Happy (Belated) Birthday NCLB! (Part 4)

As No Child Left Behind celebrates its eighth birthday, its future remains unclear. The success of its past is even more debatable. Based on my own educational philosophy and my personal experience in the classroom I'd say the results are mixed. NCLB has made positive progress by bringing vital attention the ways in which education in this country has failed the most vulnerable children.

By creating a policy that singles out English Language Learners, children with special needs and children in high-need communities, NCLB has brought these students out of the shadows, at least in terms of the national conversation. Furthermore, NCLB has created a framework, however flawed, that has implemented accountability for schools, cities and states to reach all students regardless of need or background.

Unfortunately, NCLB relies on tests that are uneven and possibly inaccurate. It has also created a climate that is dominated by high-stakes testing and pressures schools to eschew more well-rounded instruction. Thirdly, NCLB has in many ways, intentionally or unintentionally depending on your propensity for conspiracy theories, aligned national pedagogy closely with corporate interests.

The most powerful way NCLB has done this brings us back to testing. The creating of a high-stakes testing culture has created an insatiable market for a myriad of test prep materials and standards-based curriculum. Standards-based curriculum aren't necessarily a problem on their own, but its a major sign of the integration of testing and teaching. Whereas testing was once a tool for teachers, it now seems to be the other way around.

Everyday Math and Reading First are two major examples of curricula that were presented to as "choices" across the country after NCLB was enacted. Incidentally "choosing" them gave states and schools a lot of money. Some have also pointed out that the publishers of many similar programs have close financial ties to the Republican Party.

Regardless of whether this played any sort of role in education policy via NCLB, it is clear that publishers have gained immensely from the brave new era of NCLB. Most of these companies are not publicly traded, so I can't cite stock quotes from Harcourt or Houghton Mifflin, but it is telling that Kaplan is the most (if not the only) profitable section of The Washington Post Company.

There are also concerns that the rise of charter schools under NCLB provides a sort of Trojan Horse for the privatization of education. The fact that many of these schools are run as for-profit institutions does little to allay these fears. At its core however, the problem is that charter schools are catering to select groups of the broader student population whose parents may or may not have financial capital, but do often have political capital (as defined simply by knowing enough to enter in a lottery, etc.). As charter schools grow more prolific with no efforts to integrate their successes and curricula into the public school system at large it seems inevitable that charter schools will become a very separate and unequal enterprise.

For all of its many flaws, and the headaches it provides me as a teacher, I do believe NCLB should be renewed. Whether that takes place in this political climate (it was supposed to be renewed two years ago) is another issue. Either way, NCLB has for all practical purposes established the direction of education policy in this country. I just hope a long, serious look is taken at some of its problems before we continue any further.


I'm glad I found your blog just after the NCLB anniversary, and just when Obama is looking to make some changes to it. Just last week, I used the same George Bush quote when writing about a bad day I had subbing Math:


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