"Leaving Children Behind." By William L. Bainbridge. TECHNOS Press. Summer 2002.

TECHNOS QUARTERLY Summer 2002 Vol. 11 No. 2

Leaving Children Behind

By William L. Bainbridge

In January 2002, the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law. This legislation aims to "improve overall student performance and close the achievement gap between rich and poor students." No Child Left Behind focuses on school accountability, higher standards for students, and some of the very measurements educational evaluators advocate from coast to coast.

In addition to recognizing the positive aspects of this legislation, however, it also seems prudent to be concerned about what the national legislation lacks. The concern is that measurement alone will not bridge the learning gap that exists between children from homes of various socioeconomic levels.

The introduction to this legislation states that "In America, no child should be left behind. Every child should be educated to his or her full potential." Mandating standards and tests in and of itself cannot erase the fact that children from homes where parents have little education and minimal resources have many strikes against them.

  • Evidence indicates that the "digital divide" gets larger each day. Children in homes with computers have huge advantages over those without such technology.
  • While neurologists have extolled the virtues of high-protein diets for brain growth and development of young children, the economically disadvantaged continue to be plagued with high-carbohydrate diets, even in Head Start and public-school food service programs.
  • Evidence indicates that more time on task helps to advance learning. The few efforts to increase the school year have mainly focused on poorly structured remedial summer programs doomed from their inception with the "punishment brand."
A recent report from the Education Trust makes questionable claims that accountability measures alone can improve learning. The organization's slip-shod research dumps results from programs for gifted and talented students and magnet schools into unscientifically selected cohort groups. The study also includes schools with single-year incidences of high scores, which researchers label an "anomaly."

Well-meaning political leaders on both sides of the aisle, ranging from President George W. Bush to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, supported the legislation. The fact that these men are both products of privilege and private schools may have something to do with their lack of understanding of the needs of children in poverty. The No Child Left Behind legislation regrettably suffers from many pitfalls that some consultants have introduced to schools as part of the effective schools movement.

It is important to consider a basic thinking fallacy of our public policy leaders in Washington that does not hold up under careful scrutiny. That fallacy assumes that all children can learn at the same level and in the same amount of time. All children can learn, at some level. The late professor Ronald Edmonds of Harvard, founder of the Effective Schools movement, once stated, "Most children can learn the basic curriculum if sufficient resources are provided."

Empirical research does not support the belief that all children can learn the same curriculum, in the same amount of time, and at the same level. The problem with such an unsubstantiated belief is that it may be used to deny differential financial support for those who come to school with environmental disadvantages. Not all children have high-quality nutrition, stimulating homes, and extensive learning opportunities prior to entering school.

Research in cognitive brain development shows that formation of synaptic contacts in the human cerebral cortex occurs between birth and age 10, and most of the brain gets built within a few years after birth. Environment matters greatly in brain development. The period of early childhood is critical to brain development, and those who have high-protein diets and lots of sensory stimulation tend to have more synaptic connections. Brains that do not receive enough protein and stimulation in their environments lose connections, and some potential neural pathways are shut down. These facts help to explain what educators have long observed: Children from impoverished environments, in which they do not receive good nutrition and stimulating experiences, generally achieve at lower levels than children from more enriching environments.

This concrete evidence should be enough to convince us that we should concentrate on improving the lives of children before they come to school. It is not enough simply to proclaim that "no child will be left behind" without enacting proper public policy to provide economic opportunity for families, healthcare for all children, and parenting education for young mothers.

We live in a country where 10.5 million children have no health insurance. Most of them live in poverty. The child poverty rate in the United States is the highest among the so-called developed nations. Recent basic research clearly concludes that children who are disadvantaged have difficulty with cognitive development, acquiring adequate vocabulary, and acquiring the sounds needed for learning to read. Millions of our children attend "holding-tank" childcare centers that stifle creativity and hinder appropriate development.

If we as a society can summon the courage to provide all children with basic human needs, then possibly all children can learn at higher levels and the gap between low-income and more privileged children can really be narrowed.

"Wishes don't wash dishes," Carl Sandburg said. "Well done is better than well said," according to Benjamin Franklin. Our colleague, well-known educator M. Donald Thomas recently said, "Those who don't wish to educate all our children well simply substitute pleasant sounding rhetoric for resources." Merely intoning a slogan like "no child left behind" never taught a child to read or compute. We need to do what we know must be done in terms of providing sufficient resources to educate all of our children successfully. Fifteen state supreme courts have indicated their state's current system does not provide for an adequate public education.

The time has come for public policy leaders to redefine the slogan that "no child will be left behind." Let's return to the basic research and stress the facts instead of the fallacy that have hurt so many of our children, parents, teachers, and schools.


William L. Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and president and chief executive officer of SchoolMatch (www.schoolmatch.com), an educational research, data, and auditing firm located in Columbus, Ohio.

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