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On January 8th, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into existence the No Child Left Behind act, a bipartisan cooperative effort to encourage national education levels to rise.  The honest idea of this act is commendable.  However, its implementation and technique has been… less than commendable.

There are a number of problems with the act, not the least of which is the attachment of financial penalties if your school does not consistently meet percentile requirements in achievement tests annually.  Here is where we run into one of the largest problems: the NCLB act does not have a nationwide standardized test system to measure the performance of students.  We instead trust each state to set up standards that are of equal level with the other states.  This is a lot like telling a student we will give them a grade based on what they feel they should get, regardless of what the point structure is.  It doesn’t work.

The other problem with assigning the amount of monetary influx given to schools based on the school’s performance on such tests actually encourages the school to “teach the test”, meaning that they only teach the type of information on the test, instead of teaching real world applications of knowledge.  For instance, they may only teach the simple addition and subtraction problems that the test uses, instead of word problems and practical application problems that lead to true cognition, instead of rote memorization.

One of the other problems is the marginalization of special education and gifted students.  As reported in the New York Times, by journalist Michael Winerip, gifted student programs are being pushed to the fringes, as schools scramble to utilize the money they do get from the program to only bolster the lower-scoring students, and ignoring programs that can and do encourage our students that are advanced to advance even further.

Jane Clarenbach, public relations director for the National Association for Gifted Children, has reported that in 1998, 25 states reported that 80 to 100 percent of the local school districts offered services to gifted students.  By 2005, it had dropped to 22 states reporting that.  7 years caused a 12% decrease in the gifted education programs of our country.  Ladies and gentlemen, that means if we were grading our gifted programs and education, it would have dropped an entire letter grade.

In addition, while former President Bush did budget an extra $90 million in 2005 for Advanced Placement mathematics and science programs, he also eliminated, annually, the $9 million Javits Act, which is the only federal financing for elementary and middle school gifted programs.  These are the programs that will prepare younger students to enter the Advanced Placement program.  Thankfully, a bipartisan coalition in Congress saved it each year.

Here is another catch of the program: emphasis on only reading and mathematics.  The act and its focus on those two subjects have created a reduction in history, science and arts education in our public schools.  An independent survey performed in Massachusetts revealed a 20% decline between 2003 and 2005 in school field trips, particularly to museums.  This is noticed not only in New England.  In Indianapolis, IN, school principal Kathy deck is quoted to have said, “It hurts me to give up art, but it hurts me even more to have kids who can’t read.”  This quotes comes from a 2004 Washington Post article entitled “’No Child’ Law Leaves Schools’ Old Ways Behind”.  What we are seeing is very reminiscent of another program from history, which I will speak of later.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed an alarming statistic in 2008.  It tracked the achievement changes in 4th, 8th and 12th grade students across the country.  The study showed that while low-achieving students saw an increase of 13 points on the national assessment scale, but the highest-level students achieved only a five point increase.  This means that our top students are seeing only about 38.5% of the attention that the low-level students are.  This is not fair, nor is it intelligent.

Now before you cry “foul!” on me, understand something: my brother was always considered a low-level student.  And I hate that epithet to this day.  He was never “low-level”.  He learned at his own rate.  And trust me, he learned.  He ended up achieving his college degree before I did, and I was what was considered a “high-level” student.  What I am getting at here is not to say that our higher-functioning students do not deserve more focus than any other, but that each level deserves as much focus and dedication as any other.

There is one other arena where our youth are suffering because of this act: special-education students.  It was only recently that this cross-section of our nation’s youth got any momentous attention regarding the No Child act, when the NCLB was set for reauthorization in 2007.  Before this attention, there was a serious problem with special education students not receiving either the attention and focus needed to make them more capable members of society, or their inclusion in the standardized testing.  Schools would often “exempt” students with special needs from the testing.  This, again, is a sign of gaming the system, or making the numbers reflect what you want them to reflect.

What is worse, our schools are not tracked on a progress rate individually, but on a national scale.  It is not shown as an overall increase in the efficacy of curricula, but rather, it shows only how the school is able to keep up with the curve of the nation.  This is not smart.  In a lower population state like North Dakota, significant achievements in graduation rates are not on the same consideration level as California, where population is much higher.  I am not saying one is more important than the other, but rather, that they cannot be measured besides one another.  What’s worse, the NCLB functions only on a pass/fail system, and does not allow for a report on individual state progress.

Dr. Diane Ravitch, a prominent and respected educational historian, has recently performed a slow about-face regarding the current trends the government has been taking with regards to national education levels, turning her back on the programs she once supported.  In fact, she now supports a viewpoint that, “The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that was market-based began to feel too radical…”

I attempted to find more concrete evidence of the programs positive progress, in an effort to find redeeming qualities of the program.  I dug through the Congressional website, and other resources, but was unable to find a copy of any of the annual reports that were to be reported that was dated later than February of 2005.  This means that there are five years of information that have not been reported publicly, since the 2005 report would have been about the 2004 year.

President Obama is currently seeking to sweep through and reform the act, in an effort to improve its efficacy.  My review of pamphlets freely distributed showed a leveling off of learning trends since the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2003.  For instance, on the achievement progress of New York Public School students in the field of mathematics, there was an approximate increase on their scoring system between the years of 2000 and 2003 (before the implementation of the act) of almost 15 points.  The total increase, post 2003 and after the NCLB implementation, slouched to all of about 8 points over a period of 4 years.  This is not progress.

The program is set to decrease the federal funding a school will receive if they are unable to meet progress averages.  This is a lot like denying a hemophiliac patient the blood he needs to survive, while the man with the paper-cut can have as many transfusions as he wishes.  Not only that, but by assigning a monetary value on a school district and state level that is adjudicated by the performance of students on assessments test, it encourages schools to do whatever they can to pad the results of the test, to insure they get the funding they desire.  So, we have that previously stated trends of “teaching the test” and “gaming the system”, wherein the schools make the test provide the results they wish, without actually increasing the knowledge, application, and education of our youth.  This is a lot like the Jim Crow laws which were used to prevent many citizens of the United States from voting.

What’s more, it echoes a trend that has happened before in world history.  In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong implemented his Great Leap Forward program which was meant to catapult China into a modern, industrialized state, in order to be a world power.  One of the facets of the program was the government regulation of education, encouraging only the basic information to be taught, in order to facilitate the communist rhetoric of the equality of all citizens.  Within four years, the program was declared a failure, and China was left with a four year crop of students that were completely useless to the state.

It is sad to say, but this is the general direction in which our country is headed.  And there are some culprits, not the least of which being the NCLB, and teachers in general.

First of all, the No Child Left Behind act.  Monetary gains or penalties assigned with the performance of students will always cause problems.  School administrators will always do what is best to get their schools the funding that they need in order to provide more completely for their students.  As well, the act focuses only on bringing below average students up to the average, and does not encourage the education of the already midgrade students, and the excellent students, to excel in any way.  In this respect, we are creating a nation of mediocrity, instead of excellence.

It’s a shame that an act that truly is meant to bring our nation to the forefront in education and return us to the lead in many different fields in which we have come to be found lacking, is instead doing more to hold us back from that excellence.

Now, the teachers.  Teachers are only going into the field of education for the worst of reasons, not the least of which is the complete forgiveness of student loans.  With the Stafford Loan program, a student can be forgiven of all loan debt accrued from their education by teaching for 5 continuous years in an area declared to be of “urban disadvantage”.  So, our country finds students that are becoming teachers for very short periods of time, in order only to get out of paying back the money that the government loaned to them.

Also, teaching is no longer a vocation.  Too many people treat it as a job.  Much like religion, medicine, and other fields, being a teacher is a calling.  You feel called to serve your fellow man in your capacity.  You have to want to be a teacher, and not just want the summer vacation and pay rate.  This can be seen by any student.  And they respond in kind.  If a student knows that their teacher could honestly care less about them or their education, the student will in turn care less about completing the course work to earn the grade they are capable of.

But there are ways we can fix this.

One of the first ways is to remove the dollar sign from the No Child Left Behind act.  The government does not need to completely regulate curricula throughout our country.  They also do not need to be doling out money based on falsified test scores.  The act needs to stop focusing on pushing students through at all costs, and learn to make the system work properly.  A failing student should not be marginalized and pressed into dropping out under creative circumstances in order for the school to meet the requirements of the act.  Nor should a gifted student be restricted by a student who wishes to truly excel, but cannot because the programs available to him are ceasing to exist, or are just plain inadequate.

Number One, we have to stop seeing a failing grade as hopeless.  If a student is unable to complete the coursework because they are having difficulty, we should not teach them enough rote memorization of appropriate fact in order to shuffle them through.  This is doing the student no favor, and in the end, our nation no favor.  We instead need to see a failing grade as a chance to encourage the student to work harder to achieve their potential.  Teaching is not about only worrying about the succeeding students, but also about making sure the failing students make it as well.

As well, we need to understand that our students who are already succeeding beyond conventional expectations are not to be ignored because they already make the grade.  They have to be pushed to excel even more, to actualize their potential as well.  This is not to say they need increased workloads, but the quality of their work, and subject matter, should reflect their abilities.  They also have to be given access to teachers and materials that will help them do this, just as their lower-level counterparts need to have.

One of the first steps that can be taken is by Continuing Education for teachers.  By requiring teachers to attend seminars and classes that can reveal new breakthroughs in education technique and theory, the educator will evolve as well.  Some teachers will cry about this, as it takes time and effort on their part.  But this is a necessary step.  Again, teaching is a calling, not a job.  The current No Child Left Behind act calls for an increase in the quality of teachers, and I agree with this.  But it has to be done correctly.  This should be a national program, that teachers must attend these Continuing Education programs, in order to insure that we have a well-educated and dedicated core of educators.

This will also form the core of a weeding out process, to eliminate those who do not wish to do the job.  In any other career field, employees are required to receive annual or semi-annual progress reports to gauge their performance to date, and set goals for the future.  If an employee consistently ignores these goals and reports, and goes out of their way to stay their course, they are relieved of their position.  The same goes for educators.  They should be gauged not on the grades, necessarily, of their students, but the overall progress of the student throughout the school year.

“But what about problem students?”, you say.  “What about those students that you just cannot reach, no matter what?”  This will always happen.  But what has to be realized is that efforts must be made on the part of the educator that go above and beyond just the classroom.  School administrators need to be brought in on this, and programs need to be offered to assist these students.

“These cost money,” you say.  I agree, they do.  But there are ways for this to work.  One of the programs I participated in during High School was as a German language tutor.  From tenth grade through twelfth grade, I sacrificed either time after school, or one of my study hall periods to tutor lower-level German language students.  Encouragement of existing excellent students to help their fellows out will go a long way.  You still need to have an educator on hand in order to insure that they proper instruction is taking place, but I helped more than a small share of students earn higher grades this way.

As well, the usage of local public libraries and the study rooms they often have can be of great importance.  Libraries are, by their nature, bastions of learning.  There are manifold materials on hand that can be used to help students with their studies.  Schools all too often ignore their local libraries as places to hold tutoring sessions.  And again, educators and administrators have to understand that their salaried position goes above and beyond their Monday through Friday grind in the classroom.  Time before school, after school, weekend at times… all these are part and parcel of the job.  And in today’s age of electronic media and the internet, even face to face tutoring is not a total necessity.

Instead of always using the internet for a place to play games and look up the latest Hollywood gossip, it can be used in conjunction with a myriad of Instant Messaging programs to connect students with their instructors for help.  E-mail is another wonderful tool that can keep educators in contact with their students.  Involvement is paramount.  This goes as well for gifted students.

The dedication of teachers to students at any level of need is required.  Continuing Education, usage of media on hand, and the encouragement of other students to donate their time and know-how is a first step.  There are more steps.

Governmental spending on education needs to be closely watched.  Money that the federal, state, and local governments need to be regulated so that much-maligned and ignored school libraries are brought up to date and students have the most current tools to do their work with, including computers and textbooks.  If the government is going to get involved with education, it has to be in the appropriate roles.

The other thing that has to be accepted is that when a student fails a grade, it is not the end of that student’s academic career.  In fact, it is a call to attention for educators and administrators that come into contact with that student.  The failure is not only a problem of the student, but of the educator and the system as well.  The student is only one part of the system.  I do mean system.  When part of a system fails, the rest of the system has to work harder in order to keep the system working.  It does not mean the system faokils.

There was a shift in the American paradigm some time, where we stopped saying “Work hard, and reap your reward” and started saying “Failure is not an option.”  Failure is always an option, just not a savory one.  But we learn more from failure than we do from success.  And we learn by persevering through our failures.  Educators are there to help us persevere through it, and guide our efforts.  Administrators are there to assist educators to do the right thing, and assist the educators in assisting students to excel.  It is a system.

Because of this, we can no longer afford to allow the current No Child Left Behind act to continue, and must instead encourage our educators to excel just as we encourage our youth to excel.  Continuing education to insure our students have the most up to date instructors; annual reviews regarding the progress of students through the course of the school year; school administration (which includes principals, vice principals, guidance counselors, librarians, etc.) cooperating with educators in order to be sure that the students are getting what they need; government scrutiny to insure that state, federal and local funding is going to appropriate facets… all these must be implemented to make things work.

But there is one more factor that I have not yet spoken of.

Parents.

Parents have to become involved with their children’s educations.  They have to come to respect the fact that their child has earned the grade they get, even if it is a failure.  They have to realize that a failing grade is not only a wake-up call for their child, but for them as well.  Being a parent is a calling as well.  And when you are called in for a parent-teacher conference, it is not an inconvenience, but your job.  The teacher is calling you so that they are doing their job, and extending information to you as to you why your child is not doing well, and seeking to help the student excel.  So go, listen, and become involved.

It truly is a system.  It is a system designed to take the raw material of our children, and through the careful application of pressure, guidance, heat, and vigilance, our children can go from shapeless forms of raw material, into crafted forms that show their potential.  But it takes the whole system to work together in order for this to happen.  The government, as you can see, is not a direct hand in the system.  They just need to be sure that the money that they have given the schools is used properly.  From there, schools need to be a system of checks and balances between the administration, the educator force, and the parents.  Just as the way in which our government’s legislative, judicial and executive branches should work in concert towards a common goal, and keep each other in check, our educational system must work the same way.

I know this is not necessarily THE answer, but to me, it is the answer we need right now.  And it takes effort on everyone’s part.  This needs to be done, not for us, the generation that is, but for them, the generation to be.  Education is about setting the newest generation to surpass ourselves in excellence and achievement.  Period.

What do you think?

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One Comment

  1. You get them!


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