Passing grade: Does 'No Child Left Behind' actually serve its intended purpose?

04/10/14 by Rennie Detore

In theory and on paper, the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted and put together to bridge the educational gap between children in public schools and ensure teachers earned equally high marks for their performance. What it actually does beyond that mission statement and what was originally intended for is highly debatable.
The No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, was immediately flanked and shrouded with controversy upon its inception in 2001. What was supposed to create an even playing field when it comes to students of all race and color, raise test scores across the board and truly hold teachers to a higher standard, has transformed into a polarizing topic even 13 years later that has left educators, teachers and parents scratching their heads rather than affirmatively shaking them.
And one question seems to be at the center of the back and forth discussion in regard to whether NCLB truly is anything more than rhetoric that sounds and looks the part but fails to deliver the tangible, all encompassing educational experience students ultimately deserve.

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Is NCLB really cultivating an atmosphere that preserves learning and education underscored with creative thinking and learning, or are teachers simply perpetuating stale, bland lesson plans geared toward a particular test? In other words, between the positives and negatives of NCLB, where exactly does this act fall?
"I think there are several positives. NCLB fosters educational growth and achievement of students," said Teri Martinez, a NCLB and School Improvement and Reform expert. She also is currently a University of Arizona PhD Candidate (Educational Law & Public Policy), and a member of the Arizona education community.
Make no mistake, Martinez isn't championing NCLB or rallying behind it wholeheartedly. But as a renowned and respected educator, she'd be doing a disservice to the parts of NCLB that work, namely the aforementioned accountability for students and teachers, or lack thereof.
"There was no accountability as teachers. We went out and taught. Got books, and it was random acts of sharing knowledge," Martinez says. "Now there is a level of accountability. The other piece that is important is standards set for teacher qualifications. Highly qualified vs. not qualified. NCLB requires schools not achieving improvement to implement research methods of teaching."
Dr. Richard Greggory Johnson III is an Associate Professor and Fulbright Scholar at the University of San Francisco. He's an author, educator and centers his studies on social equality and human rights within the public policy and administration. He's also one of many that sees the good and bad when it comes to No Child Left Behind, but weighs heavily on the notion that it just doesn't seem like the complete educational package it should be.
"My assessment of No Child Left Behind; there are just a host of issues that complicate the implementation of the policy," Johnson says. "Statistics tell us that we have seen the test scores in communities of color rise during the first part of the implementation. But issues, for example, include failing in school. Most people understand failing or dropping out, however, there hasn't really been a reasonable mechanism for determining what schools are failing (for)."
Johnson brings up an interesting point as far as No Child Left Behind and how the overall spectrum of the classroom has been altered thanks to this policy. The blanket statement when it comes to NCLB is that teachers don't actually "fail" students in the traditional sense. Realistically, if teachers have relegated their teaching tendencies around a lone test, the idea of failing becomes less about actually learning and more about memorizing answers to a test.
Once teachers begin adopting the mentality of teaching to a test, not to the students, NCLB begins to show cracks in its foundation and more questions abound regarding its validity and competency as it relates to the educational system.
"The criticism (of NCLB) is testing. It's supposed to be a mechanism by which students are all tested using same standardized exams," Johnson says. "That is the issue because teachers aren't teaching creativity or analytical skills... This is a huge issue (teaching to a test) for any K-12 teacher, particularly the ones trying to make a difference."
Martinez feels that specifically the teacher, rather than condemn or complain about the shortcomings of the policy, must rise above its limitations and truly embody their craft.
"I've seen where, yes, teachers are confined to teaching to a test. That is exactly where American public education is today. However, how I accomplish that task is up to me," Martinez says, suggesting teaching can be subjective even in the face of a standardized test. "I can do it as creative and pro active as possible and still focusing on Common Core Practices."
The flip side to that mentality is one that Martinez doesn't want to see permeating through the thoughts of teachers as a whole.
"Or, I can be reactive and consistently dwell on myself, that I don't have what I need, and my kids aren't learning. I am not a proponent of standardized testing, but I am a proponent of good teaching."
Johnson concurs with that assessment in terms of teaching as it relates to its limitations as part of NCLB. His contention is that teaching within the NCLB is linear at best, and takes it a step further.
"I know as a university professor that not all students learn the same way," Johnson says. "Certainly, as a professor with a doctorate or masters degree, I don't learn the same way. My other colleagues don't, either. And that is where the 'No Child Left Behind' becomes problematic."
The irony of "No Child Left Behind" is that the premise and namesake goes against exactly what it pretends to do. Think of it realistically for a moment: the goal of NCLB is to make sure that children and students alike don't fall behind in the classroom. But teaching based on one test or in a way that is formulaic will do exactly that.
That mere aspect of NCLB, for some, render it quite obsolete in the grand scheme of education.
"There is a segment of population that is only going to learn one way that will pass a test," Johnson says. "The others will be left behind, if they don't understand the policy. "Education should be progressive, one where the students are learning and enjoying the process. No Child Left Behind; there really isn't a sense of enjoyment for anyone; they have to focus on the skill set to pass a test."
One has to wonder if the enjoyment is missing because the person delivering the lesson plan doesn't really believe in what they're saying. Teaching inside of a box doesn't have to define No Child Left Behind. Often, however, that is the case.
"As good teachers, we learn to differentiate style of teaching. I have students who have muscular dystrophy and mental issues, and I differentiate with my instructors," Martinez says. "There are ways to teach and extend the learning. So, the way I teach, I never had a class of students that all speak the same language or don't have special needs."
Martinez continues, "so you can teach all students. We are American public education; I don't care what the students has, I can teach them. It might take a little longer but myself and team of teachers have been very successful."
You have to wonder if what Martinez is describing is the exception, rather than the rule. If that is the case, kids exposed to the ins and outs of No Child Left Behind, and thus uninspired teachers, will proceed from one grade to another and eventually make their way through middle school and high school only fixated on grades and memorization, rather than actually retaining the information they're learning. In that regard, NCLB may have the proverbial ripple effect across the entire educational gamut.
"I have great students, but so many of them are interested in the grade," Johnson said. "I gave a graduate student a 'B' on a paper yesterday; this student was so upset, wanted to know how she could get an 'A.' "They should want to enjoy the information not for the sake of a grade but for sake of living a life that can utilize these cognitive skills wherever they go."
But the true definition of teaching and learning is about application not regurgitation. That fact is somewhat of a lost art at the public school level in the midst of preaching and practicing NCLB.
"I think private schools have it right for the most part. Public schools have their hands tied and its a tragedy. We live in a society where a lot of folks can't attend private schools but still appears to me that there are truly some good public schools," Johnson concedes.
"But they can't be as great as they could be."
That greatness, it seems, must come from within and in spite of No Child Left Behind and in the form of teachers taking back the classroom for the better.
"I am not a proponent of NCLB," Martinez says. "I am in favor of being a strong teacher and using energy, vitality and creativity that is amazing."

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