Education and the welfare of children have been at the heart of the United States political climate since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The struggle for equality among minorities was highlighted in monumental educational events like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954) and the fight of the Little Rock Nine.

At the height of the movement came a Congressional act known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Lyndon B. Johnson had declared war on poverty and promoted the ESEA, an act designed to increase and improve educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged students. The most well-known component of the ESEA is referred to as "Title I." It was the largest federal education program in history, becoming the foundation upon which most educational laws are built.

An Educational Opportunity

Title I was the United States government's way of acknowledging that, if people are every truly going to be socially, politically, and economically equal, education has got to come first. In 1965 it was clear that educational equality was scarce and sorely needed, particularly with regard to students with special needs.

Children of impoverished or low-income families are more likely to require special education, due to health and lifestyle issues such as malnutrition, exposure to pollutants, etc. Before ESEA, these children were least likely to receive special education because their parents couldn't afford it. Title I created an avenue through which the federal government could award money to schools to provide for these extra educational needs, such as reading initiatives, tutoring programs, classroom aides, diagnostic tools, and the lowering of student to teacher ratios. Money is granted to schools based on their percentage of low-income students; the more poor students a school accommodates, the more Title I funds the school receives each year.

Roughly two-thirds of all public schools in the United States receive some Title I funding, though more money is spent at the elementary school level. Average Title I students are poor, non-white, and often live in urban or rural areas. These children tend to be less successful in classroom learning and on standardized tests, for a host of reasons.

Much controversy surrounds the use of Title I funds in our schools, particularly in areas where students are voluntarily desegregated. In these cases, many taxpayers are concerned that the school's climate and rate of academic success are hindered by the inclusion of disadvantaged children. In other words, the money Title I awards a school is less than the price of educating these children. The tension is mounting as schools begin to depend on test scores and so-called yearly progress to compete for federal funding.

Other terrific legislative programs, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Head Start, have their roots in ESEA. But the original act of 1965 has been reworked several times, which brings us to the matter at hand: George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind.

Changes Afoot

On January 8, 2002 George W. Bush signed the most recent revision of ESEA, known colloquially as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The new legislation is a radical shift from its namesake and, as some would argue, promotes values diametrically opposed to those championed in the original legislation.ESEA/NCLB is based on four target areas: adequate yearly progress, annual testing, teacher quality, and school improvement.

As a teacher, committed to the welfare and success of every child in my building and in my country and on the planet and in the universe, I have to tell you that at this point it's hard to be objective. When I hear "No Child Left Behind," my eyes narrow, my blood boils, and I have to consciously unclench my jaw before I seriously injure myself. I'd like to go through this legislation and tell you why it's the biggest piece of shit ever passed through Congress, and that's saying a lot. Ojectively, of course. Shall we try it?

No Child Left Behind

President Bush's goal is that all students reach a proficient level on state-chosen, standardized math and reading tests by 2014. To reach this goal, every federally funded school must annually achieve a minimum level of improvement (at least 10% reduction in the number who are not proficient). Two states can choose to measure progress differently. They're awarded money the same way.

If one state decides to maintain higher standards of excellence, less children in that state will qualify as proficient, regardless of their actual ability as compared with students of a state with lower standards. Some states are already opting to use more lenient assessments to ensure they don't lose federal funding. ESEA/NCLB effectively forces state legislators to choose between making a difference, and making an appearance.

Another problem with "adequate yearly progress" is that it must be uniform for all subcategories of students (read: minorities)1, including those of various races, ethnicities, behavior and learning disabilities, income levels, etc. That's right. It makes no difference if your students have been in the country for 3 months or all their lives. By 2014, they've all got to be proficient at reading and mathematics in English. Your students who are mentally retarded, homeless, dyslexic, terminally ill, and who have all manner of special needs will all be required to score at the proficient level or better. Notice, I've said score. It doesn't matter if they actually are proficient. They just have to score that way on a standardized test.

A Level Playing Field?

Each school can annually omit 5% of students from the assessments on which adequate yearly progress will be based.2 But this is not 5% of the collective student body. Rather, this is 5% per minority subgroup. So if I have 100 students receiving free or reduced lunches, I can keep 5 kids' results from being counted. If I have 50 students who do not speak English, I can keep my 2 least successful students from testing. Hardly a fair percentage, considering that AT LEAST 10% of my students have to improve to proficiency level each year. And these students don't take modified assessments. They take the same tests as the students whose parents send them to Space Camp, who pay for private tutors, who read to them each evening, who raised them in an English-speaking household, and so forth. On its face, NCLB seems to be the absolute pinnacle of equality: every child expected to meet a minimum proficiency, leaving no child behind. What's wrong with that?

The problem is that schools who don't meet adequate yearly progress goals are put on this list. The next year, if they don't meet the minimum 10% plus the difference from the year before, students may opt to leave the school for another, while the school loses a portion of its federal funding. The school is at this point required to foot the bill for students who wish to attend other schools, as well as provide any supplemental services deemed appropriate. Year by year, struggling schools will have increased interference from federal mandates. Which schools do you suppose are the ones who will fail? The wealthy schools, or the impoverished? You'll love this next bit.

As the school continues to fail, the government takes "corrective action,"3 appoints a team of "specialists" to enter the school and restructure it, all at the school's expense--the school that's already lost the majority of its federal funding! Now if there haven't been monumental results by this point, the school district will have to extend the school day or school year, which costs--yep, you guessed it--additional money! The school is now paying for students to be transported to other districts, absorbing the costs for their enrollment, providing specialists and tutors and supplemental resources, lengthening the school day and year, and they're doing this without a large portion of their funding which would have come via Title I.

"Bush's plan is like telling children to run a marathon on a gravel path, but some will run barefoot while others will wear $100 running shoes. It's not hard to guess who will come in first."4 No Child Left Behind sets unreasonable goals with no increase in investment, and if it continues as planned, it will only serve to further alienate minorities and widen the gap between rich and poor. Surprise, surprise.

Those who can, teach. Those who can't, pass laws about teaching.

Not only is the government demanding 100% success in 12 years, but they're demanding success without any insight. If schools are failing, how should they change to succeed? The lawmakers give us nothing. No bold insights into the educational process, no terrific tools for reaching the at-risk youth of our inner cities. Throwing money at the problem won't help, especially considering it's the same inadequate funding schools have been receiving for decades.

Education has always been a power granted at the local level. School boards have always been free to decide students' curriculum, school environments, and the quality of their teachers. NCLB is boldly declaring that if you can't take care of your own, we'll come in and take over. If the teachers and staff who work intimately with a child one-on-one for several years are unable to help that student achieve proficiency, how will a complete stranger?

It is possible that No Child Left Behind will lead to the privatization of what is now public education. 5 The supplemental provisions, outsourced educational experts, and forced school closures will take public funds and award them to private educational companies. Many argue that this legislation is not founded in educational beliefs, but in political and economical beliefs. Eventually educational progress will be controlled by the free market. This would be ultimately beneficial to those who are already dominant in our capitalist society, not those who rely on government intervention, social programs, and grassroots democracy. What was once a stand against inequality and poverty in our society has now become another tool of the privileged. When students are reduced to statistics and test scores, when teachers are judged on product rather than process, when classrooms become assembly lines and factories, school is no longer about education or the needs of children and communities.

Certainly no child should be left behind. But the expectation that all children should maintain a set standard of proficiency doesn't keep children together. It alienates them and sets them up for failure. A 10th grader with an IQ of 60 cannot and should not be expected to reach 10th grade reading proficiency. Education should not be measured in percentiles, but in experiences. The new EASE/NCLB legislation won't leave a child behind--it'll leave all children behind.

Works Cited
4Miner, Barbara, "Bush's Plan is Shallow and Ignores Critical Details." Rethinking Schools. February 2001. (02.01.04).
5 Karp, Stan, "The No Child Left Behind Hoax." Rethinking Schools. November 2003. (02.01.04).

eliserh says: there's something surreal about Bush advocating any kind of educational reform
LaggedyAnne says: no kidding. it's sort of like the blind leading the nearsighted.

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