President Obama needs to examine the No Child Left Behind Act. “Our schools fail too many,” he said, in his inaugural address. One big reason for that is No Child Left Behind.
Seven years ago, President Bush signed it into law, and there is probably no public school in the United States that hasn’t been shaken by the changes it set loose.
It requires a system of testing and standards that is supposed to raise student achievement in reading and math, especially for the lowest-achieving students (Latino and black and low-income students of all backgrounds). Schools have to maintain statistics, broken down by race, gender and income level, on which students passed proficiency tests. Supposedly, no longer can bad teachers or poor administrators hide their failures.
But from its beginning, No Child Left Behind has promised more than it can possibly deliver. It has failed to consider the reality of most classrooms, it has ignored how most children learn and it has underestimated the challenges teachers face. And if student scores haven’t jumped up, it has strangled the schools’ funding.
The arrival of a new Congress and a new president means the opportunity to enact real education reforms, not simply make a few adjustments here and there.
Obama and Congress should subject No Child Left Behind to the same idea of accountability that it has imposed on students, teachers, school districts and state education agencies.
Where’s the proof that, after some $100 billion in federal spending, it has helped students achieve and closed the gaps among different groups? There isn’t any, says Fair Test, an advocacy group in Massachusetts.
“The achievement gap between whites, blacks and Hispanics — as well as with rich and poor students – was well known before NCLB and it does nothing to close the gap,” says Fair Test’s Robert Schaeffer. “You don’t need to set up a system that punishes schools instead of helping them and creates pressures for classrooms to become test prep centers.”
Opposing high-stakes testing does not mean throwing out all testing. We still need to assess student achievement and provide needed intervention. But as Schaeffer notes, test score gains nationally rose faster before No Child Left Behind, not after. As a reform strategy, it’s been a dismal failure.
By its own yardstick, it should get no more funding.
Annette Fuentes is an Oakland, Calif.-based journalist, writing a book on school violence and safety for the University of California Press.