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Volume II, Number 8, October, 2004

THE SEVEN DEADLY ABSURDITIES OF NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

By Gerald W. Bracey
Gerald W. Bracey is an associate professor at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia and an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Ypsilanti, Michigan. His most recent book is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U. S.: Second Edition (Heinemann, September 2004).

In the presidential campaign thus far, the only words spoken about No Child Left Behind, Bush's signature education law, have come from George and Laura Bush. They claim it's working. It isn't. It can't. Kerry should challenge the Bushies for the following reasons:

1. The No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) uses the phrase “scientifically based research” 111 times and demands such research from educational researchers, but no scientifically based research-or any research--supports the law's mandates.

2. NCLB lacks research support because NCLB depends solely on punishment. As schools fail to make arbitrary “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) the law imposes punitive, increasingly harsh sanctions. No psychologist, educator or organizational theorist would establish such a system, much less expect it to work (can one imagine Tom Peters or Peter Senge coming up with such a harebrained notion?). NCLB is in the great tradition of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

3. Even those who think punishment can occasionally be beneficial would never use it as NCLB does. It punishes the entire school for the failures of the few, often the very few. If a school's special education students fail to make AYP, the whole school fails. If a school's English language learners fail to make AYP the whole school fails. If 95% of any group fails to show up and bubble in answer sheets on test day, the whole school fails. NCLB requires schools to report test score data by various student categories. Most schools have 37 such categories (California has 46). Schools thus have 37 opportunities to fail, only one way to succeed. This is nuts.

4. All students must be proficient in reading, math, and science by 2014. This is ridiculous. In his 2003 presidential address to American Educational Research Association, Robert Linn, projected it would take 61 years, 66 years, and 166 years, respectively, to get fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders to the proficient level in math. Alas, Linn's projections are wildly optimistic because he reported only national aggregate data, not data disaggregated by ethnicity. In the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 5 percent of African-American eighth graders and 7 percent of Hispanics were proficient in math. Only 37 percent of whites, 43 percent of Asians, and 15 percent of Native Americans reached this plateau.

5. As a consequence of #3 and #4 above, California projects that by the witching year of 2014, NCLB will label 99 percent of its schools “failing.” Minnesota, one of the nation's highest scoring states, projects that 2014 will find 80 percent of its schools wanting.

6. Any school that fails to make AYP for two consecutive years must offer all students the option to transfer to a “successful” school. Thus, if a school's special education students fail to make AYP one year and its English language learners fail the next year, the school must offer all students the “choice option” in spite of the fact that the school worked for the other 36 student categories.

In cities, the choice option is a farce. This year, Chicago had 200,000 students eligible, but only 500 spaces for them. In 2003-2004, 8,000 New York City students chose to transfer. After taking flak from principals whose schools received these students, the city deliberately flouted the law, permitting only 1,000 transfers. Deputy Secretary of Education, Eugene Hickok, has said that crowding at the receiving schools is no excuse for denying students admission unless the arriving swarms will violate health or safety codes. In July, I notified Mr. Hickok by both email and postal service of Chicago's and New York's violations of NCLB and asked him what he planned to do about it. So far, he has been silent on cities as scofflaws.

7. Schools alone cannot accomplish what NCLB requires. After all, between birth and age 18, children spend only 9 percent of their lives in schools. Family and community factors such as poverty affect achievement. Poor children enter school well behind their middle class peers, and while research finds they learn the same amount during the school year, they lose that learning over the summer and they fall farther and farther behind. Critics, of course, blame the schools for what happens in the months the schools are closed.

There is more--for instance, the contention that students not “proficient” are “left behind” presents a false dichotomy-but the reader can no doubt get the picture, from just the seven sillinesses above.

To some, NCLB has always been yet another Bush administration Orwellian Double Speak program. It aims to increase the use of vouchers, increase the privatization of public schools, reduce the size of the public sector, and weaken or destroy the teachers unions (two Democratic power bases). It contains enough inherent absurdities, though, that people of all political stripes should welcome a speedy revision or demise. The candidates should be talking about all this.

© 2004 Gerald W. Bracey, all rights reserved.
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.