Why NCLB has failed

Why NCLB has failed
Like so many of the federal government’s sweeping gestures intended to fix things “for once and for all,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been an expensive flop.

Better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the act was supposed produce proficiency in math and English in 100% of U.S. students by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

We are now in the Fall of 2012. NCLB has passed its tenth birthday. How close are we to the goal of 100% proficiency in reading and math? As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), not very.

Two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders scored below "proficient" on NAEP.
In 2005, the percentage of fourth-graders scoring at NAEP proficiency or above was 30%.

In 2011, the percentage of fourth-graders scoring at NAEP proficiency or above was 32%.

Two points notwithstanding, two-thirds of American fourth graders are reading below the "proficient" level as defined by the NAEP.

NOTE: "proficient" on the NAEP exams is not the same as "proficient" on state assessments conducted by the individual states. Most states define "proficient" as the ability to read "at grade level." NAEP's "proficient" represents the achievement of an A or high B student.

The law that was supposed to miraculously transform a failing school system into one in which all children achieve happy proficiency has created massive amounts of stress in school administrators, teachers, and children. It has turned classrooms into mindless test-prep labs. As of this writing, 33 of 50 states have begged for and received waivers of NCLB requirements.

More negative effects than positive
NCLB has had few positive effects and many negative ones.

On the plus side, it has turned the heat up on school administrators to pay more attention to academics. It has provided statistical data showing which children need the most help. Some people would consider these effects a plus: It has created wealth for test-making companies and publishers of remediation materials. It has launched the charter school movement which promises to make even more money for Wall Street investors.

On the other hand, it has made a stressful occupation more stressful for teachers and children. It has tempted administrators to fiddle with the federal paperwork. It has emphasized math and science instruction at the expense of instruction that produces literacy. Worst of all, it has cast teachers in the role of supreme scapegoat. By golly if the miracle isn’t happening, it must be the fault of those greedy, lazy teachers.

I’m not qualified to talk about math, but I know something about what’s involved in learning to read and building vocabulary. I also know how hard teachers in the early grades work at teaching children to read. If two-thirds of our children are failing to achieve reading fluency, it’s because something is wrong with the way schools are going about it.

Schools have been failing since the 1960s
NCLB (2002) is the child of A Nation at Risk (1983).The latter is a report published by an 18-member commission created in the 1980s by then Secretary of Education T. H. Bell. The report outlined the mediocre educational performance of American schools and called for national reform. Twenty-eight years before that, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), documenting the destructive effect of the look/say method of beginning reading instruction used in most of the nation’s schools.

Here we are 57 years after Flesch sounded the alarm, still bewailing the fact that two-thirds of American fourth-graders can’t read well enough to understand their schoolwork.

NCLB has failed not because teachers are not trying hard enough. It has failed for the same reasons that the current “Race to the Top” innovations are going to fail.

There are two main reasons:

1. The people who have the power to change public education don’t understand that the present industrial model of the American school system is outmoded and needs to be replaced, not reformed.

2. Government reformers fail to acknowledge and deal with the fact that education is a billion-dollar industry. Entrenched special interest groups want to maintain the status quo, while new groups of investors want to mine it for their own profit.

Parents must learn to evaluate their children’s work for themselves
Taxpayers need to question every proposal that is said to be “for the good of the children.” As the ADAs say on Law and Order, “Cui bono?” Who benefits? If an innovation cannot be shown to benefit the greatest number of children, it should be challenged by the public.

Bottomline: Public schools can never provide exactly what every child needs. Parents must set their own standards and measure their children’s school progress against them. Standardized test scores interpreted by others are not to be relied on.

Come to the Forum and talk about your concerns.

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