No Child Left Behind


The hallmark of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandate (NCLB, pronounced “Nickel-Bee” in educational circles) is its utter simplicity.

Gone are the tortured debates regarding Whole Language vs. Phonics instruction, heterogeneous vs. homogeneous student groupings, bilingual vs. immersion programs, a broad curriculum vs. the basics…. Nope, now all we have to do is just require that all schools enable every single student to meet the same high academic standards—or at least to demonstrate adequate yearly progress towards meeting them. We measure the schools’/student’s success or failure with fill-in-the-bubble standardized testing and—presto!—we’re done! We can then either reward or punish schools accordingly.

Why didn’t we think of this long ago? (Just call me Rush!) In fact, it’s such a good idea that I propose we implement this same straight-forward reform in every other area of society.

Let’s begin with health care. We can implement the long overdue No Patient Left Behind initiative (NPLB, “Nipple-Bee” in medical circles). You see, it has come to my attention that patient death rates at county hospitals are much higher than at, for example, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. Shocking, isn’t it? Well, why don’t we just require that all hospitals meet the same arbitrary survival rates? Then we can sit back and watch the ensuing miracle in our nation’s health care.

Now, we can anticipate the howls of protest from those lazy doctors and nurses in our county hospitals. Yes, they’ll cite the fact that poverty, crime, gangs, and homelessness run rampant in their neighborhoods. (Aren’t these the same tired excuses educators in our inner cities constantly hide behind?) We’ll turn a deaf ear, though, and simply insist our county hospitals to shape up. If not, we’ll implement vouchers and allow inner city patients to saunter over to the Palo Alto Medical Clinic for treatment.

Next, we must turn our attention to police departments, because—and I’m not making this up!—many urban areas suffer from higher crime rates than, say, Hillsborough. Why have we allowed this travesty to continue for so long?

It’s high time we undertake the No Felon Left Behind program. (“Niffle-Bee” in crime prevention circles.) We’ll merely require our hitherto slothful inner city cops to stop dunking donuts and get to work. Indeed, we’ll measure the average yearly improvement of every single ethnic group in their jurisdiction, just like we do with schools. If a single ethnicity fails to post a decrease in crime—let’s say the incidence of shoplifting among anglos remains flat one year---we’ll publish this humiliation on the front page of the local press, and threaten the police department with a state take-over….

I jest, of course, but with only a trace or mirth, and an abundance of bile. Once we transpose No Child Left Behind to any other social issue, we see it as it truly is: ludicrous.

This fact became even more difficult to obscure with the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court Decision. We “celebrated” the fact that separate but equal schools became unconstitutional; but then find ourselves coughing and shuffling our feet as we grudgingly admit that our schools are more separate and unequal now than ever, as a recent Argus series made manifest.

Will Nickel-Bee resolve this? Clearly not, just as Nipple-Bee and Niffle-Bee wouldn’t address the challenges and injustices endemic to our similarly segregated communities either.

No, the problems our schools face—as do our nation and our world--are complex, indeed. They defy any easy, alluring panacea, no matter how cute or comforting its acronym.


It now seems highly unlikely Congress will reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The six-year-old federal law stipulates that, each year, an increasing percentage of students at each school become proficient in Language Arts and math until, by the year 2014, every single child is grade-level proficient in both subjects. NCLB also mandates escalating sanctions for Title 1 schools (those receiving federal funds to assist disadvantaged children) for repeatedly failing to meet those annual proficiency benchmarks.

Although nearly everybody agrees NCLB needs fixing, the devil is in the details.

Some argue correctly that, since NCLB allows each state to give its own exam and to determine what score on it constitutes proficiency, the law provides loopholes so large you could drive an entire state through them.

For example, North Carolina announced that, according to its test, 92% of its students were proficient in math. However, only 40% of them could pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math exam. Similarly, while Colorado declared students with a percentile ranking of only 6 on its test to be proficient, South Carolina kids needed a ranking of 71. (Maybe Colorado’s test was just much more difficult than South Carolina’s?)

California set some of the toughest standards in the nation, which might be a source of pride; except that, as a result, a disproportionate number of California schools have faced NCLB sanctions.

It’s a mess, really. The easy solution would be to require all states to administer the same exam, such as the NAEP, and to score it identically. However, NCLB already manifests an unprecedented federal meddling into what has hitherto been sacrosanct state sovereignty over education. Should Congress determine when, how and what will be taught at the neighborhood grade school?

Others argue, also correctly, that NCLB, in focusing only on Language Arts and math, and in utilizing only standardized testing to measure proficiency, is too narrow in scope. What about Social Studies, science, art, music and physical education, which are also essential for becoming a good citizen and a well-rounded, healthy person? What about essays, projects, presentations and portfolios, which more authentically measure the skills necessary for a successful life and career? NCLB has inadvertently undermined, sometimes even eliminated these other courses and activities.

Also, shouldn’t progress toward proficiency matter? Currently, an inner-city school that motivates its disadvantaged kids to advance three grade levels in one year will undergo sanctions nonetheless if too may kids still miss that year’s proficiency benchmark; while a suburban school advancing its students not at all will receive praise as long as enough of its gifted children still meet it. Which school is truly great, and which deserving of sanctions?

How about judging other factors as well, such as drop outs? One sure-fired way to raise high school test scores is to merely encourage low-scoring students to disappear—an underhanded strategy which, according to the Rice University Center for Education, largely explains former Governor, now President Bush’s so-called “Texas Miracle” in education. (California, once again on the stringent side, factors in graduation rates.)

And then there’s the not-so-minor detail that Congress has never fully funded NCLB. (A fact that will increase in importance here in California in the light of impending drastic cuts in state funds.) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Cincinnati, ruled in January that, as a result, schools may not have to comply fully with NCLB. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings disagreed.

Spellings, the courts, Congress, governors, teachers’ unions have been arguing these and other issues ad nauseam. None of them, however, acknowledge—at least publicly—that no research at all supports NCLB’s primary premise, that high stakes standardized testing will improve student achievement. In other words, everybody’s debating the details while avoiding the dubious premise underpinning all of them.

Since there’s been no accord, NCLB will most likely continue as it is well into the next presidency. In the meantime, benchmarks for adequate yearly progress towards proficiency in Language Arts and math will rise dramatically, by about 11 percentage points a year. Since 34% of California schools have already failed to meet current benchmarks, many more schools may soon run afoul of NCLB, including urban and wealthy ones.

In other words, NCLB is going to get a lot worse, and a lot more interesting.

Program Improvement

“We are a very caring and hardworking staff,” one of my colleagues wrote in defensive frustration last week, “with a spirited student population, and we all take a lot of pride in what we do here. We deserve better than to be painted with a broad brush by NCLB (No Child Left Behind), and hence the media, as ‘under-performing.’ We are always looking for ways to improve; but having to send a letter home to our students which implies that our other two middle schools are somehow superior to ours hurts our pride and, even more importantly, sends our kids indirect message that somehow they don’t measure up…. Our staff knows better.”

Two weeks ago, my school had to draft such a letter to all parents inviting them to transfer their children to one of the other two middle schools in the district. “For the past two years,” the letter read, “Barnard-White Middle has not met the NCLB criteria adopted by the State Board of Education and so has been identified by preliminary reports as needing program improvement.”

What the letter didn’t explain, however, is that those other middle schools didn’t meet NCLB criteria either. The difference is that we are a Title I school: A substantial portion of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. As a result, we receive additional federal funds, but now face sanctions most schools don’t.

The letter was a bitter slap in the face to us at Barnard-White, because, frankly, we’d been quite proud of our recent, hard-won success. For example, we’d improved our Academic Performance Index (API) steadily and dramatically for six straight years. And, even though our raw score was lower than those of our two sister district middle schools, when all three schools were compared to others with similar socioeconomic student populations, Barnard-White emerged on top. In fact, last year, almost across the board, we raised the percentage of students proficient on the tests used to determine NCLB criteria, including the California Standards Test, at a rate superior to the district average.

Clearly, we, the staff and students at Barnard-White, had been doing a lot of things right. Many of them--such as creating an environment where most everyone felt safe, supported, cared-for, and happy (one of our strongest suites)--would never show up on a standardized exam. Nonetheless, according to NCLB, we were in need of “program improvement” ; and so, because we were a Title I school, our students deserved the opportunity to “escape” to purportedly more successful ones.

The irony is that we must tap Title I funds to pay for the transportation of those who elected to leave, instead of using the money to assist struggling students who remained; and that those who left generally had among the highest test scores-- a student brain-drain making it even more difficult for Barnard-White to meet NCLB standards in the future.

Most everyone in education recognizes NCLB will eventually collapse under this and many other misbegotten absurdities. For example, the benchmark for success will gradually rise until in the year 2014, every single student in the nation must be proficient in every single subject, or his/her school will be similarly labeled in need of program improvement. Obviously, most schools will eventually fail--twenty-three have so far in the Tri-Cities--even elite ones with predominately advantaged students. Then, of course, the law will change.

That is no consolation to us here at Barnard-White. We will continue to do what we’ve always done: push ourselves above and beyond, demand the highest standards while taking tender care of each other--all with our enduring Bronco pride. But now we will do so in spite of NCLB, not because of it.