There’s nothing quite like the speed of news. By the time you’re reading this, you already know who won the BCS Championship as well as the New Hampshire primary. From my vantage point on Sunday night, it’s hard to look ahead. However, the past seems to be coming through with uncommon clarity, and on that account, let us train our scopes on the most controversial legislation to affect education in the past decade, the No Child Left Behind Act, celebrating its 10th birthday this week.
Now I’ve done it. Some of you are about to bolt from this space because the prospect of reading 900 words about school and teachers is insufficiently alluring. You don’t have kids. Fine. But you do have a stake in public education, if not for the future of the country, then for the future of you. After all, those kids clumped in the classrooms today are going to be funding your Social Security and Medicare coverage tomorrow, assuming they’re educated sufficiently to get and hold decent-paying jobs in the next 20 years.
At 1165 Eaton Avenue in Hamilton, Ohio, the epochal signing of the No Child Left Behind Act has been commemorated in bronze. A statue of George W. Bush and eight onlookers was erected outside Hamilton High School, where the ceremony took place Jan. 8, 2002. NCLB was one of the president’s first legislative initiatives after taking office in 2001, and significant because of his wife Laura’s background as an elementary school teacher. Mr. Bush called the act “the cornerstone of my Administration,” though it was essentially a reauthorization of an education bill first enacted in the Administration of another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, in 1965.
What made NCLB different was the degree to which the federal government would be involved in local education (a bit of a surprise to any who’d thought GWB a doctrinaire conservative). The act mandated that state schools make adequate yearly progress or face corrective action, and required standardized testing of students to measure that progress. The law stated its aim to have all American students reading by grade three and proficient in math and reading by 2014.
Laudable goals, but they would be undermined eventually by another concept of NCLB: “flexibility with accountability.” States were allowed to define their own concepts of proficiency, which made it easier for lower-performing schools to appear to be leaving no children behind (thus avoiding the dread “corrective action”). Another phrase made it into the popular lexicon: “teaching to the test.” Under pressure to deliver high scores from their charges so that their schools would show adequate yearly progress, many teachers with under-performing classes resorted to what influential education evaluator W.J. Popham preferred to call “item-teaching.” That is, instead of focusing their instruction on the general class curriculum, these teachers would make sure their students were able to answer specific questions on the standardized progress tests.
(Never mind for a moment that it’s unethical. Just contemplate a world turned upside down wherein teachers are trying to get copies of tests before exam day.)
Certainly it is a good idea to measure performance, but, as a National Research Council blue-ribbon committee reported last year, “When incentives encourage teachers to focus narrowly on the material included on a particular test, scores on the tested portion of the content standards may increase while understanding of the untested portion of the content standards may stay the same or decrease.” The report noted that while nationwide exit exam scores were rising, the high school graduation rate remained flat.
One member of the committee, Professor Dan Ariely of Duke University, suggested that NCLB’s emphasis on testing actually demoralized teachers. “They got teachers to care less rather than more,” he told reporter Joy Resmovits. “They took away a sense of personal achievement and autonomy.”
If you know a teacher, you’ve probably been privy to a good bit of off-the-record testimony to this effect. It’s tough enough for a teacher to cram knowledge into the crania of kids without having to cope with local school bureaucracies, but when the madness is multiplied by a factor of Washington, too many qualified instructors choose to get out of teaching altogether. That’s lamentable, because here in Alabama, we need more people with a heart for teaching in schools, not in the private sector.
The state legislature convenes next month, and with AEA honchos Paul Hubbert and Joe Reed newly retired, you can bet the GOP-controlled eating machine will be looking to make a meal of the education budget. At best, Alabama teachers will be saddled with more costs for insurance or retirement funding; at worst, the solons will cut school funding across the board, expanding class sizes while hiring no new personnel. Teachers in systems with high community tax bases, such as Homewood, Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, might be able to weather such a storm, but what will happen in rural counties of Alabama where revenue streams are down to a trickle?
America as a whole lags behind the world in key demos: 14th in 12th grade advanced math skills, 15th in 12th grade advanced science, 15th in reading literacy. The trickle-down? Here in America, Alabama is the 43rd best-educated state, and you’ll find us in the lower tier in most of the significant education stats. Spending less money on state education is not going to improve the situation. Ask the Greeks how austerity has worked out for them so far.
Children left behind eventually become adults left behind. On the state level, on the national level, it’s a crisis we can avoid if we consider the needs of the many above the dictates of a few. Reconsidering No Child Left Behind would not be a bad way to begin.
By the way, if you’re looking for symbolism, stop by Hamilton, Ohio. Roadside America reports that you can’t actually see the George Bush NCLB statue right now. It’s closed for renovations.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.