Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act

Ted Kennedy and George Bush got together and this is the law they came up with. Yin and yang, ebony and ivory, red and blue, they updated the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act and created a law that truly, honestly, seriously outlines a program by which they expect schools to teach and children to learn. What could possibly be wrong with it?

To hear some of the howls coming from certain circles today, you'd think the law required human sacrifice. Here are the key points about the law.

First, the GOOD points.
--It requires fully qualified teachers in every classroom. States are allowed to decide what constitutes fully qualified, but no longer will just "filling a slot" be acceptable. We've all heard anecdotes, sometimes about the football coach who "teaches" algebra (we have one at my school, but he's genuinely qualified), and perhaps have wondered if that really happens anymore. I assume that it does, because the UC Davis University Extension has a course you can take online that's no more than a first semester Algebra I refresher course--for those who want/need to brush up before having to teach algebra. NCLB requires somebody who has more than just a pulse; the teacher must be competent in the subject they're teaching.
--It requires that students be tested in certain (not all) grades. What exactly is wrong with this? Do we really want to wait until high school to figure out that Johnny can't read? And NCLB lets states determine what tests to give; this should allay fears of a "national curriculum", dictated by Washington over the concerns of the local community, blah blah blah.
--It requires that schools/districts choose scientifically proven programs. What is wrong with going with a proven winner? Whole language was a fad that's been thoroughly discredited now--sorry for that decade of students who didn't learn to read well. "Teacher creativity" is often a euphemism for experimentation--on someone else's kids.
--It requires that scores be separated by subgroup--racial and ethnic minorities, students in poverty, special education, etc. It's not even a secret that certain groups of students do not perform near as well as whites or Asians. Why shouldn't we highlight these failures and work to improve them? Schools can no longer hide horrible performance of certain groups (blacks and hispanics come to mind) by celebrating a high schoolwide average.
--It has sanctions. Students in schools that consistently underperform can transfer to better schools. This is a bad thing? Poor schools are required to pay for additional tutoring for students. Bad? There are other sanctions....
--It's voluntary. States do not have to comply with this law! Non-compliance, however, will cause the state to lose federal education dollars (which in California is approximately 7% of the education budget). Don't want to test? Give up the federal money and go your own way.

Now, the BAD points.
--Again, sanctions. Sometimes it's not entirely the school's fault that students perform poorly. That doesn't mean the school cannot address, and even sometimes accomodate, the problem, but schools only have the kids for 6 hours or so a day. The high school math teacher, on whose shoulders the school's entire math score falls, only has the students for 1 hour a day. There's a lot going on in the other 23 hours, and the school has no control over that at all. Why penalize the school for those 23 hours?
--The law is fairly rigid. Some requirements are difficult for some schools to meet, and as currently written the law says, "So what?" For example, in some rural districts it's not uncommon for some secondary teachers to teach several types of classes (because the school's so small). The teachers may not be certified to teach every class but apparently have been doing so out of necessity. Perhaps a grandfather clause would be in order?
--I can't believe that I of all people am going to say this, but the standard is too high. NCLB requires not only that each school overall meet an appropriate level of annual yearly progress, but every subgroup in that school also has to meet an appropriate level of AYP. If one subroup doesn't meet AYP then the school is considered a failure. This also allows the ridiculous situation in which a school is stellar by state standards but fails by NCLB standards.

On balance, I'd have to say that the good outweighs the bad, and by a wide margin.

Who among us does not want our government to be held accountable? Who does not want at least some assurance that their federal tax dollars are being spent wisely by the states? Who does not want to limit wasteful spending? Who does not want their children to be protected from being the subjects of an experimental educational fad (like whole language and fuzzy math)? If you did not raise your hand to any of these questions, then NCLB is for you.

Who is against this law? People who want to be left alone. People who don't want to hear that they can or should do better. People who would rather teach what they want rather than remember that they are public employees. Unions that want no oversight over their members. And Democrat politicians who will take any opportunity to bash President Bush, even if it means hiding behind children to do so.

If you're given a poor curriculum and your school performs poorly, that's not NCLB's fault. That fault belongs to your school and district administrators.

If you're in California and you blame NCLB for testing, you're misinformed. California's Standardized Testing and Reporting system pre-dates NCLB by a few years. It was passed by a Democrat-controlled legislature and signed by Democrat Governor Gray Davis. STAR's testing requirements, both in subjects tested and grades tested, are more stringent than NCLB.

If you're a teacher and you complain that the test isn't aligned to the standards, that's your state's fault. States choose the tests that are given.

If you're a teacher and you complain about having to spend too much time prepping for the test, that isn't NCLB's fault. Either an administrator is foolishly mandating that or you're not teaching to standards.

If you're a parent and your child's teacher disparages the No Child Left Behind Act, ask that teacher which of their students they'd choose to leave behind--and hope it isn't yours.

Update, 9:20pm: Number 2 Pencil has a story about implementing the sanctions of NCLB at http://www.kimberlyswygert.com/archives/002611.html

Update, 3:20pm, 2/2/05: Joanne quotes from this blog entry (and adds so much more) here:


EdWonk said...

I teach both 7th and 8th grades here in California's Imperial Valley. I agree 100% with everything you say about NCLB!

You did an outstanding job discussing what should be on every teacher's mind in this age of ever-increasing accountability.

Dan Edwards said...

Howdy Darren,

Nice summation about NCLB's highs and lows. As a social studies teacher, I have a problem with California's new social studies test for Grade 8. Apparently, from the test I saw briefly from one of our Grade 8 teachers, our 8th graders are being asked to know US History material that includes material that is supposed to be taught to them in Grade 11. The State Dept. of Ed. needs to get their 'crap' together and at least test 8th Graders on the material they had (hopefully) a chance to learn in Grades 5-8, not throwing in questions about the Great Depression, Nuclear Age and Vietnam.
I will be curious to see if this years test is any better.

Darren said...

Thank you for your comments. I truly appreciate them.

I've heard about the social studies standards. Obviously something that needs to be fixed!

I wrote this post because I tire of hearing fellow teachers blame NCLB for every testing issue that comes up. As professionals we need to have facts at our disposal, not emotions and (in some cases partisan) sniping.

Darren said...

I've heard about the state of Washington's education politics--and not much of it is good! Of course, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation isn't an unbiased source, but they seem to know what they're talking about.

And while I'm criticizing Washington's education politics, let's talk for a moment about gubernatorial elections!

EdWonk said...

Linked on Education Carnival #1 :)


Anonymous said...

Am printing your post, passing to several teachers here, and adding you to my blogroll! Thanks for the post from a LArge Urban School District teacher!

The Examined Life

Anonymous said...

Something I didn't see mentioned is that "No Child Left Behind" can also result in "No Child Moving Ahead". The whole thing reeks of "convergence to the mean" since this causes teachers to have to spend more time on the lower-performing students at the expense of the brighter ones.

I mean, a teacher with just one "underperformer" who threatens to blow the average for the whole grade/subgroup is in some cases made to ignore the vast majority of "normal" and "above normal" students just to get this one student up to par. Since I recall there always having been a certain percentage of students who just do not care and just do not belong in school, I don't know that I think catering to them at the expense of everyone else--particularly those who might shine with some more attention--is doing so much good in the long run.

Chuck Temple, SC

Anonymous said...

You point out that a high school teacher only has a student 1 hour and the other 23 are far beyond his/her control. You also admit that the standard is too high. Eventually, (2014, I believe) every school is expected to make sure that EVERY child achieves. As a high school teacher, how can you expect me to make sure a student achieves when he/she is chronically absent and I have perhaps three hours of contact per week? How am I supposed to be responsible for that child not being "left behind" when I hardly have the chance to see him/her? How can I make a student achieve when he has a home life that far outweighs anything going on in the classroom? It isn't that I am unwilling to make the effort to reach those students. I have been teaching for over 15 years because I refuse to give up. I love teaching and I have worked specifically with at-risk kids for many of those years. But, the reality of the situation is that it is not possible to force anyone to learn. The best analogy I have heard is that of a patient who goes to the doctor and is told that he needs to exercise, change his diet, stop smoking, and embrace a healthier lifetyle. When he leaves the doctor's office and does none of the things suggested, is the doctor responsible for the patient's self-destructive behavior? Then how can a teacher be held entirely responsible for each and every student, even those who do not want to attend, let alone apply themselves to learning? At the secondary level, this is the concern I hear voiced most often. How do you help those who don't want help?