The year every child must be proficient has arrived

Susie Kaeser

In 1948 George Orwell wrote 1984, his famous indictment of the totalitarian state that made 1984 a dreaded year for me.

Another dreaded year is 2014. This time the cause of the dread is the U.S. Congress and its 1,000-plus-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which became law in 2002.

NCLB required that, by 2014, every public school student be proficient in math and reading, or else. “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,” observed Diane Ravitch in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. No one has ever achieved it.

Students with special needs, English-language learners, homeless children, and, in Ravitch’s words, “children lacking in any societal advantage, and students who have every societal advantage but are not interested in their school work,” must all demonstrate their proficiency on standardized tests. Any school that falls short—where one or more children fails to achieve a proficient score—is defined as “low performing,” a failure. The consequences: schools closed, teachers fired and educations disrupted.

The year 2014 is here. As predicted, thousands of schools and school districts have earned the label of “low performing,” including all the schools in the state of Vermont. Vermont demonstrates the absurdity of the law. According to Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont's secretary of education, measures of school quality that are more robust than the NCLB-mandated standardized tests indicate that Vermont’s is one of the most effective school systems in the country. For example, Vermont consistently performs at the highest level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and has the best graduation rate of any state. When 12 different education performance indicators are used, Vermont comes out third in the nation.

In August of this year, complying with the requirements of failing to meet 100-percent proficiency, Holcombe wrote to the parents of all students enrolled in that state’s public schools, informing them that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, all of the schools in her state were underperforming. Further along in her letter, though, Holcombe stated that, “The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.”

In noting that NCLB had not closed the gap for children living in poverty, she called for a “different approach that actually works,” and included a description of how Vermont would evaluate school quality, taking an approach with a broader vision than the one set out in federal policy.

For now, the majority of states will escape the failure label because they elected to get waivers exempting them from meeting this unattainable goal in exchange for using test scores to evaluate teachers, another punitive policy.

The law was built on faulty reasoning, disrespect for educators, disregard for the many factors that affect learning and distaste for investing in human beings. It promised a significant infusion of federal funds which has never materialized. NCLB changed the federal government’s role from a source of funds to support the extra costs associated with educating children living in poverty to a heavy-handed judge of educational quality. It was a power grab from local communities, which are the primary funders of their public schools, and from local boards of education, the bodies responsible for accountability.

The law did not improve education; it undermined public confidence in this crucial resource for our democracy. Who builds a system based on an unattainable goal and attaches significant and damaging consequences to not achieving that goal? Who benefits when the day of reckoning arrives and the predicted failure occurs? It is not school children.

The narrative of failure attached to NCLB’s focus on judgment will stand unless challenged every day by education leaders like Vermont’s Holcombe, parents who know that their children are learning, teachers who know they are effective, and political leaders who can acknowledge that politically motivated goals can produce terrible public policies. It is the law that has failed, not the schools.

2014 is here. We can't wait any longer to reject this faulty and damaging system!

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 7, Issue 11, Posted 10:15 AM, 10.31.2014