Something miraculous happened yesterday, an event reduced to a small story in an area newspaper, but a miracle nonetheless. After the House of Representatives passed a bill to overhaul education and end No Child Left Behind, the Senate likewise passed the bill 85-12. President Obama has indicated he will sign it into law
Will this end the relentless testing and return the teaching time that has been lost for over a decade? No. However, it will reinstate the decision about how to evaluate schools back to local schoolboards and to the states. That’s a first step in the right direction.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2002 by President George W. Bush. That was, coincidently, the year I left public high school teaching. For me, the writing had been on the wall since the late 1980s. I could see a future educational system where students would be judged by how well they could fill in test answer sheet bubbles. With the usual stupidity of a law made by non-teachers, NCLB meant students faced no penalty for the lovely patterns they drew on their answer sheets. I watched them. I also feared that teachers would be retained or fired by how well a particular batch of students did under their tutelage. Unfortunately, that too has become part of the teacher evaluation process used currently.
NCLB created a system where the federal government directed the actions of fifty states and 13,500+ local school boards. It created a national testing system where students were tested in math and reading, and schools were penalized if their scores didn’t increase each year with totally different students taking the tests. Eventually, the penalties dictated that a governmental takeover would occur for poor-performing schools.
There is some merit to a national school system; most developed countries, other than the United States, have a national curriculum and standards. But the problem with NCLB was that every income level student, every non-English speaking student, and every student with disabilities was expected to take the same test and show progress. Often, students hadn’t had some of the course work being tested. Eventually, the testing percentages that had to be attained would rise to an impossible level. The law simply was not good for schools, teachers, or students. Businesses that wrote, developed, printed tests, and evaluated the results were the financial winners. I hate to think how much of our tax money went to paying for those tests since 2002.
The new law, optimistically titled “Every Student Succeeds,” [Sorry you cannot hear me laughing through your computer] does not rid us of tests completely. It requires that each state develop its own system for testing students in three different grade levels. The scores must still be publicly reported and sorted by ethnicity, race, income, disability, and non-English speakers. It also allows states to include such factors as academic growth in one year, parental involvement in the schools, and access to challenging courses. It is not perfect either. But it does return a great deal of control to the states and local school districts. That is where the control should be.
Five years ago, I published a memoir about my teaching years from 1968 through 2008. It is called The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) It contains a glimpse into the pre-NCLB world of teaching students in public schools, and this book is still selling. In the preface I wrote:
“I believe it is instructive to remember such a time [1968-2002] before politicians looked for simple black-and-white numbers to describe whether schools were ‘working.’ Those lawmakers failed—as is often the case—to allocate money to cash-strapped schools so those schools could pay millions to buy tests and test evaluations in order to adhere to the law. That was the world I left when I retired from the public schools; unfortunately, that is the world my college students are inheriting. I felt it was important to give the future a glimpse of that pre-NCLB world. If educational policy history is any indication, with its ebb and flow of trends, NCLB too will pass.”
There is an old saying about revenge. Those who hurt you will eventually screw up themselves, and if you’re lucky, God will let you watch. While revenge is not on the top of my list here, I do feel fortunate that I was allowed to live to see the demise of NCLB.