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No Child Left Behind: Well-Intentioned but Flawed
Flawed. Well-intentioned but flawed. That is how the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is likely to be remembered after it is finally repealed, having caused great harm to the American education system. At the time of its passing, it was yet another attempt by the politicians to deal with an underperforming system through "returning to the basics”, specifically the areas of math and language arts, commonly known as "reading, writing, and arithmetic." But instead of promoting achievement, it has resulted in a system where low-performing schools are awarded for minor improvements, high-performing schools punished with less funding for gifted students, and schools that fit neither of those criteria left in the lurch.
As George W. Bush said upon signing NCLB into law: "there's no greater challenge than to make sure that …every single child, regardless of where they live, how they're raised, the income level of their family…receive[s] a first-class education in America.” Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind has not lived up to its name. Initially, NCLB was intended to improve the performance of U.S. primary and secondary schools by increasing standards of accountability for states, school districts, and schools, providing parents more flexibility in choosing which schools their children could attend, and mandating that all teachers be "highly qualified" in their subjects of instruction. While good in principle, issues in implementation have in fact hindered progress and proven a deterrent to educational excellence, with problems such as underfunding and ill-thought regulations and penalties in regard to "improvement” leading to a mindset that promotes a gaming of the system rather than true student learning.
One of the most problematic provisions of NCLB calls for schools to exhibit constant academic improvement in order to continue to receive federal funding, with annual standardized multiple choice exams becoming the default measure of student performance (provisions allegedly having been made for English language learners). Aside from the inherent unfairness of such exams due to socioeconomic concerns, and the failure of states to provide accommodations to English language learners, this leads to two major issues: the lowering of standards to show greater ‘improvement’, and teaching solely what is on the exam, instead of going on to more relevant applications. This is in light of recent studies calling into question the practice of determining educational quality by testing students, suggesting Problem-Based Learning as an alternative, which would require more funding and an individuated approach to education. Once again, the NCLB act points to the American tendency toward standardization, a principle that has become outmoded as colleges seek students passionate about a single field, not well-rounded individuals.
Besides testing, the various financial incentives for both underperforming and high performing schools also contribute to the devaluation of educational achievement. With more money devoted to low achieving schools that show improvement, and less to high achievers that have little room to improve, academic achievement is paralyzed and penalized at a certain level, encouraging slow progress in order to allow for greater potential improvement in future years. Furthermore, the distribution of already limited education funds under NCLB is questionable; in California, schools are given extra funding for not passing the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), essentially punishing successful schools. This allocation of resources not only affects the schools in general, but also the teachers, who must spend their own money to obtain essential teaching supplies. According to a study conducted from 2006-2007 by Quality Education Data (QED), an education market research and database company, high school teachers spent an average of $427 of their own money on teaching supplies. And those going beyond the requirements suffered even more, with teachers at my school spending up to $12,000 of their own money a year for materials to enhance students’ learning experiences.
This points to the most alarming issue of all, that even these mandates to improve education are underfunded, because educational funding is simply too limited, encompassing only a minute portion of the national budget. If improving education is so important to lawmakers, then why is education only 2% of the budget, as opposed to say, military spending, which takes up a much larger 16%? With the way in which NCLB is structured, paralyzing academic achievement, encouraging lower standards of learning, and distributing the name, home phone number, and address of every student enrolled to military recruiters, this seems to indicate that it may simply be another tool to funnel underperformers into the personnel-starved military, using the promise of a better life and skills not learned in school to do so.
While NCLB was well-intentioned at the outset, it has proven detrimental to the state of the American education system, and as such, alternatives to the tired "back to the basics" approach must be considered. In the last decade, Problem-Based Learning has emerged as a viable instructional strategy that centers on the student as an individual, with the role of the teacher moving away from instructor to facilitator of learning. This bottom-up approach to responsibility in learning has been shown to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning—valuable skills not traditionally taught in the classroom. That, as well as the establishment of individual school and community based Passionate Pursuits programs, where schools would aid students to bring their interests to fruition, would shift accountability from an institution-centered approach to an individual-centered approach—and those with a modicum of control of their environment, who feel that their education is relevant, have generally performed better on any measure of success, testing or otherwise. Of course, none of this improvement, or even maintenance of the status quo, is possible without more funding, as the number and needs of students continue to increase with each passing year, and until education is once again a priority in fact rather than in name, there will not come the day when in reality, no child is left behind.