The American School/Complexity and Controversy Surrounding NCLB
In a bi-polar era of American history in which a sharply divided citizenry lends itself to an often heated debate concerning the role this nation should play in an increasingly globalized and connected world, the fact that any bi-partisan legislature can exist at all seems a small miracle. However the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) represents exactly that, stimulating the ongoing debate about how best to socialize America’s youth while at the same time displaying the immense amount of passion involved in any discussion of a topic so important and fundamental to a democratic people’s security and well being.
NCLB is about a thousand pages long and represents one of the single greatest efforts in our nations modern history to reform not only the viability of quality education to all who reside here, but the act also identifies who is accountable when the educational institutions of this country fail or do not perform satisfactorily (Popham, 2004). NCLB was passed in Congress with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. It was signed into law in 2001 with the signature of President Bush (Irons & Harris, 2007). The act is essentially a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and concerns itself with virtually every facet of the education system in America. NCLB deals with issues ranging from standardized testing to closing the achievement gap between wealthier white students and poorer minorities (Popham, 2004, p. 14).
Standardized Testing and AYP
The issue of standardized testing is a major point of contention in the act. The main provisions of the law decree that every state in the union accepting federal funds must test students every year in grades 3-8, once again in high school in the subjects of reading and mathematics, with science testings introduced by 2008 (Wood, 2004). While few reject the notion of standardized testing outright, many think that excessive emphasis on such testing attempts to centralize American education past the point of practicality. This in turn ends up defining schools only by their test scores (Reese, 2005).
Additionally, schools are required to show gradual progress from one year to the next on such tests, an expectation phrased as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP (Wood, 2004). AYP is a relatively controversial issue due to the fact that schools are expected to constantly raise their expectations of satisfactory learning. In short, if students do well on the tests they are met with harder tests. Any teacher will tell you harder does not necessarily mean better (Kohn, 2004).
Opponents also argue that such an emphasis on testing compromises the quality of teaching in our classrooms. It forces teachers to concern themselves with raising test scores and preparing their students for a test rather than adequately covering their subjects and giving their students a true understanding of the curricula they are taught (Kohn, 2004). “Teaching to the test,” as it is often called, represents a dangerous corruption of education. In the words of Alfie Kohn, “…it is the equivalent of shooting an arrow into a wall and then drawing a target around it…” (Kohn, 2004, p. 82).
Special Education and Standardized Testing
Another common complaint lodged against standardized testing regards the fact that 95% of all students in a school must take the state standardized tests in order to meet the requirements called for under the No Child Left Behind Act (Harris & Irons, 2007). This requirement was made for obvious reasons. Before such requirements, schools often would not test groups of students who were expected to do poorly. Increasingly deceptive methods were employed by some ambitious administrators who would only test the cream of the crop as special education students and those perceived as “bad testers” would often be unavailable on test day due to a “field trip” (Popham, 2004). This was often indirectly encouraged by policymakers such as George Bush, whose “Texas Miracle” in education was soiled by the revelation that principals of schools scoring highly on such tests received cash bonuses in return for their “good results” (Reese, 2005).
While preventing students with disabilities or other learning problems to boost test scores only masks an issue, requiring them to take the test (which the 95% requirement in effect does) introduces a myriad of new obstacles to overcome. Since such students have unique requirements and abilities, they cannot be expected to perform as well as general education students on evaluative tests. The Illinois State Board of Education reported that 201 districts and 142 schools failed solely due to testing results reported for special education students (Harris & Irons, 2007). For this reason a provision was made to allow states to make alternative tests for academically challenged students. While it looked great on paper, the reality was that few states ended up using alternative tests. The effort, expertise and cost of making the tests were usually far beyond the means available. Additionally, teachers would need additional training to implement such new methods (Harris & Irons, 2007). Clearly, the balancing act between trying to treat all students equal and giving special needs students the additional and unique attention they need to succeed is as elusive as any attempts to perfect education in America.
Title I and Supplemental Tutoring
As discussed earlier, AYP plays a significant role in determining whether a school is classified as meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind or of failing to do so. If a school fails in three consecutive years to meet testing result requirements, it must allow students from low income families to use Title I funds to either obtain supplemental academic services from public or private organizations. These services usually come in the form of after school tutoring or the chance to transfer to another school that has shown adequate AYP (Harris & Irons, 2007). In an attempt to ensure that adequate funds reached the schools in greatest need, Title I became an essential component of the NCLB Act.
Title I was reauthorized by President Bush as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. With $10.4 billion allocated to provide a helping hand rather than insure local compliance with federal guidelines, it represented the largest federal program supporting education in America, with funds intended for those schools in greatest need (Harris & Irons, 2007). These goals were largely achieved. Ninety six percent of schools with 75% or more low income students received Title I funds. It intended to make teachers and administrators accountable for their low performing schools and help close the achievement gap in American education. Responsibility for such inefficiencies now fall on schools and even individual class rooms while in the past it had traditionally fallen on state level departments (Harris & Irons, 2007).
While the initial purpose of such tutoring was to provide disadvantaged students the extra help they need in academics, several unforeseen consequences developed as a result of supplemental tutoring provided by the government (Harris & Irons, 2007). If opted for, the tutoring could be sought out from either public resources or private organizations. Each state pre-approved a list of private sources that were deemed qualified to provide the tutoring, and an estimated $5 billion of the Title I funds went to ensure this resource (Harris & Irons, 2007). However much of the tutoring ended up being outsourced to foreign companies that provided their services via the internet, where they were unrestricted by the law and the United States Department of Education was forced to admit that they had little control over the business practices of such companies (Harris & Irons, 2007). Further complicating the issue was the fact that many low income families did not have easy access to the internet (Harris & Irons, 2007). Additionally, religious organizations such as the boy scouts were approved on the government lists. Subsequently the government was providing these faith based initiatives with tax payer money and clearly forwarding the interests of such groups, a clear violation of the concept involving separation of church and state in the constitution (Harris & Irons, 2007). Concern grew over this issue until the Congressional Investigative Agency was called on to determine the exact nature of overseas tutoring companies and to ascertain the extent to which they operate (Harris & Irons, 2007).
Another disconcerting feature that affected public opinion regarding the No Child Left Behind Act was the fact that wherever President Bush went, his big business allies were always soon to follow. In fact, allowing private interests to run education has historically ended with less than desirable results. Most notably with Chris Whittle who provided free televisions and computers to public schools and in return the students were made to watch television commercials for a set time during the day and read textbooks with clever product placement within them (Reese, 2005). It is with little surprise that many began to resent President Bush’s allowance of private businesses to run government funded tutoring. Further complicating the issue is that the tutoring provided by Title I funds remained largely unused, as only 18% of those eligible for the service actually used it (Harris & Irons, 2007). Furthermore, since much of the money is directed towards private companies on a government contract, this money is essentially wasted when it could be re-circulated back to the public schools that are in such dire need of additional funding.
Flagrant Opposition and the Trojan Horse Theory
It seems recent developments to the No Child Left Behind Act have inflamed the age-old issue of states' rights. The setting of education policy traditionally has been the domain of the state governments, with the primary exceptions being the Great Society reforms and aid to vocational education. However a new trend is developing in which the federal government is increasingly involved in setting national guidelines which the states must now follow (Reese, 2005). According to James Popham, the message sent by federal lawmakers is, “We have ample funds to send your way, but to get it you must play by our rules” (2004, p. 14). This inevitably ends up with many teachers, despite their personal inclinations toward such tactics, jumping through the hoops in order to gain extra funding. Other educators have made no secret of their opposition to parts of or all of the No Child Left Behind Act. Some states have been able to gather enough public support to allow individual districts enough leeway to make their own tests despite federal regulations, most notably in Nebraska (Popham, 2004). Additionally Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico and Vermont have rejected parts of the new law’s guidelines. The legislatures of Utah and Virginia have voted almost unanimously not to comply with requirements of No Child Left Behind (Wood, 2004). Much of the logic behind resistance to the act is that it is often considered to be an attempt to embarrass low-performance schools which are mostly populated by minorities. This is perceived to be done by imposing sanctions on already troubled institutions and allowing increased privatization of American schooling, a goal which many believe was President Bush’s real motivation for signing the act (Reese, 2005). Even this viewpoint is far from the most extreme ones. Alfie Kohn, described by Time magazine as one of the most outspoken critics of the current American fixation on tests and statistics, has claimed that the act is a Trojan horse meant to deliberately undermine public schooling in America despite its publicly professed goals of strengthening it (Wood, 2004). While to some the Trojan horse theory may sound like a far-fetched conspiracy theory, significant resistance to the implementation of the regulations called for by the act cannot be denied or ignored any longer.
The heated debate over the No Child Left Behind Act shows not only the differing viewpoints regarding the national governments role in education but also the immense amount of interest in how best to socialize and educate our nation’s youth so as to create a greater and more prosperous nation. The debate over the act did not initiate the discussions involving standardized testing, privatizing education and closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities. These have been issues hotly disputed long before the act was signed in 2001, and they no doubt will be debated well into the future. Whether one supports the act or not, serious matters face America; first and foremost the relative lack of quality education that blacks, Hispanics and other minorities receive is of immense concern. Cuts in school budgets in poorer areas have taken their toll, and it is now estimated that 39% of black students have no recess during a school day, whereas with white students the number is a mere 15% (Prince, 2004). Although some may feel a lack of recess is not dooming one to a life of poverty and crime, any teacher knows that it doesn’t stop there. White students across the board receive far better funding and education than do minorities and blacks who by in large inhabit low income schools in America’s cities. The acts stated goals are to impose a range of mandates tied to federal money to encourage quality education and make schools acknowledge their own flaws to those who are considering attending them. However, it cannot be denied that the act needs serious retooling if it is to have a serious chance of accomplishing any of these goals (Berkman & Plutzer, 2005). While few now would agree with Barry Goldwater’s claim in 1964 that a child without education can still “do fine,” there can be some concern in the eyes of the nation’s educators when everyone looks to them, their schools and education itself as the cure to the issues that ail our nation and on a larger scale our society. But they will no doubt perform their role to the best of their ability to teach and enrich the children of a culture that often spends more time admiring trashy heiresses and ruined former playmates than academic overachievers.
- What do you think about some of the intended goals of the reauthorization of NCLB?
- What about the provision in NCLB that schools must give students names to military recruiters?
- How many times has the ESEA act been revamped?
- How does Michigan compare to the rest of the nation in NCLB?
- Do schools get more funding when their schools do better on the tests?
- What happens to schools that break NCLB acts?
- What is wrong with privatizing schools?
- Do you think schools should be held accountable just because their scores are lower on standardized tests?
- Is it possible that these kids might get sick of all the tests and try less on the tests?
- Before NCLB was there standards or AYP for schools to meet?
- Do you think the standardized tests will alter how teachers teach?
- How come science was left out of the testing until next year?
- If a school is already doing well, do they have to improve?
- So schools get more money for the better the test scores, does this corrupt the academic progression of the students?
- So the NCLB act actually worsens the gap between wealthier and less wealthy schools, when the goal of the act was to close the gap?
- Do standardized tests just force teachers to teach a strict curriculum based on these tests and inhibit the overall learning the students deserve?
- Do the schools that need the most work often not get the funding that they need, because of their low test scores?
- Berkman, M. & Plutzer, E. (2005). Ten Thousand Democracies. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
- Irons, J. & Harris, S. (2007). The Challenges of No Child Left Behind. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
- Kohn, A. (2004). NLCB and the Effort to Privatize Public Education. In D. Meier (Ed.), Many Children Left Behind (pp.79-97). Boston: Beacon Press.
- Popham, J. (2004). America’s “Failing” Schools. New York: Routledge.
- Prince, C. (2004). Changing Policies to Close the Achievement Gap. Lanham, Maryland: ScarecrowEducation.
- Reese, W. (2005). America’s Public Schools. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
- Wood, G. (2004). Introduction. In D. Meier (Ed.), Many Children Left Behind (pp.vii-xv). Boston: Beacon Press.
- Wood, G. (2004). A View From the Field: NCLB’s Effects on Classrooms and Schools. In D. Meier (Ed.), Many Children Left Behind (pp.33-50). Boston: Beacon Press.