No Child Left Behind has failed

By regulating at such a young age we are making schools the kind of place kids love to hate.

As an educator of 20 years, I wonder how Gov. Tim Pawlenty concludes, as he did last year, that a small increase in Minnesota students’ test scores proves “No Child Left behind is working.”

His statement flies in the face of evidence that, in fact, No Child Left Behind not only is not working, but results in negative impacts up and down the educational continuum – from distorting educational experiences for our youngest to ensuring when they get to college, more students than ever will need remedial courses in reading and math.

In these cash-strapped times, it is a fact that No Child Left Behind has driven up costs in terms of administering exams, tutoring students, altering curriculum, increasing teacher dissatisfaction and turnover, as well as outsourcing education dollars to corporations that create further exams exacerbating the downward spiral.

Some states are spending additional sums seeking court judgments to force the federal government to pay these costs as unfunded mandates.

Add to this that two recent studies have put the lie to the Bush administration claim that No Child Left Behind is nonpartisan and that its principal objective – closing the achievement gap between whites and students of color – is being met.

The first study, by David Berliner at Arizona State University, establishes with exhaustive detail that poverty has a cumulative impact which so overwhelms all other interventions, that it is patently ridiculous to believe that public education alone – which occupies a mere 9 percent of a student’s yearly life-experience – should be held culpable for such pervasive social disparities.

In fact, as witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, some gaps in life circumstances are so ingrained, intractable and profound that no amount of political grandstanding or public school bashing is enough to make them go away.

The second study, by Harvard researchers Gail Sunderman and Gary Orfield, shows that agreements negotiated by the Department of Education and individual states have created important differences in enforcement of No Child Left Behind, particularly in identifying which schools have met annual yearly progress goals. Such negotiated “deals” favor affluent suburban districts over the urban poor in terms of analyzing progress and what constitutes a highly qualified teacher.

Thus, once hailed as a “bipartisan” initiative to close the achievement gap, No Child Left Behind has been subverted into just another shell game that disadvantages, once again, those with the least resources to fight back.

There are other problems engulfing No Child Left Behind: fairness and accuracy in exams, gaming of numbers by states and school districts, and access to tutoring and summer school programs by those most in need.

All this provides abundant evidence to conclude, unlike Pawlenty, that No Child Left Behind has failed and must be repealed in 2007. Yet, there is more – an even stronger basis for advocating an end to No Child Left Behind.

At its core, this and other “measurable accountability” programs believe in the quantification of learning; that a test more accurately captures what we need to know about learning and human ability than do the actual gifts of being able to speak, write, listen, self-actualize, empathize, synthesize, think, forgive, love and everything else that makes us human.

The truly fundamental problem behind No Child Left Behind is this: What is joyful about learning, and what therefore makes us want to learn as much as we possibly can, are the intangible qualities of creativity, curiosity, compassion, wonder and joy.

By reducing human effectiveness in education to paper, pencil and marking ovals, we are cheapening and even destroying the fundamental inspiration that drives learning.

In the end, we do not learn a subject to the level of excellence because someone tells us to; we learn at a deep level because we want to, because it serves an important purpose.

Humans are meaning-making animals. We love to understand, to connect, to relate. We crave a great purpose for being alive.

By taking these innate desires and relegating them at a very young age to tasks which are by their very nature disconnected, abstract, indifferent and unsatisfying, we are making school the kind of place kids love to hate – particularly those without hope at home or confidence in the existing social contract.

This is the true failure of No Child Left Behind, one that no amount of tweaking or funding or negotiating will ever repair.

We will not produce world-class thinkers or artists or scientists through threats or fear or punishment. Education is not – and has never been – a coercive act imposed by a government on its people. Nor is it, except in extremely authoritarian societies, so strictly controlled, mandated and circumscribed by bureaucrats and politicians.

What really matters – and especially for the disadvantaged – is the deep, abiding connection that learning provides. It starts with the caring ethos of adults at home, at school and in the community and naturally infects children, who are given to understand that their humanity – the same spirit found in Socrates, Shakespeare, Einstein and all great achievements of humankind – is their strongest asset in making a better world for themselves and others.

Peter Henry is the author of “Becoming Mr. Henry.” Please send comments to [email protected]