Schools deserve better
Law is great politics but poor public policy
Monday, July 24, 2006
The No Child Left Behind Act is the federal law that is controlling the focus of public schools across America. Advanced on the proposition that schools should "leave no child behind" the law is yet another example of great politics, compelling sound bites and focused finger-pointing but poor public policy.
Public schools are the foundation of our democracy and deserve better from our leaders. The federal government provides about 5 percent of the funding for my pre-kindergarten-eighth grade public school district in suburban Chicago, yet the guidelines in this law are the only ones used to label my schools and district as successful or failing.
I was raised with the concept of normal distribution of intelligence across society, which gave us the "bell curve." The idea is that the majority of children will fall in the middle of this distribution, with the extremes being the smartest on one end and the least capable on the other. The application of this concept is what designates C as an average grade, with A indicating superior achievement and F at the other end of the curve.
Now, with little more than a show of hands in Congress, a decision has been made that all children can be above average. We have even been told when that will happen: by 2014.
The concept that every child is capable of being above average if we would only teach them better is nonsense.
Let's start with special education. Another federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act specifies that, most commonly, a child must be at least two years below grade level to qualify for all of the extra help that special education students receive. No Child Left Behind, however, has decreed that nearly all of those students who have been judged to be at least two years behind will be able to be above average by 2014. You can't have it both ways.
The law calls for annual testing in grades three through eight in reading and math. These are the only subjects by which the success or failure of a school is determined.
Are we to believe that science, social studies, art, music, physical education, foreign language and the large number of other classes that we offer are not important parts in the development and maturation of a child? Is it really true that what gets tested gets taught?
Are we preparing our children to compete in a global marketplace when we focus so much time and energy on jumping through the No Child Left Behind hoops? Are our teachers and administrators truly failures because not enough kids scored high enough on a single measure of performance? What is the real agenda behind this law?
Needs new focus
One must wonder if the goal is to discredit public education in order to justify vouchers, which take public money for private schools. Those children who can opt out of public schools will do so and public education will become the province of poor and minority children. Private schools are not subject to the rules of No Child Left Behind. Where is the level playing field?
We need to put the focus where it belongs.
Public schools have always opened their doors to every child who comes up the sidewalk. We accept them regardless of their color, physical ability, income, religion or family status. We do our very best to give every child the opportunity to be successful in school. We do not always achieve our goal due to factors over which we have no control. Students must be in school, pay attention, do their school work and perform when required to demonstrate proficiency.
We have undergone a monumental change in our approach to public education from one of universal access to universal proficiency. Saying that all children will meet a goal does not guarantee success. Threatening to label schools as failures because small groups of students are not up to the artificial level of proficiency by a specified date does not guarantee success. Allowing parents to choose to send their children to a different school where the scores are higher does not guarantee success. Providing extra tutoring services for students who don't meet standards does have the potential to help, but the costs and distractions of the program diminish its impact.
Sound teaching, eager learning and supportive parenting are the foundation for what we do. If we will encourage those things we will continue to serve kids well.
We are not afraid of being held accountable. Leave out the politics and penalties and put children first and let's see what can really happen in public schools.
Randolph L. Tinder, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Forest Park School District 91 and president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.