No Child Left Behind: 13 Unlucky, Yucky Years

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

13 Unlucky, Yucky  YearsOn January 8th, 2002, President George W. Bush signed a revolutionary law into action – the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It was a pretty easy bill to sign into law: it was introduced in the House by Committee on Education and Labor Chair (and current Speaker) John Boehner, a Republican, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, the pre-eminent Democrat on education.

In the 13 years between then and now, they (the bipartisan cooperative of politicians and so-called “education reformers”) have closed the gap on educational achievement. It doesn’t matter whether a child is born into poverty or their schools are underserved. Nope. All schools improve under Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). All students achieve. They achieve not just despite of their special education-based individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plans, they succeed because of it. In fact, all our students achieve at 100% grade-level proficiency. And how did that happen? They circumvented the problem – teachers – and went right to building a streamlined support system and privatized charter efforts of education. They put children first. They gave parents options. And they succeeded. Eat your hearts out, China and Finland.

Or so they thought. They dreamed. They idealized.

In my years of teaching, I’ve learned one thing – that ideals are pretty hard to meet. Ideally, I’d like to have my desk clear before I go home. I don’t want any students missing assignments. Ideally, every student doesn’t just pass my tests and writing assignments – they soar to achievement. I try my darndest to make that happen, but I’m only human.

Maybe that’s what happened with the No Child Left Behind Act. We’ll never know, as President Bush no longer speaks about it, Speaker Boehner pretends like he never had a role in it, and Sen. Kennedy has passed on.

What we do know is that there were some positive outcomes from the new law. For one, teachers have to be highly qualified in their field of study. No more Joes and Jessicas walking in off the street to teach. A teacher needs a degree in their specialized area. Those teachers who are now teaching the same curriculum across the nation are also expected meet a certain curricula, too, which is good. It’s amazing how many students go through American history without learning about the American Revolution or English class without writing. Now they have to teach those things and others – the stuff that matters. Another positive is that students in special education were and are no longer able to be forgotten about. Inclusion and mainstreaming must happen to the best of their abilities. Similarly, teachers have to teach with higher-level thinking as the priority. All Americans want an educated class of individuals who are able to make quality decisions based upon sound reasoning and not on ignorance.

But that’s all I got.

In the meantime, we’ve learned much from No Child Left Behind Act’s failures and shortcomings. Here are 13 things worth mentioning:

It’s really difficult to do more with less. If Congress passed a law that would say the Arabian peninsula should be 100% democratic and gave the Pentagon and the venerable American military less resources to do it, we’d call them crazy. That’s essentially what happened int he world of education.

Change costs money. In 2001, Sen. Kennedy agreed to help pass NCLB’s most controversial measures – mandatory standardized assessments and teacher accountability – because the President agreed to increase funding in education. With a quick infusion of cash, the change was as ephemeral as an Alka-Seltzer. Education is now back t0 – and in some cases and states, below – pre-2001 education funding rates.

100% achievement on grade level is not attainable unless we transform the home. Most major cities’ school systems are in the cross hairs because of NCLB. The teachers there are trying, but they have to deal with so many more things than Congress or even a fellow teacher in the ‘burbs can imagine: poverty, teen pregnancy lack of resources, bureaucratic ineptitude, a constant turnover of teachers and administrators, and the parents who focus more on who their kid fought in the bathroom than what it means to be on grade level. We should have laws that empower those teachers to act, not add another thing to their list.

Real change won’t happen unless they include teachers. Seriously, who tries to balance a budget without a slew of accountants? Congress? Peshaw.

School choice has made limited gains. The road to success seemed to be paved through school choice. Heck, my school even held a forum on it back in 2010. But the fact of the matter is that students’ scores don’t change much in charter schools. In fact, many public schools with the same (note: not having the ability to deny students) population outperform them.

Adequate Yearly Progress chases teachers from sinking schools. You don’t have to go in and fire the teachers at underperforming schools. They’re running from them already, abandoning the students who need great teachers most.

Physical Education has gotten the short end of the stick. We all understand what First Lady Michelle Obama is trying to do with her Let’s Move campaign, but let’s face it: students are becoming more overweight and having gym class less. That makes sense… Not.

Specialized / Electives have been cut. In many schools, their attempts to teach to the test have created a culture of administrative fear. This fear has been pacified by removing electives (like art, technology education, wood shop, music, world languages, family and consumer science, and more). Here’s the problem; for many students, these classes are what drive them to school.

School is losing its fun. I know the detractors will have their say: “school ain’t s’posed to be fun. School’s s’posed to be where you learn!” Another possible quote is, “if teachers don’t like it, they should get out! Get a new job!” This isn’t about the teachers. This is about the students. Ask a kid in his 3rd remedial class for Algebra what he thinks about school. Better yet, ask him if he’s ever thought about dropping out.

NCLB has made many education reformers quite wealthy or the wealthy really loud about it. Check it out in Time. In Dissent. In the Albany Times Union. In Salon.com. From PBS. From Bill Moyers. And more.

Hardly anything’s been done to improve curriculum. With all that money spent on tests and standards, not much has changed in curriculum. Students still look at their 1999 social studies books in my class. There really are some great curriculum programs out there that would be worth the expense. And there’s not one mention of curriculum in the law. Standards are not curriculum. Common Core is not curriculum. Students learn from great curriculum, not standards.

Hardly anything’s been done to improve technology. You seriously don’t think a 1:1 initiative, putting a high-quality tablet in the hands of every child, would’ve been a better way to spend billions of dollars?

We’ve kind of forgotten / ignored / fallen into disbelief about all the requirements of NCLB. So it’s time that we either #reformORrepealNCLB

Join me by letting other teachers know. Letting other parents know. Letting other students know. Letting them know that it didn’t truly work and isn’t working. It’s time to #reformORrepealNCLB

Lest we have another 13 unlucky, yucky years with it.

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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