|Garrett Albert Duncan, Associate Professor of Education, of African and African-American Studies, and of American Culture Studies
The Pitfalls of No Child Left Behind
The 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy during his first term, marked the broadest expansion of the federal government into K–12 schooling since Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Enacted amid much fanfare and with broad, bipartisan support, NCLB was also met with initial skepticism, especially among those still disillusioned with the events from a few months earlier that had brought the president into office.
For starters, the decision to name the legislation similar to the Children’s Defense Fund’s trademarked slogan “Leave No Child Behind” was viewed in some quarters as disingenuous. The name of the act no more convinced them that conservatives were sympathetic to the needs of America’s poor than the decision to have R&B artist Chaka Khan close the 2000 Republican National Convention convinced them that the party was in touch with the black mainstream.
Yes, Chaka whipped the conservative gathering into a frenetic boogie with her soul-stirring rendition of I Feel for You, and the name of the act does indeed have a “kinder, gentler” feel to it. However, as far as the president’s detractors were concerned, no gesture could persuade them that his administration would be any more inclusive than those of the Republican past or that his brand of conservatism was any more compassionate than previous versions of it.
Its naysayers notwithstanding, though, NCLB does include remarkably explicit calls to eliminate educational inequality and to reduce performance disparities among children from different racial and economic backgrounds. Not since Brown had federal policy taken such strong measures to compel school districts across the nation to seriously educate all children.
Many states still chafe at NCLB’s restrictions and, some, with good reasons. However, complaints that the federal act violates local authority smack of the sad irony of states aligning themselves with the likes of Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus who in 1957 defied a federal court order to integrate an all-white Little Rock high school or with those who in 1960 compelled federal marshals to escort little Ruby Bridges as she integrated a New Orleans’ elementary school.
Most significantly, such complaints place states in the untenable position that they are content with the widespread educational inequalities that exist between their rich and poor school districts. They also place affluent districts on the defensive about the educational disparities that exist within their schools between white and black students.
Indeed, NCLB’s egalitarian rhetoric makes it difficult for states to criticize the act without appearing to succumb to what President Bush calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that frustrates efforts to educate all children. At the same time, recent under-publicized Bush administration cuts to education spending severely undermine the capacity of public school officials to comply with NCLB’s mandate. Such bait-and-switch tactics warrant especially strong rebuke and action.
The administration’s proposed cuts for the 2005–06 fiscal year stand to eliminate more than $9 billion of promised funds from the NCLB budget. In addition, the administration proposes to cut more than $7 billion from monies intended for Title I programs, the very programs directed at student populations especially at risk for failing in school. Such cuts largely impact school districts with high concentrations of poor students as well as those with large black student populations.
Certainly neither NCLB nor standardized testing can be blamed for creating all the problems that
exist in our schools, but the Bush administration’s budget cuts can be rightly criticized for having exacerbated them.
In Missouri alone, Kansas City and St. Louis city schools will each lose $35 million, or 41 percent of their respective budgets, of promised Title I funds for the 2005 fiscal year. Larger public school districts stand to lose even more. For instance, the proposed cuts will eliminate nearly $300 million from the budgets of Title I programs in Los Angeles public schools and $650 million from those in New York. These cuts will result in the reduction of teachers, resources, and educational programs that are necessary to ensure that no child is left behind in America’s schools.
The budget cuts reflect the ideology of an administration that is hell bent on reducing the role of government in public affairs. The policy also exacerbates the very conditions that contribute to schooling inequalities. For instance, although NCLB’s sweeping provisions allow for multiple ways to assess learning, underfunding contributes to the over-reliance by schools on standardized testing to measure student achievement.
The excessive use of testing as a means to measure achievement has spawned a cottage industry of “test coaches” and “behavioral specialists” poised to exploit districts and families working under the real threat of having their schools closed or taken over by unresponsive private companies. Extensive testing has also resulted in the dumbing down of America’s school curriculum and compromised the capacity of teachers to educate their charges. In some districts, for example, teachers must demonstrate fidelity to curriculum and instruction that have no other purpose than to boost student test scores.
This holds true even in those schools where students have access to computers. These technologies are rarely exploited for their potential to promote academic achievement but instead are typically used for drill and practice, especially with black students and those living in poverty. The general abuse of testing occurs at a time when students complain that schools neither challenge them nor prepare them for the worlds of work and higher education. Similarly, employers and college and university administrators complain that high school graduates often come to them without the basic skills they expect young people to gain in school.
Whether entering the work force or enrolling in college, young people need to be highly skilled to survive and flourish in our contemporary post-industrial society. Both colleges and universities require of the students they admit the same skills and knowledge base that employers demand of high school graduates they employ: people who can communicate clearly, analyze information, and solve complex problems on the fly. These are the very skills that are compromised in the unbridled pursuit of increasing test scores.
Certainly neither NCLB nor standardized testing can be blamed for creating all the problems that exist in our schools, but the Bush administration’s budget cuts can be rightly criticized for having exacerbated them. Carried out under the cover of darkness, the latter is a bait-and-switch scheme that effectively undermines the efforts of school districts to close achievement gaps between the haves and the have-nots, leaving schools and students vulnerable to unscrupulous privateers, or the educational Halliburtons of the world, who view them as cash cows. In the final analysis, the willingness of the Bush administration to renege on its promise to leave no child behind jeopardizes the future of a whole generation of students and presents an inexcusable peril to an entire nation.