Responses to Linda Darling-Hammond’s article in this issue on the Bush Administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
Linda Darling-Hammond makes it clear that there are many problems associated with NCLB that have undermined the benefits it was intended to deliver. That is certainly true, but it’s also important to emphasize that opposition to NCLB is not based on a desire to return to the past–to the time when it was possible for poorly educated students to graduate with meaningless diplomas or when many schools showed little interest or ability in promoting higher levels of learning and achievement for all students without regard to race, disability, language or background.
Despite its failings, two basic goals of NCLB remain important: Students should be educated under higher academic standards, and those responsible for educating them should be held accountable.
Few NCLB critics argue against higher academic standards. However, while it is easy to set the standards (actually, it has not been that easy in several states), it is far more important to insure that the standards and conditions under which students are educated are also raised. In pursuit of higher test scores, “failing” schools have enacted measures that have actually undermined the quality of education and social well-being of students. Schools and districts striving to “teach to the test” have eliminated or reduced access to art, music and even science if they are not covered on standardized tests. Some have eliminated field trips, recess and physical education. In many secondary schools, students have been required to enroll in test prep courses, some of which meet for nearly two hours a day. NCLB has done nothing to insure that students are taught in enriched learning environments, exposed to creative and effective teachers and given access to stimulating and rigorous curriculums.
In the area of accountability, NCLB has opted for the path of least resistance, holding accountable the most vulnerable (students) and the least protected (principals), but not other parties–elected officials, senior school administrators, teachers and parents. In cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston and now Los Angeles, mayors have demanded control over the public schools but mayoral control does not include specific accountability standards. What happens if schools don’t improve under their leadership? In a public debate, I asked the superintendent of a large urban district who was an advocate for high-stakes exams how many administrators would be fired if as many as 50 percent of his seniors were denied diplomas, as was expected the first year the exams were implemented. Puzzled, he responded, “Maybe a principal or two will have to go.” That June 6,000 students who would have graduated under previous standards were denied diplomas, and the same superintendent, the governor and the leading newspapers declared the results a victory for high standards. The fact that a third of those students were recent immigrants who were illiterate in English, another third were identified as learning disabled and the final third were students who came from high poverty districts long known for their failing schools didn’t seem to trouble any of the “standards” advocates.