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'No Child' Leaves Kids Behind

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 8, 2005

[Note: This op ed takes the position that while there may be faults with the administration of the No Child Left Behind Act, the underlying purpose to help all children learn, and narrow the academic gap between the under- and over-privileged, both remains valid and requires some system of measurement and comparison of results. It was submitted to the Press-Citizen on March 2, 2005. Four days later a column appeared in one of the other local papers, The Gazette, entitled "Our High Schools Need to Grow Up." The author was Bill Gates. Obviously, neither Gates nor Johnson could have known of the other's approach to the issues. But the similarity in their approaches is so striking that this link to the Gates' column is also provided here.]

Throughout the Press-Citizen's recent series, "Testing Our Schools" (Feb. 26-28), the federal No Child Left Behind Act took quite a beating on these pages -- and deservedly so. There's no need to re-examine all the reasons why -- incluidng lack of funding, inappropriate use of tests and “punishing” rather than supporting the schools that need help.

Indeed, some believe the whole purpose of the law is to further the agenda of those who seem determined to “privatize” everything in America, from prisons to Social Security and national defense. What’s sold as “tax cuts” are in fact program cuts – including those in education. Moreover, our growing multi-trillion-dollar debt will make future tax increases and program restoration something between very difficult and impossible.

As Grover Norquist, President George W. Bush’s adviser, has explained the goal, he doesn’t want to do away with government entirely he just wants “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

If he and his allies can “prove” that the public school system is “failing,” if they can use the No Child Left Behind “facts” as ammunition in their war for vouchers and privatization of education, they will be well on their way to drowning public schools in their neocon bathtub.

Family Values

There’s more to education than schools. If we are going to practice, rather than just preach, “family values,” if we really want to help all kids learn, we know what to do. As others have written here, we need a living wage for their parents, quality day care and preschools, adequate nutrition and universal single-payer health care, among other things.

But schools are what we’re talking about.

A threshold question is whether we really want to support the advertised purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act. That purpose, you’ll recall, is to narrow the learning gap by focusing more attention on the children who are the greatest challenge, the most difficult, the least ready, willing and able to learn.

There is considerable data that with the will there are ways. Some schools have produced dramatic improvements in learning and reducing the inequitable gap between the top and bottom of the class. We’re already doing some in our district.

But school budgets are limited and the No Child Left Behind funding is inadequate. Thus, resources transferred to help struggling students means less money for our talented, gifted and privileged children as well as those in the middle of the pack.

Are the parents of those children willing to support a shift of resources? Are school board members, administrators and teachers? I’m not sure. But I think it is a question we need to confront with candor.

There is considerable justification for bashing No Child Left Behind. But those who bash without offering better ways to achieve its goals raise questions about the genuineness of their commitment.

Real Measurements

Moreover, if we decide we really do support the No Child Left Behind goals, but don’t like its use of testing, we need to come up with some other set of measurable standards and comparative reports. As one of my former school board colleagues would put it, “You get what you measure.”

We don’t need to “punish” schools and teachers not making progress. We may just need to give them more staffing, training and other resources. We also need to identify who’s making the most progress, and find out what they’re doing, “what works,” and spread it around the school district.

There are some who are unwilling to accept any form of measurement, those who bristle at the notion of any system of accountability for their share of the $400 billion the United States spends on K-12 education. Fortunately, they are few.

Clearly, No Child Left Behind has its problems. But anyone who says we’re serving all our children, and yet is unwilling to measure our progress, is just blowing smoke on those students we will continue to “leave behind” – far, far behind.

Reach Nicholas Johnson, a former Iowa City School Board member who teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law, via the Web at