from Dropout Curse of No Child Left Behind

The Dropout Curse of No Child Left Behind

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

by William L. Bainbridge

The federal education mandate is demanding that schools improve as measured by tests. But in reality, struggling young people are simply dropping out of school.

Taking a lesson from many Democrats of the past, President George W. Bush has promoted the " No Child Left Behind" legislation with all of the political marketing gusto of FDR's " New Deal."

Even after the admission of journalist Armstrong Williams that the current administration paid him for favorable commentary, the "No Child Left Behind" accountability measure has taken on a life of it's own. Known to educators simply as NCLB, the law has the highest name recognition level of any legislation of its type in recent history.

NCLB is predicated on the theory that state-by-state testing can improve schools even if no additional resources or time are added to the teaching and learning process. It has its roots in the Texas initiatives of then Governor Bush aided by current Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. One major failing of the undergirding philosophy is evidenced in the astronomical dropout rates in places like Houston, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio, all between 40 and 55 %. In the Lone Star State the statewide dropout rate is over 35%.

Children subjected to a policy similar to NCLB in Texas, particularly minorities, haven't been given the tools to be successful in life. They also represent a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated in penal institutions and of casualties in recent war.

The introduction of federally mandated statewide tests is not in and of itself a bad thing. Public school educators feel pressure from all sides. The states and federal government provide more regulation than resources. Creative and gifted teachers who actively engage students in a learning process that may interfere with high-stakes test preparation are frustrated. Many are even penalized for their efforts. NCLB drives teaching toward standardization rather than inspiration. While accountability is a good thing the extreme focus on testing creates new problems. Many teachers feel compelled to focus their energies on preparing students to pass a test rather than learning how to learn. The tests pose the danger of assuming a creative process can be made into a business, like drilling for oil.

It is the disheartening absence of compensatory measures to aid those who are falling behind that makes many search for the compassion in this so-called " conservative" agenda. Weren't conservatives the ones who objected to federal mandates and favored state control throughout history. Are those setting federal education policy really " Washington D.C. knows best " liberals ?

The performance-based incentives of NCLB give advantages to schools and teachers serving higher socio-economic children. This same legislation discourages teachers in urban and rural poor schools who have the more difficult teaching jobs. Perhaps we need to re-visit the ideas of incentives for educators working in schools serving the least advantaged students.

The major questions being raised include these: What role should testing play in assessing our students, teachers, administrators and schools? How much time should be focused on testing throughout a 180-day school year? How should individual achievement be weighed against issues of equity and the social good? How should good and master teaching be defined, and how does high-stakes testing relate to teaching and learning? Do our state tests appropriately allow for socio-economic differences, individual learning styles and family environments ?

Policy makers need to face the fact that urban and rural poor school districts are experiencing both a greater resource gap and a continuation of limited resources as a result of short-sighted state funding mechanisms, overcrowded classes and emerging instructional uncertainty caused by declines in funding.


William L. Bainbridge is distinguished research professor at the University of Dayton and president and chief executive officer of School-Match, a Columbus, Ohio-based educational auditing, research and data firm.

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