Bush Flunks Schools: If 'No Child Left Behind' Meant What It Said, It Would Offer Help, Not Sanctions

By Ohanian, Susan | The Nation, December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Bush Flunks Schools: If 'No Child Left Behind' Meant What It Said, It Would Offer Help, Not Sanctions


Ohanian, Susan, The Nation


The ESEA [No Child Left Behind Act] is like a Russian novel. That's because it's long, it's complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed.

--Scott Howard, former superintendent, Perry, Ohio, public schools

The Ohio Business Roundtable strongly supports the No Child Left Behind Act.

--Richard Stoff, president, Ohio Business Roundtable

At first, many people liked the sound of "No Child Left Behind," President Bush's education plan. Who could object? The press and the public responded positively to the sentiment--until the failure-to-measure-up labels started rolling in. But now, New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip says NCLB (pronounced "nicklebee") "may go down in history as the most unpopular piece of education legislation ever created."

Across the country, thousands of federal scarlet letters have been posted on schoolhouse doors. According to a Machiavellian federal formula, many schools well respected in their communities didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). In Florida, only 22 percent of the schools earning A's under the state's ranking system received the NCLB imprimatur; overall, 87 percent of Florida's public schools were judged inadequate. NCLB wonks are quick to point out that nowhere in the law is the word failure used. True. But everybody reads the "in need of improvement" tag as a euphemism for failure. And schools "in need of improvement" are penalized, so the distinction is a sham.

Note that these labels apply only to public schools. Private and parochial schools are exempt from the same requirements--even when they receive vouchers paid for with public funds.

Under what is termed disaggregation, a scheme central to NCLB, kids are divided into subgroups, every one of which must show 95 percent test participation (and progress). Here are Minnesota's: All Students, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Black, White, Limited English Proficient, Special Education, Free/Reduced Priced Meals. It's true that in the past, schools could hide poor performance of, say, special-ed students by averaging it in with that of excellent students. Pulling out the subgroups creates what is called transparency. And that's fine, as far as it goes. But under NCLB, transparency is transmuted into school-bashing. In the words of the North Carolina State Board of Education, "A school's making AYP is an all or nothing prospect. A school will either have 'Yes' or 'No' in this field." One of Palo Alto's top high schools received a scarlet letter because some students skipped the test to study for AP exams.

And remember, this is all based on how some squirrely kids perform on a standardized test that neither the public nor the educators have a right to examine. In some states a teacher is subject to reprimand or dismissal if she even glances at it. Or tries to comfort a child sobbing over the test.

Multiply the subgroups by two, since all subgroups have to measure up in both reading and math, with science waiting in the wings. Every category must have 95 percent test-taker participation and show adequate yearly progress. In a small rural district, a couple of kids having an off day can cook a school's goose. In a large urban school, it doesn't take many more. A school can meet as many as seventeen out of eighteen target goals, and because this game is all or nothing, still be labeled failing. Ninety-four percent--and failing.

If No Child Left Behind meant what it says, it would help schools concentrate on that 6 percent, not cripple the whole school with an ugly label and crushing financial consequences. If even 6 percent of the bombast supporting NCLB was in touch with reality, they'd take heed of the American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for America's Infrastructure, where public school buildings are ranked in worse shape than our bridges, transit systems and hazardous-waste disposal systems. …

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