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Volume II, Number 7, September, 2004
Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools
Deborah Meier and George Wood, editors
September
144 pages
Paperback
0-8070-0459-6
$13.00 U.S.


Many Children Left Behind - A Review

This is a courageous book. Authored by some of the most respected American educational thinkers of our times (Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond, George Wood, Alfie Kohn, Stan Karp, Monty Neil and Theodore R. Sizer), Many CLB shows the current Educational Emperor has no clothes. Sadly, such voices have been virtually silenced in recent years as the consideration of national educational policy has been reduced to a monologue launched by grey suited ideologues quick to dismiss the thinking of true educators.

In a few years we will look back at this dark period of educational history and realize, "It was the worst of times."

Many Children Left Behind does a chilling job of summarizing the case against the NCLB educational law and the policies put into place during George W. Bush's administration. It reveals the fallacies, the hidden agendas and the distortions embedded in this act.

Why courageous? There has been too much silence, too much compliance and too little outcry about an educational policy that is likely to level a decade of damage on our schools and our children (especially poor children) before the full consequences are understood. What we are seeing and what these authors reveal is a radical, right wing experiment cleverly dressed up to seem beneficial. To challenge this approach to school improvement is to throw one's career into severe risk.

  • Not a team player
  • Subversive tendencies
  • Soft bigotry
  • Terrorism
  • Un-American
  • Un-Patriotic
  • Apologist

Hidden Agendas and Broken Promises

NCLB contains dozens of hidden agendas that were slipped into a mammoth bill in ways that seemed to escape notice, as George Wood points out in his introduction. In addition, fundamental technical flaws undermine the capacity of NCLB to do good. Wood lists underfunding, restrictive definitions of teacher qualifications and arbitrary expectations for subgroups as just a few, but he argues that NCLB is more deeply and fundamentally flawed, throwing schools off purpose by stressing results on a few tests in ways that will actually undermine accountability and threaten the success of our children.

Missing the Point

Ted Sizer argues that NCLB fails to address the true causes of school failure and to advance an agenda for real improvement:

While NCLB was accompanied by much rhetorical emphasis on "research-based" education policy, the breadth of this research is narrow, largely settled on specific pedagogies and curricula that are "measurable."

Compelling research on larger themes --- the social reasons for school dropouts, the weakness of social capital in regions with apparently low-performing" schools, the misdesign of many schools, the evidence of growing inequities among population groups and communities, the impact of now ubiquitous media on the basic learning of children and adolescents, for example---find no place in the act. Page xxi

Testing is Not Fixing

Linda Darling-Hammond points out that NCLB fails to address many of the resource failures of education, whether it be inadequate textbooks, falling ceiling tiles or lack of heat.

Although the act orders schools to ensure that 100 per cent of students test at levels identified as "proficient" by the year 2014---and to make mandated progress toward this goal each year---the small per pupil dollar allocation it makes to schools serving low-income students is well under 10 percent of schools' total spending, far too little to correct these conditions.

Most of the federal money has to be spent for purposes other than upgraded facilities, textbooks, or teachers' salaries. Furthermore, while the law focuses on test scores as indicators of school quality, it largely ignores the important inputs or resources that enable school quality.
Page 8

According to Darling-Hammond, "The biggest problem with the NCLB Act is that it mistakes measuring schools for fixing them." She goes on to illustrate ways that NCLB has forced many states to lower their standards and how it has perversely encouraged some schools to improve performance by making sure low performing students leave. Rather than lifting the performance of low achieving students, NCLB can increase the number of dropouts and pushouts.

As with each of the authors of this book, Darling-Hammond offers a list of suggestions for policies that might actually lead to improvement. Not content to criticize, she takes on the issue of teacher quality, for example, and offers specific recommendations.

Overhauling NCLB

One of the best sections of this book is offered up by Monty Neil, whose group, FairTest, has been one of the most outspoken critics of NCLB.

Not content to criticize, Neil offers very specific alternative strategies for school improvement. Neil's section of the book is called "Overhauling NCLB."

Unlike the rigid and unrealistic demands of NCLB, Neil's focus is much more authentically local and much more realistically tied to the development of programs from the school and community level. He advances ten principles worthy of consideration:

  1. Shared Vision and Goals
  2. Adequate Resources Used Well
  3. Participation and Democracy
  4. Prioritizing Goals
  5. Multiple Forms of Evidence
  6. Inclusion
  7. Improvement
  8. Equity
  9. Balance - Bottom Up and Top Down
  10. Interventions

What does he mean by these? Good reason to buy the book!

The New Policy

This book marks an important stage in the dialogue about the future of American education. Discourse and dialogue have been drowned out by ideologues who have insisted that there is only one way to improve schools.

Many of these true believers have abused their positions of power at a national level to impose a narrow and politically charged agenda upon the schools. After decades of the Ed Department being seen as the amiable, supportive friend of local schools, the current Ed Department has made enforcement, punishment and arrogance its trademark.

History will judge them harshly.

© 2004 No Child Left and FNO Press, 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.