Leaving Children Behind

Have a look at this op-ed from today’s Washington Post, by Susan Goodkin and David Gold :

With reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act high on the agenda as Congress returns from its recess, lawmakers must confront the fact that the law is causing many concerned parents to abandon public schools that are not failing.

These parents are fleeing public schools not only because, as documented by a recent University of Chicago study, the act pushes teachers to ignore high-ability students through its exclusive focus on bringing students to minimum proficiency. Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.

These predictable problems were reported as early as 2003, when the Wall Street Journal warned that schools were shifting their focus overwhelmingly toward low achievers. Expressions of concern from distressed parents and educators of gifted children have come in increasing numbers ever since.

Public education has long had a problem born of the heterogeneity of their student body. Since they have to take all comers, they must try to serve the needs of highly gifted students, special education students, and everyone in between. No Child Left Behind is exacerbating this problem terribly by measuring a school’s worth solely in terms of its lowest achieving students.

For obvious reasons the following paragraph caught my eye:

No Child is particularly destructive to bright young math students. Faced with a mandate to bring every last student to proficiency, schools emphasize incessant drilling of rudimentary facts and teach that there is one “right” way to solve even higher-order problems. Yet one of the clearest markers of a nimble math mind is the ability to see novel approaches and shortcuts to attacking such problems. This creativity is what makes math interesting and fun for those students. Schools should encourage this higher-order thinking, but high-ability students are instead admonished for solving problems the wrong way, despite getting the right answers. Frustrated, and bored by simplistic drills, many come to hate math.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find any public school teacher or administrator who thinks NCLB was a good idea. People who actually know something about education were not consulted in the crafting of the bill. That is not surprising, since improving public schools was not the purpose of the bill. Do George W. Bush and the people with whom he surrounds himself strike you as the sort of folks who spend even one solitary second pondering the educational needs of public school students? Of course not.

Goodkin and Gold provide a nice explanation of the real agenda, though I think in one respect they miss the point:

Perhaps if more policymakers sent their children to public schools they would address these unintended but disastrous consequences of No Child. Rather than trying to rectify this situation, however, many politicians advocate a voucher program that would only encourage more parents to desert public education.

Some politicians justify vouchers with the Orwellian claim that taking money from public schools to pay private tuition will improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students. This claim is absurd given the uneven playing field between public and private schools.

Most obviously, private schools can reject any student who would require extra time from teachers. Thus it is left to public schools to handle children with behavior problems or severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers. Until private schools receiving vouchers are required to accept all applicants, vouchers simply allow them to cherry-pick public school students, giving them an insurmountable competitive edge.

Ironically, the private schools to which President Bush and his allies are so anxious to hand public funds are also exempt from the standardized testing these politicians declare to be the critical measure of educational success. Private schools need not impose upon their students the drudgery of preparing for and taking weeks of standardized tests and can offer an enriching curriculum beyond the basics without worrying about No Child sanctions. Given these one-sided constraints, no one could honestly claim that vouchers do anything but drain resources from the public schools this act was supposed to improve.

But NCLB was not intended to improve public schools. It was meant to diminish public schools, thereby making voucher programs more palatable. Simple as that.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 27, 2007

    I’d rather not give the tedious blow-by-blow account of this. In summary:

    (1) My B.S. in Mathematics was from Caltech in 1973.

    (2) My M.S. in Computer Science, 1975, U.Mass.-Amherst, was almost entirely Mathematics, as was 50+ credits beyond the M.S.

    (3) This was certified by the Executive Director of Mathematics at Caltech, who examined my undergrad and graduate transcripts and supporting documents;

    (4) I have many MANY publications in Mathematical Biology, Mathematical Economics, Mathematical Physics, and pure Math;

    (5) I’ve done applied Math for Boeing, Burroughs, European Space Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Ford, General Motors, Hughes, JPL, Lear Astronics, NASA, Systems Development Corporation, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, Venture Technologies, Yamaha.

    (6) I taught Math at colleges and universities, for at least 6 semsters, multiple classses each semester. I loved teaching the students; they loved learning, and said so to the administrators.

    (7) So when I decided to take a huge pay cut and help impovershed Hispanic and African-American students in an inner city high school, the school district demanded that I prove that I had any credentials to teach Math. “What makes you think you’re qualified?”

    (8) A year after I walked in the school dsitrict’s door, after teaching Summer School to 50 flunking students at an inner city school, they now claimed that No Child Left behind made it impossible for me to teach Math full time.

    (9) I spent $225.00 in fees and 2 full days at a School of Ed department, and back and forth to various other offices on the same community college campus, in a black suit and toe, in almost 100 degree heat and humidity, to get the Acting Math Chair to write a letter attached to one of the forms that I bought, certifying that he’d read my transcripts, and that I had at least the equivalent of a B.S. in Math from the community college.

    (10) I walked that to the School of Ed expert, who, within 24 hours, produced a magical signed form that certified that I did not have to take the CSET exam to prove that I knew enough math to teach in High School.

    (11) I took the original of that letter to the school district, had them make me 10 xerox copies, and handed it in. “What do I do with this?’ asked the school district clerk.

    (12) Classes start in this school district in less than 8 days. I still don’t know if I have a job teaching math. The principal doesn’t know. The district won’t tell him the enrollment figures, so he doesn’t know if he has the budget to hire anyone. This is tru of another gangster-ridden school whose acting principal wants me to start immediately, but just doesn’t know if she can.

    (13) Thanks, Bushie. You’re doing a heck of a job.

  2. #2 Tree
    August 27, 2007

    No, no, NCLB was not only to make voucher programs palatable. It was mainly designed to drive business to friends of the Bush family who own a textbook company.

    14) Most Corrupt Administration Evah.

  3. #3 Jim
    August 27, 2007

    I’m not surprised by what you claim regarding the textbook co. but I have to think that that was the icing & making the voucher programs palatable was the overriding agenda (the cake…if you will).

  4. #4 Greta Christina
    August 28, 2007

    Actually, I think the reason for NCLB is worse than just driving people to vouchers. I think this government (and its corporate cronies) does not want an educated populace. Period. They don’t want Americans knowing how to think critically, or feeling engaged and informed about the issues of the day. They want us dumb, easily manipulated, alienated from the democratic system, and working two crappy jobs and being too drained to do anything else but sit on our asses watching American Idol. That way, they can do whatever the hell they want to and we won’t do anything about it.

    I win! My tinfoil hat conspiracy theory is more paranoid than yours!

  5. #5 Gary Bunker
    August 28, 2007

    I’ve never understood why the right-wing types are so adamantly in favor of school vouchers. It seems to be another piece in their overarching desire to dismantle anything that works in government, thereby proving that governmental systems don’t work. Makes my brain hurt.

  6. #6 Caledonian
    August 28, 2007

    What about the interpretation that they wanted to make education better and thought NCLB would accomplish that?

    You’re giving them far too much credit for competence, methinks.

  7. #7 Polymath
    August 28, 2007

    i think that bush proposed NCLB because that’s the kind of school he himself would have been successful in, and he can’t imagine any world that doesn’t revolve around him. he reminds me of some of the people i went to high school with. if you’re interested, i rant about it a little more on my blog at http://polymathematics.typepad.com/polymath/2005/12/george_w_bush_a.html

  8. #8 Kelly
    August 28, 2007

    Some people just don’t learn.

    Now they’re trying to make a teacher’s salary parallel to student achievement on standardized tests. I pity special education teachers the most. When I was a teacher of students in a remedial English class, most wrote on their tests, “I DON’T CARE” (often spelling words wrong). And they wanted MY salary based on student apathy? No thank you.

  9. #9 daenku32
    August 28, 2007

    It is a highty convoluted situation. Both low income students and highly skilled students require extra expenditure to reach their potential. The rest are the cheap ones.

  10. #10 Pieter B
    August 29, 2007

    My teacher friends refer to No Child Left Behind as “No Teacher Left Standing.”

  11. #11 DuWayne
    September 2, 2007

    Schools should encourage this higher-order thinking, but high-ability students are instead admonished for solving problems the wrong way, despite getting the right answers.

    This was my experience, more than a decade before NCLB. I was taught to hate math so passionately, that I couldn’t manage to pass pre-algebra. Mind you, I could do the problems presented and provide the correct answer every damn time. But when I showed my work, which was tedious because for most of the relatively simple problems, I did it in my head, I was marked incorrect.

    I took an exam given me by one of the case workers in the special ed program that they put me in and managed to get 98%. It was the math part of the entry exam for the Math and Science center program that would have qualified me to take elementary calculus my sophomore year in high school. Unfortunately, that battery of tests was taken three days before I dropped out of high school. I had hitch-hiked as far as Colorado, from Michigan by the time they had all the results figured out.

    Greta Christina -

    Tinfoil doesn’t work, everybody knows it has to be copper foil.

    I’ll see you that conspiracy and raise you the notion that they want education to fail, so that they can roll back the child labor laws and put us square back into a Dickensian nightmare. At least that’s how I felt early in the republican reign of terror. I feel a little better with the dems to temper things, but not a whole hell of a lot.