No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act of 2001 signed by President George Bush, Jr. is supposed to be "a landmark in education reform designed to improve student achievement and change the culture of America's schools." Bush describes this law as the "cornerstone of my administration." The program aims to: support learning in early years, provide parents and teachers with more information about the child's performance through designed measurements, improve teacher performance by setting criteria needed for instructors; and give more resources to schools. Schools that fail to make sufficient progress can be required to offer individual tutoring or to allow students to transfer to other schools. If the failure continues, schools can be subject to further penalties, including total reorganization. Thus far, however, the results are demonstrating more of what the program cannot accomplish than what it can.
First, the NCLB has not been communicated well to those who could gain by its provisions. For example, an article in Christian Science Monitor quotes a "seasoned activist" and parent from the Bronx who did not even know that parents were an integral part of the NCLB process. The states, districts, and schools are to notify parents about everything from their children's progress to their options for transferring out of low-performing schools. However, the Monitor tells of a study based on conversations with 26 grass-roots organizations showing that many parents -- even those involved in their children's schools -- remain unaware of these options or confused on how to use them.
Second, it may be true that many parents are not getting the message about "No Child Left Behind." At the same time, teachers are getting the wrong message -- shape up or ship out. Sadly, the program is promoting cheating and deception. Whenever teachers are told that test scores will influence their job security, some will do anything to get higher results. An article in a Los Angeles Times relates how instructors are giving students answers in advance or even during the testing period itself. Thus far in California, the state has intervened at 56 schools with poor scores, shaking up staffs. The federal government has warned 11 California campuses that they could lose funding or face other sanctions. This has made both teachers and administrators quite worried. Although it is believed that the number of cheaters is low, a study in Chicago schools suggested that teacher cheating might occur in 4 to 5% of classrooms. According to the Times report, Harvard professor Brian Jacob and University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt made that estimate last year after analyzing more than 700,000 students' records.
Third, the program has a backward, traditional approach to education. In this day and age with children growing up in a highly stimulated environment, the sit-at-your-desk RR& R. just does not work. Another article in the Los Angeles Times faults NCLB for its "rote mechanical" nature. Early in the century, it was all right for traditional approaches followed up by mechanized tests. However, students must now be engaged and motivated, introduced to and involved with high-technology, given an opportunity to relate the real world to school learning, and instructed by older students.
Similarly, a reporter with the Washington Post says that by putting more of an emphasis on test taking and less on other developmental needs, students are not receiving the wide-reaching education they require in today's world. For example, teachers who do not get to know their students may not recognize that someone is being bullied or having problems at home. Lack of relationships between teachers and students can also lead to major issues such as the Columbine shooting.
Says the article's reporter McKenna:
Raising student achievement is important, but history has taught some hard lessons about what happens when a single-minded focus on test scores replaces a more comprehensive set of indicators of what constitutes a successful school. Across the country, schools are reporting that the pressures of NCLB-required testing regimes are crowding out teacher time and forcing cutbacks in such 'frills' as art, music, physical education and recess. In their place: more test prep and drills and increasing levels of regimentation, student alienation and teacher stress.
These are only a few of the many problems resulting from the NCLB program. Individuals who developed the program may have had the best intentions in mind. However, it appears that they will have to go back to the drawing board to make education more realistic for the 21st century -- getting the parents involved with the process from the beginning and placing less emphasis on "making the grade" and more on well-rounded education that meets the children's specific social and developmental needs.
Commentary; Let's Get Rid of Learning Factories; In the age of high tech, a new model must be found for schools.; [HOME EDITION]
Hugh Osborn and Margaret Gayle. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: May 27, 2004. p. B.15
We are the parents. Is anyone listening?; No Child Left Behind aims at a dialogue with parents. But reaching them has not been easy.; [ALL Edition]
Teresa Mendez Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Christian Science Monitor. Boston, Mass.: Jun 1, 2004. p. 11
The Nation; One Poor Test Result: Cheating Teachers; [HOME EDITION]
Erika Hayasaki. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: May 21, 2004. p. A.1
Lessons Left Behind; [FINAL Edition]
Margaret A. McKenna. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Apr 20, 2004. p. A.19
COMMENTARY ON ARTICLE
As this New York Times article notes, increasing numbers of school districts, even those as large as the one in New York City, are creating alternative, magnet or career-based schools for older youth. And, indeed, many studies do prove that such smaller specialized schools may provide a positive choice compared to large, unruly and often dangerous high schools that have over 2,000 more pupils. In the best of all worlds, it would be wonderful if all youths could have the opportunity to go to smaller schools -- those who want to focus on a certain topic such as the arts or science and those who still want to do general studies but in a quieter and less overpowering environment. Until more state and federal funding is allocated to education, however, such public schools will be just as the article says: only for a fraction of the students available.
A report on "Personalizing the High School" emphasizes the fact that the larger and more impersonal schools have a lot to gain by becoming smaller. For example, between 40 and 50% of schools in the United States have weak "promotion power," or the ability to hold and promote students from ninth to twelfth grade. In many cities, almost half of the high schools graduate only 50% of their students four years later. Further, only 68% of students entering high school earn a standard high school diploma. Another 16% eventually receive an alternative diploma, such as a GED. Also, increasing numbers of students require remedial work to advance from class to class, let alone graduate.
As a result of such statistics and the acknowledgement that traditional education is not working correctly in many school districts -- especially urban areas -- new directions are being considered. An increasing number of large urban districts are seeking to personalize their high schools by creating small schools and breaking up larger schools into smaller learning communities. This "small is better" movement has been encouraged by research showing that small high schools generally have higher achievement levels, better graduation rates and lower dropout rates and that they are safer than larger high schools. Urban leaders are also encouraged to see the findings that small schools make the most difference for low-income and minority youth.
According to the Education Commission of the States, some states are establishing "middle college" high schools -- secondary education on a college campus -- that let students develop a stronger link between their high school studies and their postsecondary goals. School districts in Chicago and Rochester, New York, implemented flexible, three- to five-year plans for completing high school. In other communities, magnet schools are designed to combine career preparation with demanding academic instruction. Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York and Chicago divided schools into smaller "schools within a school" to address student needs more efficiently.
A report by the Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights studied whether or not magnet schools that offer specialized subject themes promote the education of minority and poor students. It is recognized that these schools benefit those who can afford alternatives and are not discriminated against. However, the Commission wanted to see the effect on the opposite population. The result was that these mini-schools have helped many succeed academically and go on to college or productive employment.
The Commission recommended such alternative schools with two caveats: First, that safeguards must be put in place to make sure that disadvantaged children are aware of the alternatives. Second, that every effort be made to minimize socio-economic isolation and inequity.