Saturday, July 25, 2009

"No Child Left Behind" or "No Child Left Alive?"


July 24, 2009

Dear President Obama:


I know you’ve got your hands full: the economy imploded last year and millions are unemployed; two insanely expensive wars still rage; the American people are suffering badly with lack of healthcare, or healthcare that’s unaffordable. The world as we know it is changing quickly, often in bad ways—thanks to out-of-control pollution and global warming that we either won’t admit to or can’t fix (not that we have the money to, anyway). And those pesky conservatives are praying for you to “fail” and trying to stymie your efforts for positive change at every turn. 


Nevertheless, despite all the chaos and all the issues on your ambitious agenda, I must plead with you to focus on one more:  education.  As I was writing this yesterday, you were speaking about a race to the top for American students. Sounds great; let's get to the top. Let's just, please, not make the same stupid mistakes as before.

The biggest mistake (maybe ever?) in education is, to my mind,  No Child Left Behind (I shudder even typing those hateful words). NCLB, as it is known, and as you surely know it, is a reform enacted by the Bush Administration. It is a plan that seems, on its surface (or seemed, when it was first introduced so many years ago) to be a no-brainer. Who wants children to be left behind, especially American children? Who could ever say, “Yeah, let’s just leave them behind?"  It’s like a for-us-or-against-us patriotic issue—but what else would you expect from the administration of George W. Bush?


In actuality, however, NCLB in its seven frustrating years of existence has been destroying, not improving, our entire educational system and hurting exactly the students it purports to help.


I beg you now to eradicate it. As a teacher and as a mother, as an educated person who finds NCLB about as callously simplistic in its practice as “Just Say No” was for The War on Drugs when Nancy Reagan touted it so many years ago, I ask you please, Sir, dismantle this plan. 


NCLB, while it aims to provide top-notch education to all American students (or, at least, aims to show that our students must be decently prepared, given their scores on certain tests) actually turns school into a factory-like system. Students in certain years spend literally months doing nothing but preparing for standardized tests, which are then used to chart the school’s “progress.” Those school districts whose students do not score a certain percentage at a Proficient level (which is ever-increasing) are then penalized and, soon afterward, shut down.


The worst part of NCLB is that it hurts the students who need help the most. Schools in poor areas, and in cities, or schools with large and diverse student populations, may not have had the funding in years past (or may not ever have attracted the most experienced or skilled teachers) to prepare every student to the utmost. These are the schools that get warnings—making teachers so paranoid that they will literally do nothing but “teach to the test.” These are the schools that then get closed, leaving the already-hurting students to go bring down the quotas somewhere else, while often needing to travel an hour each way to do it—which they can usually ill-afford.


Principals and teachers live in fear of NCLB. It is making their jobs nightmarish. It is turning our kids off.  Children are bored to tears with the constant drilling they endure, the lack of learning for learning’s sake, the total absence of inspiration, creativity, and room for “extras” such as field trips, library time, art, and gym--or just plain fun. NCLB is making school a miserable place and doing exactly what I believe, as an educator, is the worst thing that an educational system can do: ascribing meaning only to test scores and to numbers.  The only good thing to be said about NCLB is that kids have opportunities to win iPods if they score well as a group (the school then holds a lottery; yes, this happens where I live; that’s how messed up the program is).


Will our children be better prepared for life because they have taken several years’ worth of big state tests, lured by the very remote possibility of winning an iPod or iPhone? No. We all realize there is a profound difference between streets smarts and book smarts. At the rate we are going with NCLB, however, our kids may only have “test smarts,”—if that. 


Let’s scrap “No Child Left Behind.” It doesn't work and it makes everyone unhappy.  Instead, let’s make sure that all  “American Children Get Ahead”—because we care about educating each child as a whole, individual person, as human beings, not numbers.


Now having said all that, I must ask that you also show your support for the developing minds and talents of American kids by insuring that Gifted and Talented programs are fully funded.  As a nation, we put plenty of money into programs that we hope will raise up the lowest-scoring populations (whether or not these programs even work, as NCLB clearly doesn’t work too well), but while that was being done, the really brilliant kids were totally ignored.


I am not saying that brilliant students are more deserving of federal dollars than remedial students are. What I’m saying is that we can’t throw money at one problem (low performance) while ignoring the kids who may, in fact, turn out to be our best hope for fixing some of the gargantuan messes we as Americans currently face.


If we just let the smart kids fend for themselves, if we let them doodle in the back of classrooms while other kids get tutored, then are they ever going to reach their potential? No, they’ll probably just slide into mediocrity, fade into obscurity.


When school bores them (as it bores most kids right now), even the geniuses will just turn off and may even stop trying. They may never go on to achieve what they might have, if they had only had the opportunity for enrichment that not only Gifted programs, but also basic library services, art classes and even guest speakers and interesting field trips, might have provided. All these so-called "extras" have been cut because there's no time to draw and run around on the playground when absolutely everything hinges on some standardized tests. (Obviously, lack of enrichment hurts every student--not just the especially bright ones.)


Funding for gifted programs (the Javits funding) is going to come before the Senate next week. The House already passed it—which surprised me a bit, since I don’t have much faith in Congress right now, given the partisan bickering and blocking of progress. At least they voted to keep the funding the same as last year, and not reduce it. But anyway—the true test is in the Senate, and barring that, in you, President Obama.


If we want reform that will be truly meaningful, we need to start with our kids. They are the ones who inherit the problems we have created, or those that have been created and left for us to clean.  They are also the ones who may figure out how to solve them. It all starts with education.


One mess we can fix is No Child Left Behind.  Once that’s done, let’s also make sure that all our kids get what they need in school: namely, inspiration to achieve.


Thanks for reading this.


Elizabeth Collins

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