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Commentary: No Child Left Behind

By Anne Foster, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

For those who have spent the last five years implementing No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, it seems a lot longer since President Bush's signature domestic achievement became law. Who could argue with something that promised to leave no child behind? But with the reauthorization of the law set to come before Congress this year, some legislators who helped pass the measure have turned against it, or at least against the way it is enforced. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) has introduced legislation to severely change NCLB by allowing states to opt out of some testing mandates, while retaining federal funds. Representative Blunt came to his new conclusions after meeting with school administrators and teachers - the very people charged with the implementation, and the only ones who fully understand the issues involved.

Most would argue public education needs accountability, but few stakeholders are happy with how NCLB measures it. Certain conservatives favor less federal intrusion into local affairs. Some liberals denounce the standardized testing. Many parents believe classrooms have been stripped of innovation and creativity. Curriculum has been aligned with state tests to the point that they are one and the same. We need to test what is taught, but how do students then fare on critical and higher level thinking skills?

NCLB is loaded with issues of geography, culture, language, and economics, all of which can prevent schools from succeeding. NCLB allows parents to transfer their children out of failing schools, to the next nearest school, but former Education Secretary Rod Paige once learned on a trip to Alaska that in one area, that would mean taking a helicopter over a strait to the next district. As for having highly qualified teachers in every school, in places such as rural western Utah, the state does well to get any teachers at all, let along those who may meet the legislation's stiff requirements. The highly qualified teacher provision rankled many competent, veteran teachers - teachers who had more than proven their ability - but who had not passed certain tests now required. It was one of the most unfortunate parts of NCLB. We have enough of a teacher shortage without insulting and driving away those people we need the most.

Another thorny issue is that NCLB requires immigrant students who have been in the U.S. for one year to take the test in English. For many schools, this guarantees failure and sets them up for punishment. Until a student can master basic English, it makes more sense to offer alternative assessments and to use growth-based measurements. Asking the impossible from educators, punishing them for failing, and withholding federal money is never going to get the job done.

After five years of hard work and frustrations, NCLB is due for a major overhaul. The law needs more common sense and more local control. Multiple measures of student achievement need to be used. Perhaps Congress needs to follow Representative Blunt's example of talking to the people who know best. Perhaps Congress needs to call on educators, parents, and school board members to testify. That might bring about a more workable and realistic piece of legislation - one that makes sense, increases the value of the educational system, brings accountability, respects the teachers who have chosen the profession, and honors local communities with the trust that they know a lot about what's best for their own kids.

Anne Foster is a former member and president of the Richardson school board.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.