The No Child Left Behind Act was purportedly enacted to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students on the one hand, and wealthier and White students on the other. Now that it has been in effect for a dozen years, it is time we took a look at the impact it has had on actual instruction of such students. This short piece is based on mostly anecdotal evidence in a few communities near where I live and work. However, from talking to colleagues across the country, as well as reading published reports and articles, I believe that these anecdotes are fairly representative of what is happening in many schools across the nation serving low-income minority students.
My knowledge of this topic comes in part from first-hand personal experience. I was for many years a bilingual elementary school teacher and am currently a professor of education. My doctoral dissertation was a study of two schools that served mainly low-income Mexican-American students. The study took place during the 2003-2004 school year. Currently part of my job consists of supervising student teachers. The majority of these are in schools with predominantly low-income Mexican-American students. I have the opportunity to observe what these teachers do, as well as hear reports from the student teachers about their experiences. I also continue to dialogue with my colleagues who are are still teaching in k-12 schools and can compare and contrast how their experiences have changed over the years. Through all of these means, I have knowledge of the practices of many schools from both before and after NCLB. I have noticed many changes since the inception of NCLB and the standardized education movement. I cannot say that I would define any of the changes I have seen as improvements.
One consequence that I have seen is some of the most dedicated and experienced teachers leaving teaching. They leave for many of the reasons I will be outlining below—that they feel their hands are tied in terms of using what they have learned over many years to be the most effective practices and are being forced to use what they believe are less effective practices in the name of raising short-term test scores.
The main change in instruction I have seen is a move away from the use of techniques in which students are likely to be more actively involved in the curriculum, replaced with discrete skill-based workbooks and textbooks. Students are less likely to be studying material that they find meaningful and interesting and more likely to be reading bland text book stories, or doing out-of-context math problems and memorizing the algorithms. In many elementary schools serving poor and language minority students, everything except language arts and math have been virtually eliminated or greatly reduced from the curriculum. This is especially true of the primary grades. Students are receiving a very restricted diet in terms of breadth (actually there isn’t much depth either).
Another aspect of this teaching is that the teacher is less likely to be able to tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students. All students are likely to be doing the same thing at the same time. This curriculum usually has little place for creativity or critical thinking. It focuses on what are referred to as lower order thinking skills in Bloom’s taxonomy.
The above mentioned policies are generally justified by the fact that these are the type of skills and format that students will encounter in the standardized multiple choice tests. These tests are the only measure of success considered under the interpretation of NCLB being used throughout this country, and certainly here in California. Yet there is no evidence that these practices have actually resulted in a narrowing of the test score gap, much less the achievement gap.
Another consequence has been the move to emphasize English instruction, and begin that emphasis at an earlier age, since the tests are only given in English (there is currently a law suit in California brought by several school districts challenging the use of English only testing, arguing that native language tests should count for NCLB). This is despite the overwhelming evidence that bilingual education is superior in the long run, and that the research supports more, not less, use of the primary language throughout the elementary school years (as the recently suppressed government report, as well as several other recent meta-analyses of the research, attest to).
What this means is that we are more and more having a two-tiered educational system. Poor and minority language students are taught in ways that discourage critical or creative thinking. It discourages them from acting as powerful beings, emphasizing so-called “basic skills.” Those in schools with more privileged students are more likely to be taught a broader curriculum and asked to think critically and act creatively. One group is being prepared to be the workers, the other the leaders. And in fact the latter method is actually more likely to lead to successful learning of the basic skills!
This is true for teachers as well. The poor students are being taught by teachers who themselves are feeling more and more powerless, as they have little freedom to exercise professional judgment or be involved in making decisions about curriculum or school policy. The teachers themselves are feeling attacked for working with poor minority students. These schools become even less enticing for well qualified teachers to want to work in. What we know about learning, is that children learn about power from the adults in their lives. If the adults in their live—their parents and their teachers—feel powerless, it is unlikely they will learn to be powerful responsible adults themselves.
In sum, the evidence that I have at my disposal points to NCLB actually leading to an increase in the educational gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, both in terms of the quality of instruction and the outcome of that instruction on the students future educational and employment options.