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meeting or exceeding
educational advancement for all!
by juli mccarthy

No Child Left Behind.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Such a poetic turn of phrase. It conjures the image of a sad child -- in grainy black and white ignorance, of course -- and an adult hand, reaching back, lifting the child up and leading him into the Technicolor world of enlightenment. The music swells.

"This law," said President Bush in 2001, "is the cornerstone of my administration." This was, of course, before he decided to concentrate on blowing up the Middle East.

The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is simple: all public school children in the United States must be given a sound basic education, and must meet or exceed state standards in reading and math by the year 2008. And the government is going all out to make it happen. We're talking big bucks here: $23.7 billion, most of which will be spent in just this school year. Why, that's more than a one-fourth of what's being requested for rebuilding Iraq!

The last time there was a real attempt at reforming public education in the US, we came up with Title I. A Title I school is one in which 50% or more of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Research has proven that economically disadvantaged children are generally educationally disadvantaged as well. Title I requires a school to provide a decent education to our poorest children, and to provide their parents with adequate information to effectively support their children's education. It is intended to help break the cycle of poverty, and so far it seems to be working. Emphasis is on literacy skills and parental involvement. NCLB is an attempt to apply Title I standards to all schools. In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, not so hot.

In order to assess how well public schools are serving their students, the students will be tested every year in 3rd through 8th grade and at least once in high school. Their scores will be broken down by every demographic imaginable: race, ethnicity, gender, migrant status, limited-English proficiency, disability status and low-income status. And each year, schools must demonstrate "AYP" - Adequate Yearly Progress. This means that every year, a greater percentage of students from each and every demographic group must meet or exceed state standards. Someone is going to have to grade and sort these test results. I think you can probably guess where a good chunk of that $23.7 billion is going...

Do I sound cynical?

Perhaps that's because of an interesting little paragraph from the Parents’ Guide to NCLB: "Annual tests to measure children's progress provide teachers with independent information about each child's strengths and weaknesses. With this knowledge, teachers can craft lessons to make sure each student meets or exceeds the standards." (Emphasis mine.) "Craft lessons" my Aunt Fanny. This is permission, almost spelled out, for teachers not to teach students, but to teach students to pass the tests. These two things can be, and often are, mutually exclusive.

Standardized testing is a joke. You remember these things - bring two sharpened #2 pencils and fill in the little ovals? I once got so bored with one of these I ignored the questions and just started making pretty patterns on the answer sheet, and still managed to score in the top 15% of the nation. You don't have to know the right answer, you just have to be able to guess which of the four answers provided sounds right.

Teachers, on the whole, would prefer to teach children to think critically and utilize information well. Believe me, they’re not in it for the enormous salaries and glamorous perks. But teachers are under new stresses with NCLB. Now, teachers must be highly qualified, not just merely qualified. This doesn’t mean we’re getting better teachers – had you going there for a second, didn’t I? What it means is teachers must now pass certification tests that were not required previously. A high school geometry teacher would naturally be able to teach remedial math, but unless she has a certification for remedial math, she is not considered “highly qualified.”

No matter how highly qualified a teacher is academically, he or she is likely not to be qualified to deal with severely physically, mentally or emotionally handicapped children. NCLB calls for space in mainstream classrooms for these children, only we don’t call it mainstreaming anymore. Now we call it "inclusion" and while it sounds like a bold step against discrimination, some children have very special needs that cannot be met in a standard, garden-variety classroom. We’re not talking about kids who have to pop into the school nurse’s office before lunch to receive their insulin shots or Ritalin pills, or kids whose crutches must be within reach at all times. We’re talking about children whose feeding tubes must be monitored and periodically cleared.

Accountability is an issue, too. But as spelled out in NCLB, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means. State school report cards will inform parents if a school is failing its children, or if teachers are not highly qualified. If a school fails to demonstrate AYP for two years running, it is put on a watch list and given another year to straighten out its act. If the school fails to do so after that third year, it may qualify for additional federal assistance -- if it is a Title I school. There is no provision in the law to provide for a school more than half full of middle- or upper-income students. If the school continues to fail past a fourth year, corrective action is begun, which may include replacing some staff or curriculum. If it still fails after five years, restructuring is the only action left, and this may include replacing most or all staff, changing to school to a charter school, or handing over control to the state. It can take up to six years for a school to prove that it is adequate. How many children will be left behind in that time?

And here’s another thing: students must meet or exceed state standards. The federal government has passed this law, but is relying on the individual states to measure its success (and ultimately to enforce this.) I suppose that stands to reason, since the states will also be funding most of this change. Dig that. For all the money they’re dumping into this, the federal government still only funds approximately 8% of public education. For those of you who did not meet or exceed your state’s math standards, that means a whole bunch of funding comes from somewhere else. Just a little something to think about when your property tax bill arrives. Like a good many federal mandates, this one is drastically underfunded.

Unfortunately, underfunding is a major problem for the states, too. In Illinois alone, 62% of public schools are already on a financial watch list. And although Illinois is required to fund 51% of public education in the state, it is currently only funding 33%.

Money is a huge issue for public schools, no matter what state they’re in. While the US spends more per student than any other nation (average per student is over $10,000) we rank only average in educational performance. And this is against nations who have NOT reduced or cut art and music programs from their curricula, and nations who teach children English as a matter of course.

On a personal note, my daughter is an eighth grader in a public school. 70% of the students in her school routinely meet or exceed standards, and AYP would put most of them right off the scales in less than five years. Meanwhile, art, music and elective classes (including technology) have been cut to redirect funding to ensure that the remaining 30% of the students can receive the support they need to pass the tests. In his quest to ensure that no child is left behind, the President has almost guaranteed that no child will excel, either.


A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy


jewelry-making with jiminy cricket
an ethical conundrum
by juli mccarthy
topic: news
published: 1.2.08


jael mchenry
9.30.03 @ 10:25a

What a killer last line.

Shameful, what passes for educational reform. I don't know what the answer is, but it's definitely not to spell out a standard at the federal level and refuse to give the states enough money to make it happen.

juli mccarthy
9.30.03 @ 11:35a

This was a tough one to write, because I could easily have gone on for five or six more pages. The law is so broad that it's absurd. Compliance is going to be nearly impossible, because there are so many aspects that have to be considered. I suspect the answer is going to be home-schooling, private education or charter schools for anyone who can possibly manage to do those things - leaving our public schools completely populated by those children who have no other recourse.

robert melos
9.30.03 @ 4:00p

Not having children, I don't usually follow school news in my area, but I saw several of the charter schools that opened in Central NJ a few years ago closed this year due to lack of funding.

I understand home schooling is on the rise. I only hope the kids will pay more attention to their parents as teachers than they do as parents.

juli mccarthy
9.30.03 @ 5:11p

Now that is interesting, Robert. Most charter schools in Illinois are still considered public schools, and not a few of them became charter schools because they'd tanked as "regular" schools. Since chartering is one of the Last Chance Saloon options for a substandard school, I wonder where a school that's already a charter school fits into NCLB.

robert melos
9.30.03 @ 11:04p

In NJ these schools, as far as I understood it, were funded by the state but being run as private considerations, almost like a business. The two most local ones folded one year after opening due to low enrollment. Since then I read where three more lost their funding, leaving, I believe, five or six left in the state. I have no idea where they would fall in the NCLB programs.

russ carr
10.1.03 @ 11:13a

Kathy and I have had some casual conversations about home-schooling Brendan when he gets old enough to "officially" begin learning. I know that if I had $10,000 to put toward his pre-collegiate home-based education, he'd be able to waltz right into any college he wants 17 years from now. Maybe only 15 years.

Why would I consider homeschooling? The City of St. Louis, where we live, has been unable to meet state accreditation requirements for years. At their last audit, they met only 3 out of 11 standards. As recently as 1998, they met only one. The district claims accreditation now only because an ever-extended court order has propped it up. Next year is the next audit, and there are now 12 standards. District executives are confident that the district has met 6 of the standards.

Uh...people? You need to meet at least 7 standards to get accredited. If these execs got their math skills in our school district, you can see why I'd just as soon teach Brendan myself.

juli mccarthy
10.1.03 @ 11:46a

The problem with home-schooling is that you don't have to only educate your child, but also yourself. This has become a very big issue here, because I am so disgusted with the school's options for my own kid. However, she's 13, which means algebra, American history, biology - subjects I am not even remotely qualified to teach. By the time I get my own education up to speed, she'll lose another year.

russ carr
10.1.03 @ 12:06p

I don't see educating myself -- or Kathy -- as a problem in any way. Actually I'm looking forward to re-immersing myself into some old studies and dusting off dormant math skills.

My editing skills, naturally, are already top-notch.


juli mccarthy
10.1.03 @ 12:19p

You've got an advantage there, Russ, because of Brendan's age. Homeschooling from the get-go is a less daunting proposition than taking over at the middle school level. If I could do it all over again, I'd DEFINITELY homeschool.

russ carr
10.1.03 @ 12:42p

My parents have kvetched openly to me that they wish they'd done so -- and I even went to private school!

The text you quoted from the NCLB guide assures me that OBE (Outcome-Based Education) is still alive and well and dumbing down our kids in the name of statistics, subsidies and self-actualization. I want no part in that. NCLB is a pretty concept and it makes good rhetoric, but to what point are all these not-left-behind kids being brought forward? The "inclusive," oversized classes to which you refer leave teachers dragging these kids forward with all the acceleration of a chihuahua pulling a Buick; "no child left behind" then becomes "quite a few children held back" because they don't get their skills nurtured adequately.

I want my child(ren) to meet or exceed MY standards, anyway.

matt morin
10.2.03 @ 8:12p

And in other news: Bush wants another $600 million to keep looking for WMD in Iraq.

Apparently we won't leave any non-existant warheads behind either.

sarah ficke
10.2.03 @ 9:44p

I worked with a home-schooled boy at a camp one summer in high school and I concluded that either he was naturally quiet and gentle or not being around boys of his own age seriously altered his development.

But, having gone to a private school, I can't really weigh in on the pros and cons of public schooling. Except to say that no teacher with a class over 10 students can design a curriculum to suit them all at once. Especially if there are kids with learning disabilities or others who need special help.

juli mccarthy
10.2.03 @ 11:02p

Sarah, you make an excellent point about home-schooling: lack of socialization. Peer interaction is the one thing home-schooled kids traditionally get a lot less of.

The home-schooling community, though, has changed dramatically over the past several years. Where once it was the haven for the ultra-religious and the new age hippies, now people from all walks of life are doing it, and I would say the majority of them are aware of the socialization issue. I see more and more "minischools" or parent co-ops where five to ten kids are homeschooled together, and community programs like sports, Scouts and so on are providing additional opprtunities for kids to interact with one another.

eloise young
12.16.03 @ 1:43a

This kind of idea is what produced the situation where everyone else in my class (age 7ish) had a "spelling tin" to learn spellings they didn't know, but I didn't. When my parents asked the teacher why not, she said she didn't have time to teach me spellings because I was "above average" and the spelling tins were only for everyone else. As if a 7-year-old already has all the vocabulary she's going to need for the rest of her life!

When I think, though, of how much richness of syllabus across subjects I learned in (a better, private) senior school, I am mystified how any one or two parents could teach it. There's so much! How daunting.

matt morin
2.20.04 @ 12:12p

Did anyone see this today?

russ carr
2.20.04 @ 12:28p

Geez. Why don't they change the name of the program to "No Child Gets Ahead"?

robert melos
2.20.04 @ 4:51p

Bush is flip flopping. The program isn't working, and he's scrambling to make it look good for the press.

juli mccarthy
2.20.04 @ 6:10p

Son of a ....

I knew this would happen. I'm not exactly speechless here, just too pissed off to form sentences. I'll be back.

karl kiessling
7.24.05 @ 1:13a


What do you think of Montessorie schools? Gabrielle, my wife attended one early in her education and she rave about the experiences.


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