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Volume III, Number 6, June, 2005

'No Child' wreaking
havoc on schools

By Paul D. Deering, Sheila W. Apisa and Rhonda S. Black

This article first appeared in the May 8 issue of the Honolulu Advertiser and is republished here with permission.

The federal government's No Child Left Behind Act is fundamentally destructive to public schools and to the children it claims to benefit.

If left unchecked, the law will do exactly the opposite of what its name implies, both in Hawai'i and across the nation. The Hawai'i Department of Education has just designated 24 schools for "restructuring," per the law's dictates, and more will follow annually.

What is this all about? First, some background:

America's public schools have generally been doing a good job in recent years. Yes, there are some schools, both in Hawai'i and across the nation, that are not nearly as good as they should be. But all in all, America's public schools, before the No Child law, were the best they have ever been in the nation's history.

This may come as a surprise, but American students compare very favorably with foreign peers who have studied the same subjects. Much of the mythology regarding "superior foreign students" involves comparisons of all American students with counterparts only from elite foreign schools - a rigged contest. However, this statistic points to a change needed in many American schools - they must offer upper-level curriculum to the great majority of students, instead of "tracking" wealthier, white and Asian students into college-prep courses while lower-income and most minority students get basic-skills courses.

Fortunately, many U.S. and Hawai'i public schools have untracked with great success for all students.

Despite all this, politicians and the "liberal" media regularly proclaim that schools were much better in the past, and that American students do not measure up to their foreign "competition." However, in those so-called "good-old days," many students dropped out by the eighth grade to work on farms or plantations or in factories.

In the past, few besides white, middle- and upper-class males completed high school, much less college. Now, public schools educate through 12th grade an increasingly diverse population of both genders, numerous first languages and disabilities, and all income levels. And increasing percentages of all these groups have been going on to higher education - a democratic revolution in education!

The No Child law threatens to destroy all the progress our public schools have made while failing to address any of their needs.

1. Annual Testing

The first problem is that the law requires annual testing of schoolchildren, with results used to judge schools' and teachers' worth. This pressures teachers to narrow the curriculum down to the contents of the tests while ignoring their specific students' needs and interests.

Out go the active learning, Hawaiian language and culture, arts, music, physical education (in spite of the obesity epidemic), and in comes drill-and-grill curriculum - all of this contrary to research findings on what actually is effective in learning, teaching and schooling.

Weeks of precious time are wasted on test-preparation drills, practice tests and the tests themselves, along with millions of dollars that could be focused on real learning. Still worse is the harm of pressuring children as young as 8 years old with annual high-stakes testing. Such tests can be useful every two or three years as a general diagnostic tool, but annually is overkill.

By contrast, most of our supposedly superior foreign counterparts avoid the folly of annual standardized testing.

Children's learning should be assessed, and they and their teachers should be held to high standards. However, prepackaged tests are a very limited tool. They should be part of a broad array of approaches that emphasizes authentic assessments.

These are measures of how well children use knowledge in real-world tasks. They include portfolios, presentations and projects - all evaluated according to rigorous standards.

Limiting teachers to only one assessment tool - standardized tests - is like mandating that physicians may only use x-rays, a sometimes-useful tool with serious side effects. No thermometers, no MRI's, no blood tests, etc. And of course, physicians will be punished if any patient has any health problems.

True, the No Child law does not forbid other assessments, but its harsh punishments are based on standardized test results. You do the math.

One thing the law does right - partly - is calling for analysis of data on various subgroups of children, instead of overall averages that can hide problems for certain students. Examining the learning of individual children as well as subgroups can help educators strategically address their needs.

Researchers have long known that children's family income, primary language, or need for special educational services account for 50 percent or more of the variance in achievement test scores and other learning measures.

All children can learn, although the conditions under which they succeed vary widely, for example, in terms of materials, time required, amount of one-on-one assistance, etc.

2. Ignoring Complexity

However, this law ignores all these intricacies of learning and teaching, and simply mandates that all students must miraculously produce arbitrarily high test scores. Thus, special-education students and recent immigrants are forced to take grueling exams that they can barely read, as if this is a valid measure of anything.

And if only a few students from any of the various subgroups fail to meet the mandated minimum scores, their schools and teachers are subjected to various failure labels and escalating penalties.

These include "corrective action" and "restructuring" via rigid, expensive, corporate curriculum packages.

When these measures fail to produce the mandated scores, a school is to be dismantled altogether. And the law dictates that the bar gets raised every year for "Adequate Yearly Progress" on test scores, so more and more schools will suffer this fate.

3. Imposing Choice and Free Market Schemes

Another stipulation of the No Child law is that students in "failing" schools may transfer to other public schools, with transportation provided at the original school's expense. This drains resources from already-struggling schools.

Worse still, similar "public- choice" plans have contributed to increased racial segregation as more-affluent families flee schools with low-income and nonwhite students. Hawai'i's Department of Education has long permitted school transfers, or "geographic exceptions," on a space-available basis; however, preference will now have to be given to students from "failing schools."

When No Child Left Behind's "reforms" fail to produce the mandated miracle test scores, it will "prove once and for all that public schools just do not work."

Then, the politicians will finally reveal "the only real solution." Ironically, it sounds a lot like "vultures."

Vouchers will be the cure-all, by bringing "competition" and "accountability" into the "marketplace of education." Then, more affluent and educated parents will be able to use tax dollars to place their children in any private school they choose, whether religious, corporate or whatever.

And the gutted public schools will then house only the poorest of the poor - those who cannot negotiate the private-school admission policies or who lack transportation to escape.

Where does all this leave our children? And what can we do?

America's founders wisely recognized that a democracy can only survive with an educated populace. Without this, we are at risk of mob rule and chaos. And the U.S. Constitution gives states the primary right and responsibility to educate their own citizens.

The federal government provides only about 7 percent of the money for public education, with local school districts and states providing the remainder.

And the federal contribution to education is due to shrink under President Bush's proposed budget, while simultaneously mandating No Child Left Behind's expensive "reforms." Sadly, cash-strapped states, including Hawai'i, are knuckling under to the federal law's dictates to avoid losing this precious "seven percent solution."

Targets for Reform?

That brings us back to our 24 "Shame Schools," those targeted for "restructuring." How did they come to be on the hit list?

By serving high percentages of "high-need" students: an average of 71 percent low-income; an average of 15 percent requiring special-education services; an average of 10 percent English-language learners.

Thus, up to 25 percent of the students in these schools (the special-education and English-language learners) could barely read the tests they were taking, if they could at all.

The 24 schools have been singled out, essentially for serving your tired, your poor, your huddled, hungry masses yearning to be educated.

However, they will have plenty of company in coming years as the "Adequate Yearly Progress" bar gets raised. Thus, the Shame Schools List will gradually work its way up the socioeconomic ladder until every public school in the state is branded as failing.

For decades, light houses like this one on Diamond Head warned of coastal dangers. Where are the beacons warning of NCLB dangers?

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

So public schools, students and parents who are heaving a sigh of relief now will be saying, as Pastor Martin Niemoller did of the Nazis, "Then they came for me - and by then, there was no one left to speak out for me."

If there are private-school parents looking forward to the day when vouchers will be offered to subsidize their children's selective education, they should think twice. Even if you do not care about the other children left behind in the gutted public schools, there are no gated communities with high enough walls to keep out a vast, uneducated underclass.

Nor will the economy be able to sustain itself with so many lacking a good education.

Whether you believe No Child Left Behind's destructiveness is intentional or just collateral damage is unimportant. Despite its warm, fuzzy name, this law is highly destructive to America's and Hawai'i's public schools.

Don't take our word for any of this. Visit your local public school and see for yourself. Chances are that it is doing a great job but already has been branded with one of the law's many "failure" labels. Check the sources we have provided.

Contact your school board members and your state and federal legislators and demand major changes to No Child Left Behind. Just say NO to the destruction of our public schools!

Paul D. Deering has been an educator for 27 years. He is an associate professor of education at the University of Hawai'i-Ma-noa. Sheila W. Apisa has been an educator for 35 years. She works in teacher education for UH-Manoa and Chaminade University. Rhonda S. Black has been an educator for 21 years. She is an associate professor of special education at UH-Manoa. They write as concerned citizens, parents, educators and teacher educators, not on behalf of any organizations or institutions.


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© 2005, Paul D. Deering, Sheila W. Apisa and Rhonda S. Black, 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.