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Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools

reviewed by Anthony P. Cavanna - 2005

coverTitle: Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools
Author(s): Deborah Meier and George Wood (Editors)
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807004596, Pages: 152, Year: 2004
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The most important mission of our public schools has been to prepare and educate caring, well-informed, and knowledgeable citizens. Ted Sizer argues that “Free public schooling has long been the primary engine for social and economic health and for individual social mobility.”  Many of our nation’s schools that previously have been cited, locally and nationally, for striving toward higher levels of student success and achievement have now come to the realization that by the criteria of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, they will be deemed failures by the year 2014.  The national agenda on education has changed from recognizing that public education has the potential to prepare productive citizens to one that appears to have been shaped so that the American public will lose faith in its public school systems. NCLB seems to have been designed to humiliate schools rather than support them in their efforts to raise achievement for all students.

No one can argue with the intent of the act, which is to provide access to quality education for those students to whom it has traditionally been denied. However, the authors of Many Children Left Behind point out that the act’s more likely effect is to ensure failure for the very segments of our school population that its authors say it was designed to help. One author of an essay in this collection, George Wood, reminds us that students are being pushed out of school, the curriculum and teaching are narrowed, and school experiences are severely limited by the unintended consequences of targeting school curriculum toward high-stakes assessments. The short- and long-term results may be the exact opposite of the declared intent of closing the achievement gap and having all children achieve on grade level by 2014.

As the authors point out, disadvantaged groups are experiencing a limiting of schooling as a result of the act rather than a higher quality of education. Some schools have eliminated school trips and enrichment and extracurricular activities in order to spend more time on test readiness activities. There may very well be unintended consequences of the act, some may argue, such as the diversion of much-needed resources from public schools to private, charter, religious, faith-based and other nonpublic schools and organizations through tutoring, transfers, privatization, and reconstitutions of existing schools. It is well documented in this collection of essays and other pieces of research that schools that are diverse are being penalized under NCLB. This is a major contradiction of the stated intent of the legislation and will have negative effects on many if not all of our public schools for many years to come.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Alfie Kohn and Debbie Meier remind us that public education is in many ways the foundation of our democracy.  By mandating what is important, NCLB undermines the power of local community to choose their own policies, programs and decide what is important to that community.  The results could very well be a weakening of community participation in the public education process and failing to set examples of the democratic process for our young people.  Debbie Meier writes in her essay that “…democracy is also about compromises, building consensus, thinking about the other guy’s needs and views, a commitment to the larger community.”  She reminds us that “This is what America is all about.  And what a strong and rigorous education requires—even if we don’t get it right the first time.  That, too, is what America is all about.”  This is a strong message for modeling schools and their governance after a democratic and participatory society, especially because we are educating future generations of leaders.

The authors point out that states have also fallen victim to the intricacies of the act.  Those states that have developed high levels of accountability have found that they are being penalized for having high standards, whereas the states that have set minimal levels of accountability have been recognized for meeting adequate yearly progress goals under NCLB.  A major consequence of the act has been the lowering of expectations to maneuver the mechanics of the legislation in favor of more students meeting adequate yearly progress goals.  In addition, lowering standards may have an adverse effect on some of our most capable and highest achieving students, who may see meeting the standards as attaining an acceptable level of academic excellence.

In my years of experience as a teacher and an administrator in urban and suburban school districts, I have witnessed some of the poorest teaching in some of the best schools in this country and some of the best teaching in what could be perceived as some of our nation’s lowest achieving schools.  I came away from this experience with the realization that the most important indicator of student success is the quality of the teaching in a classroom, not how well students do on a test. Where schools and school systems have focused resources on improving teaching, there have been successes, which have included increases in achievement test scores and a higher percentage of students meeting standards. The restrictive definitions of teacher qualifications in the act place severe hardships on schools that need quality teachers who know the students and in certain situations can teach in multiple certification areas. The authors in this book emphasize that the act deals almost exclusively with subject matter expertise, ignoring the other local variables that can add to the likelihood of student success.  The authors of the act failed to recognize the link between teacher quality and locally tailored professional development programs that focus and improve teacher quality and expertise based on the local needs of students.

What becomes clear in the writing of the different authors of Many Children Left Behind is that real improvement in schools takes the time and commitment of all who are involved in the process.  The essays in the book point out that the implementation of the NCLB Act can be viewed as a quick fix for every inequity that exists in our schools.  The reality is that the schools may not be able to counteract all the educational, social, and economic factors that have an impact on a student’s ability to achieve in school.  The effects of inadequate funding of NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Act, inadequate or nonexistent health care, lack of consistent housing, unemployment, and poverty may be insurmountable.  Schools have traditionally been asked to solve the ills of society.  Over the years, many teachers and principals have made commendable efforts to solve the societal problems that affect student performance with some, but mostly limited success.  In my view, it will take “the whole village” to accomplish the goals of NCLB.  Educators, local and national politicians, health care professionals, and governmental officials will have to develop the will to put aside political agendas and agree on a few focused common goals.  The authors of essays in this book argue that we need to develop reasonable solutions to helping all children succeed to the best of their individual ability.

I concur with the authors that we should take some time to collect what we know about the conditions for exemplary teaching and learning, put our heads together, and come up with a strategy to achieve the goals of NCLB without leaving any children behind.  For example, we know that teacher collaboration and expertise are conditions of increased student achievement, but not all schools allow time for teachers to collaborate or increase their professional skills and understandings. Some do not even have a plan for encouraging these types of activities. We also know that administrators can improve their skills by collaborating with other administrators locally and nationally. In many districts, formal mechanisms for administrators discussing and sharing exemplary practices do not exist. As a profession, we need to institutionalize effective practices that lead to the improvement of professional skills that may, in turn, lead to increased student achievement.

In his introduction to the essays in this book, Theodore Sizer reminds us that schools have long been the vehicle for social mobility and have been used to solve a number of social and health issues.  The authors imply that, given the complexity of the issues, we need to slow down, discuss, agree on a solution and then move forward.  The tension this produces for parents and practitioners is, of course, that as we discuss a solution, more children are being left by the wayside.

Stan Karp is accurate when he writes in his essay that the keys to school improvement are “not standards and tests, but teachers and students.”  Monty Neill writes that teachers can reach out to mobilize parents to support alternatives to NCLB mandates.  Educators need to review and use the available research to determine how schools and districts have increased student achievement.  In doing so, they will see that where educators have exhibited the courage to publicly acknowledge poor performance and focused their resources on student learning and improving teaching, then and only then has progress been made toward the goals of NCLB.  This is a very different formula than the mandates of NCLB.  The difference is that these steps, supported by research, result in sustained improvement over time without the sacrifices that NCLB requires.

As educational professionals, we must use what we know and have learned to make certain that every student in our public schools receives a high-quality education that results in all students meeting a reasonable set of standards, before lawmakers and the architects of NCLB have us flying toward the sun with waxed wings.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1522-1526
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11805, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:44:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Cavanna
    American Institutes for Research
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY P. CAVANNA is Principal Research Scientist focusing on Education Systems Design at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC. He is a former public school teacher, principal, and superintendent as well as a former Professor of Educational Practice at New York University. His current projects include a New Jersey Department of Education/Prudential Foundation grant to improve student achievement in needy urban school districts, a Kellogg Middle Start Improvement Project for middle school education, a Gates Project on the implementation of small high schools, and the Ohio Score Reporting Project for the Ohio State Content Standards. His recent publications include an internal review, “Works in Progress: A Report on Middle and High School Improvement Programs” (American Institutes for Research, 2005) and a review of Lee G. Bolman and Terrance Deal’s Reframing the Path to School Leadership: A Guide for Teachers and Principals (Teachers College Record, 2003).
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