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Volume I, Number 8, August, 2003

NCLB: AKA "Helter-Skelter?"

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Note: This article first appeared online in June, 2003 at KQWeb, a Web publication of the ALA (American Library Association). © 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.


No previous action by the federal government has posed a graver threat to schools, children, teachers and librarians than the current ESEA law and its regulations, disingenuously labeled "No Child Left Behind" by clever promoters.  Given its radical experimentation and risky, unproven change strategies, NCLB should instead be named "Helter-Skelter."

Sadly, media specialists must play by NCLB rules even as they seek to convince their congressional representatives that the law must be radically amended or repealed.

A school that ignores the demands of NCLB will face an awesome array of consequences. NCLB is the educational equivalent of "Shock and Awe."

As long as the law creates a punitive system with inadequate funding and only token gestures toward capacity building, media specialists must rise to the challenge of helping their schools face NCLB.

Among other things, they must help to create test results to safeguard them from the damaging sanctions and choice provisions embedded in the law and its recently published regulations.

This article will consider three main questions regarding NCLB:

  1. Which elements embedded in NCLB are most likely to damage schools, children, teachers, media specialists and library programs?
  2. What steps can media specialists take to help schools maintain a broad-based commitment to rich curriculum while scoring well on the tests that now rule our lives?
  3. How can media specialists combat ill-considered legislation like NCLB?

I. Dangerous Elements of NCLB

During the Fall of 2002, I visited several school districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students where I learned they were narrowing curriculum offerings and scripting lessons in order to drive up test scores and avoid the dire consequences of failing at NCLB.

I was alarmed by such a drastic swerve away from sound education to a factory style that was narrow, undemocratic and essentially unhealthy for children.

Even though children are not hamburgers and schools are not fast food restaurants, some NCLB "reformers" act as if they were.

With its narrow focus on math and reading scores, NCLB threatens to choke off balanced educational programs, especially for our least advantaged students.  In the name of "saving" them, NCLB will actually starve them.  NCLB condemns them to permanent status in the under class.  It also worsens an already desperate funding crisis for library programs.

The school libraries and library programs of urban and disadvantaged children have long endured poor funding in contrast with their suburban peers:

"Era of Neglect in Evidence At Libraries," Education Week, December 1, 1999.  Kathleen Kennedy Manzo http://www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=14libe.h19
As far back as 1985 I testified against the state of New Jersey for its drastic under funding of urban schools and library programs.

Such under funding has persisted into this new century and is likely to worsen thanks to a very weak economy and various NCLB's impacts.

"Misinformation Services: Nation's School Libraries Desperate for Funding" February 7, 2000 - ABC News, By Amy Sinatra
Many school librarians say their shelves are full of books 20 to 50 years old, many with badly outdated information. They are hoping new legislation will provide a much-needed infusion of funding.
http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/school_libraries000203.html

By forcing a narrow focus on basic skills programs and phonics, NCLB undermines support for wide ranging reading, pleasure reading, free reading and school research.  The National Reading Panel Report is laced with distorted findings pushing a narrow phonics approach undermining support for richly defined reading programs.

This narrow agenda is enforced through a new program funded at the meager level of $100 million to be spread across disadvantaged districts:
"Improving Literacy through School Libraries"
This new program is designed to improve the literacy skills and academic achievement of students by providing them with access to up-to-date school library materials; technologically advanced school library media centers; and professionally certified school library media specialists. http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/reference/1b4.html
Like much of NCLB, this program combines grand rhetoric with woefully inadequate funding and lip service.  $100 million is a drop in the library bucket.  To put the dollars in perspective, a single school district of 100,000 students (Baltimore County) recently spent $ 10.5 million to upgrade the library collections of its 50 secondary schools.
"School Library Renaissance in Baltimore County" - by Della Curtis in Multimedia Schools, Nov/Dec, 2000. http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/nov00/curtis.htm
But more insidious than the pitifully low funding is the language on pseudo science nestled within this program:
As districts plan their library improvement efforts, they are required to use programs and materials that are grounded in scientifically based research.
This phrase (scientifically based research) is a powerful Trojan Horse meant to force through the narrow educational agendas and ideas held dear by this administration. Few of their own claims about "scientifically based research" stand up to close scrutiny.

For examples of the DOE's poor track record on scientifically based research, see "Fuzzy Math, Fuzzy Reading and Fuzzy Science," McKenzie, No Child Left, April, 2003 http://nochildleft.com/2003/apr03fuzzy.html and "Review: Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies" McKenzie, No Child Left, April, 2003 http://nochildleft.com/2003/apr03truth.html

This push for SBR (scientifically based research) has ominous implications for school library programs that go virtually unmentioned by school librarians, administrators and observers.  It seems to fly below the radar of most of them (like any good modern Trojan horse). 

We have what amounts to Stealth policy making. To see the terms being forced on us by NCLB, take a look at the  "CSR Practitioner's Guide to SBR - What is SBR?" at http://www.goodschools.gwu.edu/pubs/pg/sbr.htm

SBR is defined for CSR by the following six criteria:
  • Employs systematic, empirical methods;
  • Involves rigorous data analyses;
  • Relies on measurements that provide reliable and valid data;
  • Uses experimental or quasi-experimental designs;
  • Ensures that studies are clear and detailed to allow for replication; and
  • Has been reviewed or accepted by independent experts.

This is a very limited definition of research - one that has already led to many distortions and abuses.  By setting these rules, the Administration applies blinders on the search to understand the complexities of human learning.  It is like trying to drive a modern locomotive down narrow gauge tracks.

By dismissing major research strategies other than their favorites, the Administration has "stacked the deck."  What is even more dangerous is the failure of the Administration to respect its own rules when citing research to support policy initiatives as noted in the articles cited earlier.

Concerned that there are many other dangerous agendas carefully hidden within the back pages and regulations of NCLB, in January of 2003 I launched this new educational journal, "No Child Left."  http://nochildleft.com

In the inaugural issue, I listed the following problems with NCLB, each of which is explained at some length.  "Gambling with the Children." McKenzie, January, 2003. http://nochildleft.com/2003/jancov03.html

Major NCLB Issues

1.    Lack of evidence for the change strategies imposed on states and schools
2.    Unhealthy and undemocratic focus on a narrow reading and math curriculum
3.    Inadequate funding
4.    Punishment before capacity building
5.    Top down mandates
6.    Diversion of limited public funds to home-schooling, and to religious, charter and corporate schools
7.    Forced school choice through quick failure strategies
8.    Packaging over content
9.    A lack of scientific evidence for Technical Assistance
10. Too little focus on social causes of poor performance
11. Violations of separation of church and state
12. Violations of state rights
13. Invasion by corporate charters
14. Helter-Skelter movement of students
15. False Orthodoxies
16. Political Motivations
17. Recklessness
Several aspects of NCLB and related threats are especially noteworthy for media specialists:
  1. Elimination of "non-essential" programs and staffing such as libraries and librarians
    Many states such as California and Oregon have been eliminating media specialist positions for more than a decade. Facing even more severe budget shortfalls and a NCLB agenda that narrows the focus to simple math and reading scores, all staffing positions deemed non-essential are likely to fall under the budget ax.
  2. Narrowed definitions of reading
    We will witness weakened commitment to project-based learning, literature appreciation and programs that require analysis, inference, interpretation and synthesis. NCLB pays lip service to solid library programs but does nothing to protect them in fact.
  3. Regimentation of reading
    The administration has pushed hard for heavily scripted reading programs and has pushed particular programs. By tying library funding to "scientifically based research," it throws its weight behind the commercial products of huge companies who are able to conduct studies that seem to comply with the research requirements until examined more closely.

II. A Dozen Steps Media Specialists Can Take

It may take several years before the narrow focus and hidden agendas of NCLB are revealed, broadly known and discredited.  Meanwhile, because it is the law of the land and the quality of school life will depend upon effective compliance, there are at least a dozen ways a library media specialist might prove indispensable.

1. Understand  - Familiarize yourself with the key elements of NCLB and help your staff and principal to identify vulnerabilities, opportunities and survival strategies.  Become the NCLB Source.  Get to know the hidden traps and agendas.  Take nothing at face value.  Sign up for professional alerts of various kinds about NCLB so that you and your school will not be caught blind-sided.  You will find a list of some of these resources at http://nochildleft.com/links.html

2. Network -  Connect with others in your region to pool resources and figure out the most effective survival strategies.  Broaden the school's connections with the outside so that it is not trapped within its own narrow perspectives and rituals.

3. Research  - Become the most knowledgeable person in your school about the types of items your students must pass, especially on the reading tests.  Be the best reading teacher in the building.  Identify and share the best practices for elevating student performance on comprehension questions.

4. Team - Make a point of meeting with each teacher at least once a month to discuss how you can work together to increase the independent reading of each student while enhancing the reading skills of each student.  Make your willingness to help with reading performance well known.

5. Enrich - Identify books, digital resources and other materials that will help teachers and students practice effective reading strategies in curriculum rich ways.  While there will be some pressure to acquire class sets and programs that limit reading to narrow segments of literature, balance those materials with a broader range likely to appeal to your students.  Consider adding books to your school's professional collection such as Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. (Keene and Zimmerman , 1997),Non-Fiction Matters: Reading, Writing and Research in Grades 3-8. (Harvey, 1998) and Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding. (Harvey and Goudvis, 2000)

6. Promote Thinking Skills - Help your colleagues understand the types of thinking skills students will need to score well on demanding reading tests.  Model techniques to teach students to become strategic readers as defined in this article, "Scoring High," McKenzie, April, 1999, From Now On. Show how analysis, inference, interpretation and synthesis are best developed in the context of challenging passages and research.

7. Equip - The goal is to equip all students with a toolkit of problem-solving strategies so that they can get unstuck when they are stuck.  Reading success depends upon the capacity of young ones to handle the unexpected and figure things out independently.  The memorization of patterns and set sequences will not produce strong readers who score well on demanding tests.  The media specialist remembers the adage about showing people how to fish rather than handing them a fish. 

8. Protect What Works  - Don't let anyone dismantle the broadly defined reading programs you have provided over the years.  Protect them.  The development of comprehension skills depends upon such rich reading experiences.  True comprehension relies upon a complex array of skills that have not been adequately reviewed or promoted by the National Reading Panel in its zeal for phonics and quantitative data.  Most of the studies reported were concentrated on early years and did not measure complex comprehension.  A school that swerves too far in this radical direction may raise several groups of students who read words well but passages poorly.

9. Entice - Continue past efforts to awaken the students' love of reading.  Help the students in your building taste the joys of reading as a way to understand their own diverse lives.  Combat the factory approach to reading by making sure they see how a broad reading experience will allow them to develop as individuals.  Point students and staff to reading that will motivate, delight and inform them so reading wins out over TV, computer games and many of the competing entertainments of this pop culture that do little to enhance student capabilities.

10. Focus - Paradoxically, while the library can bring a rich assortment of reading opportunities to staff and students, there is a need to channel efforts toward growth in skill and comprehension.  It is not enough to offer resources for exploration.  The resources must be purposed more clearly for development of capacity.  The media center becomes less centered on eating and more devoted to feeding.

11. Track - What is each student reading?  What are the interests of each student?  What are the skill needs of students?  How well does the collection serve the curriculum standards and support instructional units?  The media center collects data to optimize effectiveness.  The data also helps with the call for "scientifically based research.

12. Market the Program - In times of acute budget shortfalls, library media centers and programs are often cut back along with other programs that are viewed as non-essential. While this is foolhardy during an Information Age, many decision-makers are poorly informed regarding the benefits of a strong library program. Few media specialists are comfortable tooting their own horns, but silence on these matters can lead to total program extinction. Identify all of the school's stakeholders and make certain they know why your program is essential to the school's success.  For a fine video example (6.5 minutes) of this kind of marketing, "Libraries are the Heart and Soul of the School," contact Kelly Kuntz of the Beaverton, Oregon schools at Kelly_Kuntz@beavton.k12.or.us.

III. Combating Harmful Legislation

When they voted for NCLB, many members of Congress had no idea that it would create such turmoil and unleash such damaging forces.

The law seemed well intended.

The goals appeared lofty.

As the NCLB realities sink in, members of both political parties are having second thoughts about this law.  One of the main reasons they are having second thoughts is the noise being made by their constituents who have grown alarmed about the impacts of NCLB.

In all the world, the loneliest people must be that handful of men and women of the Department of Education dispatched by the Bush administration to wander the country, defending the new No Child Left Behind Act.  Talk about friendless.

Michael Sentance, the Department's Northeast representative, sat before Vermont's joint House-Senate committee on education not long ago, and sustained two hours of hammering by Republicans and Democrats alike.

You never saw such bipartisan contempt.

"A Pervasive Dismay on a Bush School Law,"  Michael Winerip in the New York Times March 19, 2003.

The best you can do as a media specialist is to contact your representatives and help them to see the many negative impacts thrust upon schools by NCLB.  Trust the politician's instincts to line up on the side of good policy and local interests.  They need to hear specific stories that dramatize the effects.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.