No Child Left Behind and Other Myths

The food’s no good and the portions are too small

March 2003

We are all looking for answers, for ways to stop the pain we feel from the news these days, from the constant barrage of bad stuff going on. But controlling problems and stopping the pain are not simple, particularly when it comes to budgets and necessary programs. This is true at every level of government. Similar to the proponents of MCAS here in Massachusetts, the President continues to come up with answers that he believes will solve the problems in public education, but most of what he is doing is making things worse. Will there be enough money appropriated to fund ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind)? Will testing, testing, and more testing replace deep and thoughtful assessment of students and schools? Even though it brings with it necessary funding for education, the new ESEA may well be for education what the Patriot Act has become for domestic security. It goes too far. Similarly, towns across Massachusetts find themselves in the terrible position of wanting to do the right thing and grant their deserving students diplomas regardless of their performance on MCAS, and being afraid to because they fear the state will revoke their funding. These are all cases of government overextending its reach.

As was the case with Massachusetts’ Education Reform, the new ESEA has brought new dollars to public education, and there is a quid pro quo involved. ESEA calls for an increased reliance on standardized, “high-stakes” testing to demonstrate student ability and school district accountability, which is not all it’s cracked up to be. There is increasing evidence that such testing does not improve academic acheivement, as the University of Arizona study found recently. What’s more, in the name of promoting high standards and demonstrating accountability, many states are using the results of their standardized tests to deny graduation to those who fail them, regardless of their work throughout their school career. And further, high failure rates and increases in minority drop-out accompany high-stakes testing, according to a report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2001. Many of those who are hurt by such policies are students from inner city schools, and the disabled, the populations which the reauthorized ESEA intends to help.

Whatever happened to this president’s promise to streamline government and give it back to “the people?” There is very little sign of it in this administration. The president has a great deal in common with that famous control freak Speaker Thomas Finneran and our new Governor. All are cut from the same cloth. Each one uses a dire external situation to justify his destructive policies: in Bush’s case, the threat of terrorism justifies war, and the so-called dreadful state of education in America justifies No Child Left Behind. In Romney’s and Finneran’s case, the economy justifies deep and devastating budget cuts. In each case, we, on the local level, feel our hands being tied by these policies and struggle to comply –- or not.

They say that you should not bite the hand that feeds you. Indeed, ESEA extends its hand to us by bringing money to starving states. But at what price? Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Education here in Massachusetts has made noises about withdrawing funding from towns if they grant diplomas to deserving students regardless of their MCAS results. While the State House pares away the money for education and other valuable programs and we simply watch, wringing our hands. Towns have to shoulder the burden, make nasty cuts, while still complying with policies that run counter to best practice in education.

Our school committee, and many across the state, have voiced their opposition more than once to the use of high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement. There is clearly no mandate for high-stakes testing. Further, Massachusetts towns are straining to cover the deficit caused by the state cuts. Once the federal government imposes its new and arduous demands, we will lose that much more freedom.

The question is, how much more of this, on any level, are we going to take?