No Child Left Behind disaster: when aspirations and reality collide

"All children will be proficient in reading and math by 2014."

This is the inspiring goal that drives No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2002 federal law designed to ignite success in public education by making teachers accountable for student learning. The law mandates yearly tests to measure whether schools are meeting their obligation to reach this goal, and expects that each year a larger share of students will prove their proficiency. Failure to meet the yearly improvement in test scores prompts punitive consequences for educators and schools.

I was drawn to the high expectations for student learning that is the lynchpin of the legislation. Too many students fall desperately short of achieving at their capacity. The old 20th-century expectation that only about 20 percent of students achieve at high levels has no place in the 21st-century global economy. The law promised to take our nation’s guarantee of universal access to public education to a higher level.

It is easy to embrace a policy that makes such a grand promise. But the aspiration blinded me, and many lawmakers, to the reality that the goal cannot be realized on the prescribed timeline.

I am grateful to Diane Ravitch for articulating the problem so clearly in The Life and Death of the Great American School System:

" The goal set by Congress of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is an aspiration; it is akin to a declaration of belief. Yes, we do believe that all children can learn and should learn. But as a goal, it is utterly out of reach. . . . Such a goal has never been reached by any state or nation."(Ravitch 2010, p. 103)

Because I am a true believer in the capacity of children to learn, it was difficult to accept this straightforward dose of reality and common sense. It is possible to believe in children and recognize that it is ridiculous to mandate that everyone succeed. Human beings are not all the same when it comes to learning, and schools are not all the same when it comes to resources to support that learning, not to mention family support, poverty, and other variables that affect student achievement.

It is cynical and harmful to build a punitive system on a weak foundation, but that is what we have. It is time to abandon this law before it does more damage.

Despite the law’s laudable aspirations, schools and children will pay dearly for failing to reach its unrealistic goals. Ravitch explains that schools will be closed, teachers and principals will lose their jobs, and some public schools will be privatized. All because they were not able to achieve the impossible.

The clock is ticking. Who knows why 2014 was chosen as the magic moment when all children would achieve, but schools only have three years to make sure 100 percent of their children achieve, or suffer the consequences. Many will not make it, especially in the current climate of funding cuts, low morale, and rising rates of child poverty. Schools that fall short will be labeled failures. This will be especially troubling for schools that are making headway with the hardest-to-reach students.

This ill-conceived policy will further unravel our belief in public schools as valuable institutions worthy of our support. As more schools fall short, our belief in children and their capacity to learn, and in educators as professionals, will be extinguished. It will destroy hope.

Who benefits from a system that classifies many public schools as failing? It certainly will not be the children who were supposed to benefit from the high expectations of this law. Ravitch makes a convincing case that the law is part of a privatization agenda.

The best way to embrace a national commitment to educate all children is to reject NCLB. An accountability system built on an unattainable goal is simply wrong. It has already done enough damage. It will only make the future of public education more vulnerable. That does not bode well for our children or our future.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and current member of the Home Repair Resource Center board of trustees.

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Volume 4, Issue 10, Posted 3:35 PM, 10.07.2011