from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Moral Implications of No Child Left Behind 

Often critics of No Child Left Behind, the Federal education law that is due for reauthorization in 2007(and hence SHOULD be part of the debate of every House and Senate race this cycle), focus on things like time drawn away from instruction for test preparation or the costs imposed on states beyond the funds provided by the fededral government. Some, including me, note how the law seems structured to define public schools as failing and to enrich certain educational providers who often have personal (Neil Bush) or political (Harold McGraw) links to Bush and those around him.

This morning I’d like to offer for your consideration a somewhat different perspective, one that attempts to place it all in context. I will below offer the contents of a PDF released by the National Council Of Churches, downloadable here, entitled Ten Moral Concerns in the Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act; A Statement of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy . The document is only two pages, and well worth your consideration.

I will not quote all of the document. I will offer the introductory paragraph, and then each of the ten concerns expressed by NCC. I will offer a few comments of my own. Where underlining and/or italics is shown, it appears that way in the original.

The introduction:
Christian faith speaks to public morality and the ways our nation should bring justice and compassion into its civic life. This call to justice is central to needed reform in public education, America’s largest civic institution, where enormous achievement gaps alert us that some children have access to excellent education while other children are left behind. The No Child Left Behind Act is a federal law passed in 2001 that purports to address educational inequity. Now several years into No Child Left Behind’s implementation, as its hundreds of sequential regulations have begun to be triggered, it is becoming clear that the law is leaving behind more children than it is saving. The children being abandoned are our nation’s most vulnerable children—children of color and poor children in America’s big cities and remote rural areas—the very children the law claims it will rescue. We examine ten moral concerns in the law’s implementation.

Here is the complete first concern:
1. While it is a civic responsibility to insist that schools do a better job of educating every child, we must also recognize that undermining support for public schooling threatens our democracy. The No Child Left Behind Act sets an impossibly high bar—that every single student will be proficient in reading and math by 2014. We fear that this law will discredit public education when it becomes clear that schools cannot possibly realize such an ideal.

Complete proficiency by 2014 is impossible for almost every school, even if you do nothing except test prep. In the meantime, at some point just about every school will fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress and thus be in jeopardy of being labelled failing.

2. The No Child Left Behind Act has neither acknowledged where children start the school year nor celebrated their individual accomplishments. A school where the mean eighth grade math score for any one subgroup grows from a third to a sixth grade level has been labeled a “in need of improvement” (a label of failure) even though the students have made significant progress. The law has not acknowledged that every child is unique and that thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings. Now, four years into implementation, the Department of Education has stated it will begin experimenting with permitting 10 states to measure student growth. Too many children will continue to be labeled failures even though they are making strides.

The fact that the Department of Education is allowing such experimentation is seen by some advocates of the law that DOE really wants to see success. I fear that there are two other reasons. First it is an indication that the law was flawed in its original design. The second reason may be more sinister -- allow flexibility now is intended to remove as much as possible the fact that necessary “progress” is not being achieved as a political issue in this election cycle. If the full impact of NCLB is beginning to be understood in the states, it would make education a hot political issue. NCLB was always in part intended to be something to remove the issue of education from political discourse because it was something on which Democrats had a significant advantage over Republicans.

3. Because the No Child Left Behind Act ranks schools according to test score thresholds of children in every demographic subgroup, a “failing group of children” will know when they are the ones who made their school a “failing” school. They risk being shamed among their peers, by their teachers and by their community. The No Child Left Behind Act has renamed this group of children the school’s “problem group.” In some schools educators have felt pressured to counsel students who lag far behind into alternative programs so they won’t be tested. This has increased the dropout rate.

I think the foregoing is pretty self-explanatory. Merely focus on the following -- “failing group” “shame” “increased the dropout rate” --- please explain how there are supposed to support the idea of leaving no child behind?

4. TheNo Child Left Behind Act requires children in special education to pass tests designed for children without disabilities. schools by concentrating on the schools alone.

And because of this, one might argue that MCLB violates the spirit of three major laws designed to more fully integrate handicapped, learning disabled and other special education students, The Rehabilitation Act, IDEA, and ADA.

5. The No Child Left Behind Act requires English language learners to take tests in English before they learn English. It calls their school a failure because they have not yet mastered academic English.

6. The No Child Left Behind Act blames schools and teachers for many challenges that are neither of their making nor within their capacity to change. The test score focus obscures the importance of the quality of the relationship between the child and teacher. Sincere, often heroic efforts of teachers are made invisible. While the goals of the law are important—to proclaim that every child can learn, to challenge every child to dream of a bright future, and to prepare all children to contribute to society—educators also need financial and community support to accomplish these goals.

The incorrect underlying assumption of the testing regimen of NCLB is that what is being measure (a) is strictly the result of what happens in schools, and (b) that it is also an accurate measure of anything of importance within the school. Neither assumption is correct, as point 6 makes clear.

7. The relentless focus on testing basic skills in the No Child Left Behind Act obscures the role of the humanities, the arts, and child and adolescent development. While education should cover basic skills in reading and math, the educational process should aspire to far more. We believe education should help all children develop their gifts and realize their promise—intellectually physically, socially, and ethically. The No Child Left Behind Act treats children as products to be tested, measured and made more uniform.

This point addressed the narrowing of the curriculum as bluntly as is possible. It points out that even were we educating every child by this approach, we would not be educating the whole child. One can note that not onlysubjects not being tested being cut back or even eliminated from elementary schools, we are seeing a reduction of recess time. We face a ballooning of chidlhood obesity, and we already know that children need time to exercise and burn off energy. This approach is therefore dangerous to the longterm health of our children and our society.

8. Because the No Child Left Behind Act operates through sanctions, it takes federal Title I funding away from educational programing in already overstressed schools and uses these funds to bus students to other schools or to pay for private tutoring firms. A “failing” school district may not be permitted to create its own public tutoring program, but it is expected to create the capacity to regulate private firms that provide tutoring for its students. One of the sanctions provided is to close or reconstitute the “failing” school or to make it into a charter school, but in many places charter schools are unregulated.

A succinct statement of one of the major failings of NCLB’s punitive measures, the lack of regulation. This lack of regulation also applies to the providers of supplemental services, many of which are for profit organizations with little or no track record of prior success in the kinds of services they are selling.

9. The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as “in need of improvement.” Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.

Racial and economic segregation, or should we properly label it as apartheid. It will merely perpetuate what Jonathan Kozol years ago properly termed as “Savage Inequalities.”

The late Senator Paul Wellstone wrote, “It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage. When we do this, we hold children responsible for our own inaction and unwillingness to live up to our own promises and our own obligations.” The No Child Left Behind Act makes demands on states and school districts without fully funding reforms that would build capacity to close achievement gaps. To enable schools to comply with the law’s regulations and to create conditions that will raise achievement, society will need to increase federal funding for the schools that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children and to keep Title I funds focused on instruction rather than on transportation and school choice.

Wellstone was one of the few in either chamber of Congress who truly understood the implications of this issue. Here I would caution that money applied to the schools is an insufficient solution, because the inequality of our schools is a reflection of the inequality of our society at large. This is a moral issue, and NCC recognizes it as such:

Christian faith demands, as a matter of justice and compassion, that we be concerned about public schools. The No Child Left Behind Act approaches the education of America’s children through an inside-the-school management strategy of increased productivity rather than providing resources and support for the individuals who will shape children’s lives. As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings to be nurtured and educated. We call on our political leaders to invest in developing the capacity of all schools. Our nation should be judged by the way we care for our children.

I realize that some who read this will object to the injection of faith into the discussion. I would remind those that without leadership by clergy, the civil rights movement would not have achieved the success it did. When people attempt to impose their faith upon others, then I object even if there is congruence between their set of beliefs and my own. But when people are motivated by their faith to seek to help those not of their own kith, kin or faith groups, and when they seek to do so by persuasion in the marketplace of ideas and by attempting to persuade policy makers, then I welcome the discussion.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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