As you may or may not know the The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent authorization of which is known as No Child Left Behind-NCLB) is up for reauthorization sometime this fall. Diane Rehm featured this topic on her NPR show the other day. Her interviewees were Dan Brown, author of "The Great Expectations School:A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle " and Jonathan Kozol author of "Letters to a Young Teacher " along with Doug Mesecar, Acting Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development for the U.S. Department of Education. The two authors were much oppossed to NCLB. Dan Brown, as the title of his book suggests, taught for one year in an inner-city New York school. Jonathan Kozol is an advocate for equal education for underserved populations.
The discussion was very interesting and brought home for me some of the issues I have with public education today. One of the most pressing issues, in my opinion, is the extreme focus on standardized testing. This focus has resulted in teachers losing the ability to be creative with their curriculum, the virtual elimination of liberal arts and physical education curriculum in many schools and worst of all, a lack of critical thinking skills being taught. School administrators are so concerned about achieving adequate yearly progress (AYP) that teachers are instructed to focus on the basic skills that will be assessed. Questions that require in depth answers? There simply isn't time for that. Art education? No time. Recess? No time. Music in the elementary grades? No time.
One of the more unfortunate outcomes of such over-focus on assessment is that many children are being left even farther behind. I will bet that everyone who takes the time to read this will know at least one person for whom tests are not a good measure of what they know. It is simply wrong to measure children's progress based solely on the score of an annual standardized assessment, yet this happens repeatedly in today's public schools. An even more egregious wrong is done to children living in poverty. The very children this law, supposedly, was designed to help the most. The schools that the majority of these children attend were already struggling with budget shortfalls and inadequate learning environments. Now, when those same schools fail to achieve AYP, the school loses federal funds. Now, I'm not one who believes that education can be improved by throwing money at it; the problems go much deeper than that. However, I think it stands to reason that taking funds away from schools who struggle with serious social issues and have the most under prepared students are the very schools that need smaller classes and more paid aides and assistants. The net result from taking federal funds away from these schools is that you end up with teacher to student ratios approaching 30:1 in grades K, 1 and 2. How exactly is that serving students?
NCLB is failing our children and our society. We must have children that can do more than recite back to us math facts and punctuation rules. Children living in poverty must have adequate schools with adequate resources. Each and every one of us pays the price of providing unequal education. The one thing that NCLB and ESEA, in general, fail to take into account is the long-term. Standardized testing is focused on what kids know at a particular point in time. It is not concerned with whether they can actually use the knowledge they have.
It is also my opinion that ultimately, increasing school performance for the children most at risk of failure simply is not possible without addressing the underlying issues of poverty. Perhaps the work to improve education should actually be undertaken in the social welfare system? In other words, I think it is short-sighted and counterproductive to focus on education when the basic needs of so many children are not being met. Hunger, inadequate housing, multiple moves, imprisoned parents, violent neighborhoods are all barriers to learning that must be addressed concurrently with school performance.
As I was searching around for information on this issue I found a number of very interesting articles and reports. Most are referenced below along with links to information on the two authors interviewed by Diane Rehm. The NEA link includes an easy to use "contact your Congressperson" feature that outlines changes they feel should be made to NCLB as it goes up for reauthorization.