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Why Johnny Still Can’t Read

Oct 21, 2008
The decade has been obsessed with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the educational reform legislation enacted in the early years of the Bush 2 administration. In a world with increasingly few opportunities for unskilled labor, it has become essential that, for the first time in our history, we must teach all children to a higher standard. NCLB promised to do that through the establishment of clear standards for teachers and students to meet; an exchange of greater funding for more accountability in the schools; and a mechanism in the short run to allow students to transfer out of failing schools.

Today, just about everyone is unhappy with NCLB, and for good reasons. Though billions in additional federal funding were authorized for the program, the amount was grossly insufficient to reach NCLB’s goals. Furthermore, far less than even the inadequate amount authorized has been appropriated, with a gap between the two reaching a cumulative $85.7 billion between fiscal year 2002 and 2009.

Standards for academic content and student performance are the linchpin of NCLB, and the program has failed to spur the states to develop clear standards upon which to test teacher, student, and school accountability. In fact, allowing all 50 states to develop their own standards has resulted in chaos and confusion. Performance standards are also at wide variance among the states and are often set at unreasonably low levels in order to better attain the unrealistic 100 percent proficiency required by NCLB. Tests are of low quality and poorly scheduled. And accountability measurements, which can contain sanctions quite damaging to a school, create significant fairness issues owing to the variability of standards and assessments.

Teaching to a single standard will ultimately favor teaching those students on the cusp of meeting those standards, short-changing those who are hopelessly behind or already performing beyond the standard. Also, though socioeconomic status is the most important predictor of student achievement, teachers in poor schools are held to the exact same performance standards as those in rich schools, with no additional resources committed to them.

The student transfer provisions of NCLB represent perhaps the weakest element of the program, with only about 1 percent of students eligible to transfer out of failing schools actually doing so. The problem is there is nowhere to go. By limiting transfers within school districts, most parents see little point in transfering their child from a failing school to a nearly failing school. Though NCLB encourages cooperative agreements between districts to allow students to escape from poor inner-city ones, virtually none of the country’s suburban school districts has agreed to do this. Indeed, NCLB acts as a disincentive to break down economic segregation in our schools.

These and other weaknesses of the existing program are set forth in Improving on No Child Left Behind: Getting Education Reform Back on Track, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, et al., and published by The Century Foundation. Kahlenberg’s first chapter is available free of charge and summarizes the issues discussed above. He suspects the deliberate underfunding and other flaws of NCLB may be a ploy on the part of the Republican administration to set up public schools for failure in order to advance an agenda for privatizing American education. Paranoia? Perhaps, but altogether in keeping with the radical right agenda for shrinking government and privatizing everything in sight.

Kahlenberg’s recommendations for getting NCLB back on track are good ones. However, they are going to cost money. As argued in yesterday’s ATN entry, so will ending poverty and providing national health care. In fact, these incentives are going to require a significant attitude adjustment in the minds of the public and our elected officials. The first step in that adjustment is understanding that attending to these matters will ultimately—and not too distantly—result in a higher standard of living for everyone, as we work together to finally realize the American dream.
tags: Education

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