly regarded schools" were classified as failures because they didn't have the necessary test scores.
Speaking of test scores, this "…unnatural focus on testing produced perverse but predictable results," Ravitch explains. The testing was "incessant" and "teaching to the test…became common practice," resulting in scandals in New York and elsewhere; moreover, teachers were given millions of dollars to help them teach to the test so that by the time a semester or a school year was over, students pretty much knew what was going to be on the standardized test, and hence, they did well. Because math and reading were emphasized, many schools cut back on the arts, history, science, civics, physical education and foreign language and instead prepped students on the standardized tests they would need to take not only for the school to be ranked high enough to survive, but also to keep teachers' salaries on a steady keel (Ravitch).
Clearly NCLB was not designed to help students learn how to solve problems, which public schools emphasized in the past. Moreover, NCLB "…opened the door to huge entrepreneurial opportunities," Ravitch asserts in her book. Billions of dollars in federal funds were poured into states and school districts; some of the money was for consultants who could analyze how to "turn around" failing schools; and many billions went into funding tutoring companies who worked with students to bring up their test scores, Ravitch continued.
A key fact in any study of NCLB is that dozens of states have opted out of NCLB and have instituted their own reforms.
Meanwhile, on the subject of billions of federal dollars that went to states and was used for tutoring, an October 5, 2013 article in The New York Times reports that an investigation has uncovered "…years of inaction by state officials while money ($180 million) flowed to tutoring companies" (Smith, 2013). In fact there were very few "academic results" from those moneys and the cash received from the federal government into Texas "flouted state regulations" (Smith, p. 1). The Dallas Independent School District, which spend $18 million on tutoring for struggling students since 2009, was an "…incredible opportunity" that was missed, according to a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District.
It should be mentioned that the NCLB law requires poorly performing school districts to save back up to twenty percent of the federal funds they receive in order to help "…economically disadvantaged students to pay for 'supplemental education services," which means tutoring (Smith, p. 1). That was a worthy idea, but in Texas, as early as 2009, administrators in school districts were reporting "falsified invoices, overly aggressive student recruitment [by tutoring companies] and questionable instructional methods" (Smith, p. 2).
There were actually some employees of tutoring companies that paid students and teachers on the side to "…recruit for their programs"; other companies arrived on campuses without permission or criminal background checks (Smith, p.2). There were tutoring companies that used "fake tax identification numbers" and one tutoring company actually used instruction strategies from the controversial Scientology church (Smith, p. 2). Moreover, there was strong evidence that some of the tutors that districts paid for were not certified as licensed teachers, and evidence was uncovered that tutoring companies gave students iPads to keep whether they completed the tutoring project or not (Smith, p. 3).
The existing image that NCLB has acquired over the past nine or so years is not a positive image at all, quite the contrary. But what are the solutions? The next section provides some ideas for improvement of NCLB.
Part TWO: Possible Solutions for NCLB
The Pennsylvania State University Graduate School of Education has several positive suggestions for improving NCLB. The "recipe for fixing" the law has four main points, starting with the need to set "…high but attainable standards" (Porter, 2011). Currently, NCLB has standards that are not possible to meet. "It isn't smart to have standards no one can meet," Porter explains, and that is an understatement when one closely examines the original goals for NCLB. As Ravitch wrote, "100% proficiency is an impossible goal." And tests should be administered to more than reading and math, Porter continues, because that implies that other subjects are "less important" (Porter, p. 1). The long-term goal would be to make accountability "symmetric," according to Porter. If teachers are being evaluated based on test scores, and if their job security depends on raising test scores, test scores should "…matter to kids in some way as well"; in other words, students, schools, teachers and administrators should be accountable (Porter, p. 1).
This policy would be administered with more fairness; that is, kids from the inner city deserve to have the same resources that kids in wealthier communities enjoy. No matter the socioeconomic situation for a child, he or she should have the…