No Child Left Behind: The Good and the Bad
September 2009 Parenting
Krista Sokolsky teaches third grade in San Lorenzo, CA, a lower-middle-class area near Oakland. Every morning she greets 24 little faces at Hillside Elementary, and they kick off each day with a grammar game. But lately she’s wondered whether her ten years of experience in the classroom even matters. Because her school has failed to meet California’s reading targets for the past four years, Sokolsky must follow a state-mandated, cookie-cutter curriculum intended to do one thing and one thing only — raise test scores.
For example: Sokolsky is required to teach reading for two-and-a-half hours a day, and two of those hours must be performed in lecture mode. With 8- and 9-year-olds. (”This works for about fifteen minutes,” she says.) She’s told the questions she should ask, which practice pages to do, and how to manage high- and low-achieving students. “We do our best to break things up, but the program doesn’t really allow for variation,” Sokolsky says. “A lot of us wonder why you need a teacher in the room if we can’t do what we were trained to do. Essentially, they give me a textbook to follow that anyone who can read could teach.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason the kids complain about having to read the same book over and over again to ensure they get all the accompanying lessons on comprehension. They never have time to choose a book to read just for fun. They get to have history, art, music, and hands-on science activities only when the subjects can be squeezed into the schedule. In fact, Sokolsky managed to cover only two of last year’s five social studies themes completely. Bottom line: “There’s nothing they get to look forward to when they come to school,” she says. Even for the teacher, “It’s boring.” Worst of all, the approach still hasn’t made a significant impact on Hillside students’ performance. After some increases — though not enough to reach the targets — scores actually dropped in the 2007-2008 school year, when teachers had to start sticking closely to the new reading program.
Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), circa 2009. Seven and a half years after former President George W. Bush signed the biggest quality-control effort in American education into law, NCLB has proven itself to be a classic case of good idea, bad execution. It’s a noble effort that ended up degrading teachers’ morale and putting so much frantic focus on testing that real education got left behind. As schools across the country scramble for higher test scores, the kind of twisted logic that’s undermining Sokolsky’s teaching has become an epidemic, especially in districts like San Lorenzo that already face significant social and economic challenges. But despite all the disappointment, puzzlement, and frustration over NCLB, we finally have the chance to create a law that can actually fulfill its potential: After two years of delay, Congress plans to begin revamping NCLB by the end of this year — and it’s nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t agree that something must change…