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NCLB: The Death Star of American Education

Dear Deborah,

I know you are touring schools in Japan and soaking up lessons for us as you travel. Since you have Internet access, I'd like to share some thoughts about a momentous occasion: the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind, which occurred on January 8.

After 10 years of NCLB, we should have seen dramatic progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but we have not. By now, we should be able to point to sharp reductions of the achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups and children from different income groups, but we cannot. As I said in a recent speech, many children continue to be left behind, and we know who those children are: They are the same children who were left behind 10 years ago.

In my travels over the past two years, I have seen the wreckage caused by NCLB. It has become the Death Star of American education. It is a law that inflicts damage on students, teachers, schools, and communities.

When I spoke at Stanford University, a teacher stood up in the question period and said: "I teach the lettuce-pickers' children in Salinas. They are closing our school because our scores are too low." She couldn't finish her question because she started crying.

When I spoke at UCLA, a group of about 20 young teachers approached me afterwards and told me that their school, Fremont High School, was slated for closure. They asked me to tell Ray Cortines, who was then chancellor of the Los Angeles Unified School District, not to close their school because they were working together as a community to improve it. I took their message to Ray, who is a good friend, but the school was closed anyway. The dispersed teachers of Fremont are still communicating with one another, still mourning the loss of their school.

When I spoke to Citizens for Public Schools in Boston, a young man who works as a chef at a local hotel got up to ask what he could do to stop "them" from closing his children's school. It was the neighborhood school, he said. It was the school he wanted his children to attend. And they were closing it.

In city after city, across the nation, I have heard similar stories from teachers and parents. Why are they closing our school? What can we do about it? How can we stop them? I wish I had better answers. I know that as long as NCLB stays on the books, there is no stopping the destruction of local community institutions. And now with the active support of the Obama administration, the NCLB wrecking ball has become a means of promoting privatization and community fragmentation.

I have often wondered whether there is any other national legislature that has passed a law that had the effect of stigmatizing the nation's public education system. Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that 82 percent of our nation's schools would fail to make "adequate yearly progress." A few weeks ago, the Center for Education Policy reported that the secretary's estimate was overstated, and that it was "only" half the nation's schools that would be considered failing as of this year. Secretary Duncan's judgment may have been off the mark this year, but NCLB guarantees that the number of failing schools will grow every year. If the law remains intact, we can reasonably expect that nearly every public school in the United States will be labeled as a failing school by 2014.

If you take a closer look at the CEP study, you can see how absurd the law is. In Massachusetts, the nation's highest-performing state by far on NAEP, 81 percent of the schools failed to make AYP. But in lower-performing Louisiana, only 22 percent of the schools did not make AYP. Yet, when you compare the same two states on NAEP, 51 percent of 4th graders in Massachusetts are rated proficient, compared with 23 percent in Louisiana. In 8th grade, again, twice as many students in Massachusetts are proficient compared with Louisiana, yet Massachusetts has nearly four times as many allegedly "failing" schools! This is crazy.

More evidence of the invalidity of NCLB. The top-rated high school in the state of Illinois, New Trier High School, failed to make AYP. Its special education students did not make enough progress. When outstanding schools fail, you have to conclude that something is wrong with the measure.

The best round-up to date of the catastrophe that we call NCLB was published by FairTest in its report, "The Lost Decade." I know you have read it, as this is an organization dear to your heart. I recommend this report to our readers. It shows in clear detail that progress on NAEP was far more significant before the passage of NCLB.

Congress, in its wisdom, will eventually reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I hope that in doing so, they recognize the negative consequences of NCLB and abandon the strategies that have borne such bitter fruit for our nation's education system. NCLB cannot be fixed. It has failed. It has imposed a sterile and mean-spirited regime on the schools. It represents the dead hand of conformity and regulation from afar. It is time to abandon the status quo of test-based accountability and seek fresh and innovative thinking to support and strengthen our nation's schools.

Diane

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