Thursday, December 19, 2013

No Child Left Behind Taken to Task

The Death and Life of the Great American School System
by Diane Ravitch
Published by Basic Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

I have been a public school teacher for less than a decade and already I'm suffering severe whiplash from the various educational fads that come and go at the speed of light. When I left college, I was excited about the opportunity to share great literature with my students, to explore universal themes that have shaped and influenced humanity, to encourage them to be avid readers and competent writers, to help them think for themselves and to eloquently articulate their thoughts and beliefs while still respecting and listening to those who opposed them. Imagine my disappointment when I found that the main focus of my job was to teach my students how to speed read a passage, correctly answer the related multiple choice questions, and to provide one well-written open response to a given prompt--all in 25 minutes. I wanted to help my students become literate and thoughtful individuals who will become responsible and informed citizens; my government, however, wants me to churn out professional test takers. Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System takes No Child Left Behind to task and Ravitch willingly admits that she was once one of its fiercest champions. However, she now (just as candidly) admits that she was wrong and this book is her explanation of how she came to realize NCLB has been one of the most detrimental attempts at school reform. Others have lambasted Ravitch's mea culpa as "too little, too late" and have shamed her for being part of the government system that created this problem. However, I appreciate that, in this political climate, a public figure can actually have the integrity to say, "I was wrong" (as she quotes John Maynard Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind"). We have now lived with NCLB for nearly a decade and the facts are in.

NCLB is a grand aspiration; however, aspirations by their very nature often set their sights higher than what is attainable. I do not have a qualm with the hope that all children will receive a quality education and be able to attain certain standards of academic excellence. That is, after all, why I became a teacher. Yet this aspiration can only be reached in a perfect world where every child comes from the same economic background, has a support system at home that values and champions education, has the same intellectual capacity, and has the same intrinsic motivation to learn. To say that 100% of children in American schools will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 is ridiculous; it is admirable as a hope, but not as a mandate. To borrow an analogy from Ravitch, that would be the equivalent of the government declaring that all crime in America will be eliminated by 2020 or that cancer will be cured by 2017--and, if not, then policemen and medical researchers will be fired, and ineffective police stations and hospitals will be shut down. That is essentially what is happening in American education. Schools that don't meet this deadline risk government takeover and teachers risk losing their jobs. They've given us an impossible task and will punish us if we fail to deliver the goods.

Some highlights from the book include:

*NCLB dictates testing in only two areas: literacy and mathematics. As a result, many schools actually narrow the focus of education as all the time and energy becomes focused on passing the test. Literature, social sciences, fine arts, the sciences, etc. do not receive as much emphasis--or they become utilized as hours of extra practice for these tests. The tradition of producing a well-rounded citizen through a liberal arts education is a thing of the past.

*NCLB is all about assessment, but provides no national curriculum. Each state is allowed to set its own standards and assessment strategies. Therefore, a child labeled as "proficient" on the Alabama state test might score "below basic" on the Massachusetts state test. With such a disparity in what a student is expected to know, it is impossible to say that the children in one state are outperforming students in another.

*States can manipulate test data by actually readjusting the cutoff for what is proficient; in addition, when a state's scores dramatically increase, the public should look to see if minority or low SES students are being systematically pushed out of the education system. For example, Ravitch reports that many scholars claimed that "the [2000] gains in Texas were a mirage; . . . the testing system actually caused rising numbers of dropouts, especially among African American and Hispanic students, many of whom were held back repeatedly and quit school in discouragement" (96). Many states who report dramatic gains in either literacy or mathematics do not see these gains reflected in data from NAEP, ACT, or SAT national tests that are beyond the state's control.

*A school with 56% student proficiency may not suffer any consequences if they have made their projected gains for the year; however, a school in a nearby district with 86% proficiency may be subjected to school improvement and labeled a poorly performing school if it failed to make its projected gains or failed to move one subgroup up to the appropriate rate of improvement. Never mind that the school has a higher proficiency than the other school; such confusion in standards leads to public confusion as to which is the better school. I'd want my kid in the school with 86% proficiency, projected AYP be damned.

There's so much more here that I could rattle on about, but I'll leave it at simply encouraging everyone to read this book. You may agree or disagree with Ravitch and her proposed solutions to education; that's fine. What's not fine, however, is that most of the American public doesn't understand what role government and private sector interests are playing in our educational system. We passively sit by and assume that the government is doing everything it can to make our nation's schools more competitive with other countries. We see newspaper articles about improved test scores, witness state politicians bragging about the significant gains made by the students in their constituency, and cheer as teachers are being fired and schools are being shut down when test scores are dismal. We think that there's a new sheriff in town and, by God, someone is doing something about those fat cat lazy teachers (a hilarious offering from The Daily Show regarding this perception! What we don't see is how the data is flawed, the curriculum is narrowed, and educators have become the sacrificial lambs in a system that is broken. There needs to be a rigorous national curriculum, a standardized method of assessment that is used to improve and enhance curriculum (not as a data-driven witch hunt), and a renaissance of the liberal arts. None of that is happening under NCLB.


  1. Very nice review and analysis, Amanda. I think that being an elementary or high school teacher in this country has always been an under-appreciated, profession that is little understood by large segments of the population who would readily make teachers the scapegoats for any number of problems that are largely beyond their control.

  2. Thank you. There are some elements in education that should be changed, but I agree that most of the people who go into the profession have the best interest of the students at heart.