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Is it Time to End NCLB?


There is a fascinating story in this morning’s New York Times about the struggles of immigrant students who lacked formal education in their countries of origin. The New York public schools are, of course, obligated to accept and educate these students, most of whom cannot read or write in their native language, and must begin at a basic level to build the skills they need. I have seen this first-hand in the Oakland schools as well, where we get students from rural Mexico and Guatemala who may have attended little or no school prior to their arrival. They might be 14 years old, and are placed at the grade level indicated by their ages, and mixed in with other immigrant students.


This is a challenge we accept as educators, and many of our schools have been thoughtful, creating classes of newcomers, so at least these students can be with others in similar straits, and learn together. But there was a paragraph in the NYT article that jumped out at me. Professor Elaine Klein, who investigated this situation, reported that “At one Queens high school, she said, the principal eliminated two classrooms dedicated to these students. “He said, ‘Look, you have to understand my position: what this group does for my school is bring down my numbers.’ ”

This is one small indicator of the damage done by No Child Left Behind. There are students in New York City whose primary hope for a meaningful education has been destroyed because if the school hosts them, its scores will sink, and the school will be dismantled by the punitive sanctions in this law.

Another indicator can be found by looking at the phenomenon of “push-outs.” These are students who, similar to the illiterate immigrants cited above, tend to have the effect of lowering a school’s average scores. A recent report from Rice University in Texas found that schools in that state were retaining a large number of students in the 9th grade in order to make the schools look better on reports.

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students in a large urban district the researchers call Brazos City, the study found that 60 percent of the African American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

Researchers concluded:

The study finds that high-stakes test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of thousands of youth from the schools. These losses occur not as administrators cheat or fail to comply, but as they comply with the system as it was designed: that is, in the production of rising test scores for their schools. The study shows that as schools came under the accountability system, which uses test scores to rate schools and reward or discipline principals, large numbers of students left the school system. The exit of low-achieving students created the appearance of rising test scores and of narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, thus increasing schools’ ratings.

These increased ratings led to the phenomenon promoted by then-President George W. Bush as the “Texas Miracle,” which supposedly proved that low performing schools could make dramatic increases in test scores when properly motivated.

The report also mentions another effect of NCLB. The curriculum increasingly focused on preparations for the test.

A focus group of African American honor students at Lincoln felt that their classroom experiences had changed markedly since their teachers began paying increased attention to test scores. At the time of the interview, this particular school had been targeted for possible closure the next year due to failure under the Texas and federal (NCLB) systems of accountability. This group of honors level, college-bound students were able to describe the aggravation they felt when the focus of their academic curriculum was changed to test preparation. In one student’s words,
Instead of teaching us the real life things that we are going to need for college and stuff, they started zeroing in just on that test. So it makes everybody nervous, and it threw everybody off. So, like, our curriculum is thrown off, ‘cause what they originally were teaching us in the subjects, all of the sudden they switched, and then they were just zeroing into this test.

There is also an inequity in how this impacts students. According to the report:

There is evidence that the narrowing of the curriculum in response to test mandates further widens the inequities between poor and minority students and their more privileged peers. Under NCLB, more grade levels come under the high-stakes testing requirement. Gold (2007) found that this formula narrows the curriculum for minority students in urban schools, while the suburban schools retain a broader curriculum because they are not under a similar pressure to make a large increase in test scores.

I witness this in Oakland, where teachers in low-performing schools report that they do not have time to teach science and social studies, because of pressure to increase scores in math and reading.

These complaints about NCLB are not new, but the debate is all the more urgent now that we actually have a chance to end this law and make a new start in educational reform. There is a promising petition drive under way that focuses our attention on what real education reform should look like. It is called Will We Really? It proposes four key points.

1. Every child deserves a 21st Century education

2. Every community deserves an equal chance.

3. Every child deserves a well-supported teacher.

4. Every child deserves high-quality health care.

Please join me in signing on to this new start.

What do you think? Is it time leave NCLB behind?


NCLB has its cliches but for the first time we are able to have data to measure. Why should our standards be lowered to accommodate immigrant children? Or others who fail to comply? If anything lets set up a separate program enabling them to meet the standards. Why place these children in the classroom before getting them at the level of the population. This full inclusion starts the child at a deficit and children do not like to be hindered by full inclusion students.
Every child deserves a well supported teacher is the problem. Teachers are not supported with a resource teacher and given 15 to to 20 students in a classroom.
Never mind the immigrant children, we are failing the American children who deserve a right to a fair education.

Thank you for your thoughts.

First of all, I agree we have more data than ever, but I have to say that we did have standardized test data prior to NCLB. No Child Left Behind has made that data more consequential, since schools are punished if their scores do not improve fast enough. So there is more attention paid to the data -- but the data has been there for decades.

Setting up a separate program for newcomers is a reasonable approach, and that is what many schools have done. However, NCLB does not make any allowances for those students. If a school does not meet proficiency targets, no matter how many immigrants or special education students they may have, that school will lose federal funding. In my district this has led to the closure of a number of schools.

I agree with your suggestion that when teachers have students with particular challenges, such as immigrants or those with special needs, smaller class sizes and in-class support should be provided.

Those details about immigrant students highlight the total impossibility of meeting NCLB goals in the long run - in what year will NYC have zero students of this description? I hope it's the same year they need to be at 100% proficiency - and every year after that. But I doubt we even need to worry about this much longer. I don't foresee NCLB remaining in its current form another year.

I hit post too quickly... just to clarify, that's not a sincere hope I expressed above, but rather a facetious statement about an impossibility.

We're dancing around the real point here. Even if testing did make students perform better (it doesn't), why do we set up a system that "punishes" schools that need help? The presupposition is that teachers and administrators at failing schools already know what they should be doing, they are just lazy. The threat of losing funding is supposed to scare them into performing. This is insulting and wrong.
As a classroom teacher and then a tech facilitator, my experience tells me that there are problems, but laziness is not one of them:
1. Poverty – When a student is hungry, has holes in his shoes and no jacket, his mind is not prepared to do math. I have taught many students from poor, uneducated, often dysfunctional families. These kids have problems that a teacher simply can’t overcome.
2. Money – There is inadequate funding for tutoring, smaller class sizes, resource teachers and special programs to target kids in the sub groups that are having difficulty. Teachers can already tell you who can’t read. We don’t need testing to figure that out. We need help to get these students caught up while teaching the other 25 in the class.
3. Time – The ratio of planning time to teaching time is seriously out of sync with reality. Teachers have no time to get ready, therefore their lessons are often mechanical and uninspiring. Nights are filled with endless grading and morale drops accordingly. Over the years, many teachers develop a “stay afloat” mindset with kills off any hope of true growth and reflection in both their own teaching and learning.
4. Accountability – Teachers need to be judged on their own performance, not the performance of others. The only way to see how a teacher is doing is to create an observation system that can first help a teacher reflect on and improve his or her practice, and second identify true problem teachers that need to find a new career. Test scores are a snapshot of student performance, not teacher performance.

"NCLB has its cliches but for the first time we are able to have data to measure."

The problem is you are not necessarily measuring what you think you are measuring. Aside from the unfair situations pointed out in this article with immigrant children and those with special needs, the tests in math, particularly in the younger grades, don't necessarily show what a student knows; rather, they are a measure of the number of questions the student can answer correctly, or 'hand-wave' about enough to get partial credit.

With all the emphasis on the right answer and the teacher under huge pressure to get the children to produce the right answer, understanding is secondary. Most teachers teach 'recipe-math' ("Just learn these steps in order to get the right answer") and many, many students simply memorize formulas and procedures long enough to do well on The Test and promptly forget everything within a very short time. The poor foundation in math crumbles when the students start doing more advanced material in middle and high school.

This is the reason the students in the U.S. compare reasonably well in the early grades in math with their international counterparts but fall way down on the list by high school. NCLB is a shot in the foot (not the arm) for math education for all kids in the U.S.

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