Stop leaving teachers and students behind

The federally unfunded mandate No Child Left Behind judges education solely through standardized testing. It’s unreasonable and inflexible.

by Abby Bar-Lev

An educated society is a vibrant society, yet teachers remain underpaid and students in poor school districts continue to be left behind. The American Federation of Teachers released a nationwide survey that exposed a disturbing trend in teachers’ salaries. From 1999 to 2004, “teachers earned 18 cents for every new dollar in other professions,” in a time when they are also “facing increased professional demands, in terms of licensure and content-knowledge requirements, under federal law.” The survey also showed that the average teacher salary in the 2003-2004 school year was $46,597, which, when adjusted for inflation, means the 2003-2004 salary actually dropped “0.4 percent from 2002-2003.” Average new teachers receive less than $30,000 per year. Similarly, the teachers’ federation reported, “From 1994 to 2004, average teacher salaries, when adjusted for inflation, dropped in 22 states.” This is perturbing when this survey does not even take into account the “current severe threats” to pension plans and benefits, which states are “attempting to drastically reduce or eliminate.”

We as a country, regardless of partisan differences and beliefs, should be appalled by such information. After all, whether we are of different political persuasions; whether we work in manufacturing, education, politics or business; whether we have children or not and whether we plan to raise those children in the public or private education system, we owe everything to our teachers. As author and columnist Anna Quindlen writes, “teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students.”

Students also are being shafted in the educational system. The federally unfunded mandate No Child Left Behind judges education solely through standardized testing. It sets up unreasonable goals for schools to meet, and then when they do not reach those goals, they lose money and students are encouraged to transfer to private schools, which, by the way, are not held to any national standards. The skills that truly define a quality education ” critical thinking skills, intellectual curiosity and intrinsic motivation ” are sacrificed in the mandate’s efforts to quantify intelligence, a multifaceted and non-numeric construct. The gym, band, orchestra and art classes have been cut throughout the country to focus resources on standardized testing have been sacrificed as well. There could not be a more upside-down and irrational means of distributing funding and measuring educational success.

Students are caught in the cross fire. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka the “Nation’s Report Card,” came out recently nearly four years after the No Child Left Behind Act took effect. Not only did it illustrate the trend that the assessed schools continue to perform far below the national average, but, most worrisome, that “the achievement gap between white and minority students has stayed the same and may even be widening.” Of course this spells trouble for the Bush administration, which has been preaching about the achievement bridge that No Child Left Behind has supposedly been building. This is a trend of national concern.

This May will be the 52nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that illegalized racial segregation in schools. What we are seeing today is an economic educational segregation. The poor schools continue to perform poorly, and are located in largely minority districts. Poor families are not offered the same ability as affluent families in seeking educational quality. This economic and often racial segregation is enforced through No Child Left Behind, which does everything but improve educational quality and opportunities for students or teachers alike.

Feminists well understand the critical tie between education and economic success. We need to be at the forefront. A first step to improving the educational system would be to do as the National Education Association suggests and pay starting teachers $40,000 with reasonable, regular raises. As Quindlen said, “If these people can teach 6-year-olds to add and get adolescents to attend to algebra, surely we can do the math to get them a decent wage.” There should be more incentives for teachers to work in schools in lower-income communities. Paying our teachers respectable and reasonable salaries would certainly not fix all of our educational woes, but it would be a positive start. When teachers’ morale is high, students reap the benefits. Paying our teachers decently and treating them with the respect they deserve will only help America grow into a more educated, equal and progressive future.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected]