48. No Child Left Behind

bad mathFor twenty-seven years I did everything in my power to teach well. On the whole, I succeeded, because I was in a small school where I could do my job with minimal interference.

This is a letter sent to PBS in 2007. The seeming lack of timeliness is of no consequence, because the stupidities of the educational bureaucracy are a rare constant in an inconstant world.

I just watched your piece on No Child Left Behind, which quoted disaffected classroom teachers. Thank you; your coverage was dead on. The only failure was that, in their calm professionalism, your teachers understated the disaster that NCLB has visited on our schools.

You reported on the heavy reliance on multiple choice tests, but that is only the beginning of the story. Children are being taught, and tested on, material which is roughly one year beyond their ability to comprehend. Algebra is now being taught to all eighth graders. It used to be a ninth grade subject. As a result, not only are many eighth graders failing Algebra, they are also failing to get the previous eighth grade curriculum which would have prepared them for ninth grade Algebra.

This process has gone on throughout our schools. Instead of making what we teach more challenging, we have taken the same old subjects and pushed them downward, so that we are teaching children, from kindergarten to junior high school, materials that are basically beyond their comprehension. What they used to learn easily when they were developmentally ready, they now fail to learn because it is taught too soon.

A favorite phrase of NCLB supporters is that it has raised the bar. It hasn’t. The bar is the same, but the athletes are all shorter now.

We are told that all children must perform at grade level. Being at grade level means knowing what a typical child of a certain grade should know. If a child has a fifth grade level proficiency in math, it means that he knows as much math as the average fifth grader.

To say that all children must perform at grade level is to say that all children must be at or above average. When Garrison Keilor says that the children of Lake Woebegone are all above average, we know he is joking. NCLB says it with a straight face.

NCLB says that every year our children must learn more. What a contemptible lie. Every fifth grade class arriving in our classrooms knows exactly as little at the class before them, and faces exactly the same challenges during the year. If we are teaching our children correctly, they will learn what they need to learn, and what is natural for them to learn, during that year, at that age, and at that stage of their development. Then, next year, with a new group of students, we will do it all over again.

If we are doing our jobs correctly, our scores should not go up from year to year. They should stay the same, saying that once again this year we have done exactly as much as we should have, and that our children have learned exactly as much as they were able to learn.

NCLB began with a good idea, that we should make sure our second language, poor, and ethnic students don’t fall through the cracks. What it became is a massive bureaucracy of terror, completely divorced from reality.

This is nothing new. Twenty years ago the good idea that black students should have access to literature brought about Whole Language, an approach to teaching that gave us an entire generation who could not read. NCLB has taught an entire generation of students that they are failures, and has taught a generation of teachers that their job is to administer tests, follow orders, keep their mouths shut, and forget educating their students.

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