NCLB: Time to Go?

The so-called No child Left Behind Act is up for renewal in this coming year.

It is time to overturn NCLB. In school districts serving low-income and minority students it is having the effect of turning teachers into automatons who are expected to simply read a script written by text book companies, ignoring their professional knowledge of how to best meet the needs of their students, and even ignoring the responses of this teaching on the students. This is not only ineffective teaching, it is cruel to the students, as it builds a relationship where students feel ignored, and teachers feel frustrated. I see many teachers becoming cynical and angry. The best teachers are, or are considering, leaving the field, as they feel this is not teaching. What is the point of having highly qualified teachers, if they are not allowed to use that knowledge to make meaningful decisions about the teaching of their students?

The effect this curriculum is having on these students is to reduce the fare of learning to out-of-context arithmetic and language arts instruction, geared directly to test testing. Not only has it reduced what it means to be educated solely to these subjects, but even there it is likely to result in a poor understanding of these subjects. As multiple choice tests cannot do a decent job of testing one’s problems solving, critical thinking, or ability to analyze, many of the most important aspects of what it means to be a good reader or mathematician, not to mention just a well-educated adult are lost and ignored. This one-size-fits-all curriculum imposed on children in districts that cannot easily meet the test score bar is demotivating for most students. The are likely to learn that these subjects are boring and meaningless, not too mention difficult, whose sole purpose is to subject them to a test at the end of the year (actually every 6 weeks as well, to use as benchmarks)—a test whose result they often interpret as evidence of their own stupidity.

As much research on learning has shown, the relationship between teachers and students matters as much, if not more than, the curriculum or methods for ensuring student success, especially for low-income and minority students. The scripted curriculum being mandated by many school districts in the name of NCLB has created classrooms that are even more alienating, not just in terms of the relevance of the curriculum but also in terms of how teachers are encouraged to treat students as test scores rather than human being.

While it is important for schools to be held accountable, this is not real accountability. This situation is similar to what happens when corporations focus solely on short term profits. When they only look at profits, they often ignore issues such as the quality of the product itself, the treatment of employees, or the effects on the environment—or even the effects on long term profits!  When we look solely at the test scores from multiple choice standardized tests that measure only the smallest portion of a rich curriculum, we miss and ignore much of what it means to be well-educated, and in fact discourage schools from developing anything else for their students. Just as a corporation’s focus on short term profits harms the long term stability and health of the company (as we saw in the Enron scandal, just to name the most infamous), focusing on short term test results equally harms the long term learning of students. Teaching for deep understanding, which sets the foundation for a long-term understanding of the material, is often sacrificed for a shallow knowledge that allows the teacher to “cover” all the material that will be on the test just well enough so the students can pass it. However, such understanding is often short-lived, and not sufficient for building further understanding of the subject. In the later grades the student pays for this when the material requires a deep and solid understanding of the previous material. And then band-aids, such as remedial classes, a longer day, and summer school—all basically repeating what didn’t work the first time—is offered as the solution.

While our educational system is far from perfect, the solution will not come from simple minded quick fix solutions. It certainly cannot come from those who are far removed from the reality of the schools and from the actual children. Let us bring the decisions of teaching and learning in our school back to where they belong in a democracy—into the hands of the community where the children live and out of the hands of Federal and State politicians.

Below are some places and organizations that are taking action to reform or abolish NCLB:

Both major teacher unions:

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) petition for the reform of NCLB:

National Education Association (NEA) has an online petition for fully funding and reforming NCLB.

School reform organizations:

Fairtest has an online petition calling for reforming NCLB:

Educator Roundtable petition for the repeal of NCLB

No Child Left: ” A site advocating a sound approach to school improvement.” Full of information advocating the NCLB be repealed or amended.

Students Against Testing “SAT is a nationwide network of young people who resist high stakes standardized testing and support real-life learning.”


This online petition, begun by educator and author Susan Ohanian calls for the dismantling of NCLB

The Privatization of Public Schooling

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was promoted as the savior to a failing public school system. However I am going to make the argument here that those who wrote the actual legislation must have had in mind the dismantling of public education, and to move our country’s educational system into the private sphere. NCLB can be seen as one facet of a movement to privatize as much of our society as possible. It is consistent with a view of people as consumers rather than as citizens. Democracy becomes equated with individual choice of what to “purchase,” be it products, services or elected officials (in contrast to the idea of democracy as people working as a community making decision together). Those of this view see public entities as interfering with the advantages of a competitive system based on monetary profit/loss.

students as money

There are very few public spheres left in our country. Two notable exceptions are libraries (which are rare and often inaccessible in poorer communities) and our schools—places where people of all walks of life have theoretical equal access and a place to interact as equals. While public schools have always been an arena of political controversy and under criticism for not meeting their promise, it is within the last 25 years that a full blown attack has been taking place through the mass media to discredit them completely. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” can probably be considered the turning point in moving general public opinion to view our public schools in a negative light. While I will not go into the history here, NCLB can in many ways be traced back to a series of Federal policies that followed from the “Nation at Risk” report.

One way in which NCLB is being used to discredit public schools is through the use of the term “failing school” for schools whose students do not reach the target test scores as mandated by NCLB. The federal government has set arbitrary goals as to what percentage of students must score at the “proficient” level on standardized tests (and what is called proficient is to some degree arbitrarily set by state legislatures, and varies from state to state). Not only must a certain percentage reach that score but that percentage within each subgroup of the school must reach that goal. If even one subgroup fails to reach the goal, the whole school is deemed to be a “failing school.” How much progress the school has made toward reaching the goal is not counted. A school that the previous year was way below the target and made it almost to the cut-off is a failure, while another school that was just a fraction below and moved up to a fraction above is not. A school can even move down and not be considered a failure, as long as a sufficient percentage of students score above the cut-off.

Furthermore, it is a moving target. What is considered successful one year is a failure the next. Each year the percentage of students needing to meet the “proficient” level is raised until by the year 2014 every student in every category must score at the proficient level – be they second language learners, learning disabled, or for whatever reason unable to score well (they had a stomach ache?). This is, of course, an unattainable goal, at which point basically every school in the nation would be considered a “failure.” Since the greatest predictor of test scores is parental income and educational level, most schools that serve poor and minority students are already being labeled as failures, and being forced to give up local control of their curriculum. In the meantime, schools that serve higher income students can generally meet the test score goals and avoid the sanctions (at least for now).

As schools take drastic measures to boost test scores, they often turn the curriculum into full-time test preparation activities. Many parents may notice that their children enjoy school less, and find that this is not an atmosphere in which they want their children to spend 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. Those with the financial or other means often move their children into private schools or choose to home school their children. This again moves more children out of the public school system, which further reduces the number of people with a direct interest in maintaining them, especially among those who are likely to have political power. These also tend to be the students most likely to do well on these tests, making it even more likely that the school will “fail” the test.

As more and more schools get labeled “failure” under this law, those opposed to public education will say, “See, we tried everything we could, and this proves that the public school really are a failed experiment.”

A second way in which NCLB is an attempt to privatize pubic education is through the measures that schools must succumb to when they are labeled “failures.” At first they must hire consultants. These consultants generally come from the for-profit private sector, and are often connected to text book publishers. A school that continues to fail may be turned into a charter school, often run by for-profit companies, in those states that allow charter schools. Failing schools can be required to offer private tutoring to students who do not reach “proficient” scores on the tests (reducing funds available for improving or even maintaining the resources at the school). Also, these schools can be pressured or forced to use programs from a select list of publishers that are endorsed by the federal government, possibly giving up locally produced and developed programs. In this way, while the school may be public in name, many or most functions, and control over the curriculum, may have been given over to for-profit companies.

In this way the law actually has the effect of taking funds away from the schools that need it most, as schools that are labeled “failing” must spend their money on these outside consultants and to pay for private after school tutoring for the students who fail the tests, further reducing the already scarce resources to provide a decent education for the population as a whole. This does not even include the enormous funds that are required to conduct, purchase and score the tests and the test preparation materials.

This adds up to more and more schools being labeled “failure” in the mass media, more and more functions of schools being privatized, and more families of means choosing private or home-schooling for their children.

What is wrong with privatizing education? The question is do we want the educational decisions—the decisions about what we think it is important for our children to learn, and in what environment they will do that learning—being made by private corporations for private gain, or conversely by public entities, in which the public has a say, for the public good?

Critical Collegiality: Why Teachers Need to Learn to Disagree and Why a Democratic Public Should Care

Can a democracy exist if its citizens do not know how to engage in public discourse over ideas? If they are going to learn to do so, would not public schools be the place to learn this? I argue here that in order for this to happen, teachers must be able to do so, and that the vehicle for this is in the professional community of teachers.

The idea of teacher professional communities and learning communities has been popular in recent years. Mainly it has been argued that such communities are a useful form of professional development—that it is through the practice of collaboration and working together and learning together that teachers can hone their craft. In this view the value of such communities are therefore measured by an increase in teacher and student learning.

Another somewhat similar topic and perspective is looking at the governance side of this. This perspective looks at how through collaboration and consensus teachers make better decisions. Here it is argued that groups can be used to make better decisions than individuals—that when structured appropriately groups do in fact make better decisions. This has been found to be true in educational as well as business settings. It is also true that when teachers are involved in making the decisions they are more likely to effectively carry out those decisions—that is they either have ownership or at least buy-in to the decisions. Better decisions by teachers over teaching and learning should lead to better student achievement, especially when the teachers are motivated to carry out those decisions faithfully.

Teacher collaboration can also be seen as a form of accountability. Policy-makers have often complained about the lack of accountability teachers have had. This has been described by the term loose-coupling that has historically existed in teaching between policy mandates and classroom practice. An alternative form of accountability to the current top-down model could be seen in teacher professional communities, where the community of teachers holds each other accountable for maintaining standards and adhering to acceptable practices. The research in all of the above areas have all generally supported the use of teacher professional communities for these instrumental ends.

However, here I want to address the topic from a fourth perspective. I argue here that such communities should be valued and fostered just for being an example and a place where democracy and democratic values are practiced. This position is based on the idea that the American democratic experiment was not made as an empirical test of whether democracy would lead to better decisions, but out of a philosophical belief in the “unalienable” rights of human beings. In this I am arguing that the purpose of school is more than achieving better test results, or having students leave school smarter and more knowledgeable or even more skilled. Another, at least as important, aim of schools in a democratic society is for students to be equipped to be active participants of a democratic society.

As one who subscribes to Vygotsky’s learning theory, that, a la Piaget, we construct our knowledge and selves based on our experiences, I believe those experiences are socially and culturally mediated. We learn through the cultures and communities we live in. More recent research on learning has reinforced and refined these views of learning. We learn by being in a community of people who are engaging in the skills we need to learn. The theory of situated learning has also reinforced this notion—learning of complex authentic skills are often best learned incidentally when engaged with, and in the community of, those authentically carrying out the tasks and practices to be learned. This may be especially true in terms of learning habits of mind. While much of this socialization takes place in the home through the family—and more and more though mass media as well—it is our public schools—where our young spend upwards of twelve years, that as a society we have designated for the education of the next generation. This schooling should educate them as to how to be members of a democratic society.

If we accept that it is the job of public schools to prepare students to be active members of a democracy, and we accept that knowledge is mediated through the cultural context, then the schools need to reflect and practice the culture we want students to learn to be a part of. Therefore public schools, the community where these students spend a significant portion of their lives, should reflect and be a microcosm of the type of community that we want our students to learn to live and act in.

A particular aspect of such communities in a democratic society is that the members must not only know how to come to consensus, but also must know how to disagree—how to argue and discuss ideas—even, or especially when, they have strong ideas and opinions that differ from the majority. How to hold on to and argue for ideas passionately while doing so in a civil and respectful way—and at the same time being able to listen to and understand the views of someone who is just as passionate but disagree—is not something that most people in our culture are comfortable with or know how to do. In a heterogeneous society such as ours this is even more difficult, given the many different cultural assumptions and perspectives that each member brings to the table. These different assumptions, perspectives and even norms of conversation can easily lead to misunderstandings if not outright disagreement. Yet, if educators—those serving as models and teachers for our students—cannot learn to do this, and do not engage in such debate, how and where will these students learn to do so?

Schools can be organized for these things to happen. There are many examples of public schools that are trying to be such places—Mission Hill in Boston, Sherman Oaks in San Jose, California, New City School in Long Beach, California, June Jordan School for Social Justice in San Francisco, to name just a few. However to create and sustain such communities is not easy. Each of these schools has gone through and continue to go through many struggles in enacting such communities. It is never easy or a job that is done. It takes a strong culture of trust. Teachers cannot express strong disagreement if they do not trust that they will be heard, that their ideas will be taken seriously, that they will not suffer reprisals. They must also trust those they are listening to—that the other is not bad or evil for disagreeing, but has a different way of seeing the issue. The group must trust (or at least act as if) the other members all want the best, even if they disagree on how to get there—or even at times disagree about where “there” is! There must be structures in place that allow teachers to make decisions together, and clear guidelines for how they are to be made and discussed. At least as important is the time needed to carry on the discussions. The once a week staff meetings that are mostly taken up with administrivia is not nearly enough. It probably takes hours a week—the discussions need to be able to be deep and sustained. This is time that is rare in schools in this country. Maybe most importantly, teachers need the autonomy to make important decisions. All the discussion in the world, no matter how well carried out, may be meaningless if the teachers cannot act on the decisions. Students cannot learn to be empowered from powerless teachers. Yet, this ability to make meaningful decisions is becoming more difficult under the rules of No Child Left Behind which defines school success solely in terms of dong well on standardized tests.

If we want our children to become empowered adults who use their minds well, who can stand behind their own ideas, while simultaneously being willing to listen and be influenced by the ideas of others, they must be surrounded by adults who engage in and model such behavior.

(This article was adapted from a presentation given at the AERA conference in San Francisco, April 8, 2006)

Effects of NCLB

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.

Closing the Gap

I just read in the newspaper a couple of days ago about how the gap between the rich and poor is widening. Not only is it widening, but the rate at which it is widening has been increasing and is expected to become much greater in the next few years. The United States has one of the largest income disparities of any industrialized nation.

George Bush in his so called “No Child Left Behind” Act insists that schools close the test score gap between rich and poor students, and between the ethnic majority and the ethnic minorities in our schools. While this act does nothing to close the funding gap between rich and poor schools (also the greatest of any industrialized nation), it places severe penalties on states, districts, schools and students who fail to meet its goals.

I propose that we should enact a “No Family Left Behind Act.” In this act, states that did not make continues progress in closing the income gap would be sanctioned. Not only the income gap, but the access to health care gap, the infant mortally gap and the incarceration gaps should all be closed as well (and again we lead the industrialized world in most of these gaps as well—nothing like being number 1!). The states should also have to show progress in closing the gaps in all of these areas. As in NCLB, no excuses should be accepted.

Despite years of NCLB sanctions there has been no progress in closing the achievement gap between the rich and poor, minority and White students. Yet there is strong evidence that closing these other gaps would in fact help close the educational achievement gap. Educational research has shown again and again that the strongest predictor of educational success on virtually every measure is socioeconomic-status.

So why stop (or even start) with just closing the gap in test scores? Let’s close the gaps that really matter!