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NCLB's Downward Spiral--Letter from a Teacher

Tom DiFiglio, an Advanced Placement Psychology teacher at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla., has sent me many smart messages over the years. His email today made clear how upset he was at recent events at his school, because of the distorted effects of the No Child Left Behind Law as it nears its 2014 goals. I like most of NCLB, but not that 2014 deadline. Here is Tom's email to me, and then some of the letter he sent to his school colleagues:

Hi Jay---As open as I have been to every reform, as open as I have been with my AP classes, as successful as I have been, I have never had 100% of my students pass the standardized test. Yet that is exactly what NCLB is going to require, 100% of all students must be “proficient” by the year 2014. And we just learned that Spanish River High, an A-rated school for years under the Florida school rating system, is about to undergo state intervention if we do not make our AYP this year, adequate yearly progress, on our way to 100% proficiency by 2014. As I have discovered in my missive below, virtually every school will eventually fail to make AYP and be deemed a failure by NCLB. This bill is deeply flawed. It is time for a national debate. I have read many sources over the last few days to come up with this letter to my colleagues:

Dear All,

On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, a 1,100 page bipartisan overhaul of the largest federal education program. Originally launched in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NCLB became the latest revision and newest name for ESEA. ESEA’s original purpose was to provide extra money for schools educating low-income students. The Bush version ordered schools to meet extremely difficult requirements for student test scores or face escalating punishment if they expected to continue to receive federal dollars.

So far only the state of Utah has challenged the mandates of NCLB and has ordered its schools to ignore NCLB even if it means a cessation of federal funds. They claim that NCLB itself is an unfunded mandate that is not worth financing. Slowly but surely NCLB has acquired such a bad reputation that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is looking for a new name. He actually has a website designed to receive suggestions for renaming NCLB.

Although this may seem trivial, this attention to NCLB is a good thing. NCLB is in dire need of revision but no one wants to criticize a law that wants all children to succeed. No one wants to leave any children behind. But if NCLB is not revised soon, almost every school in the country will fail sometime in the next five years. Why? Because the passing grade for schools keeps rising every year. In fact, in the next five years the bar rises faster and faster.

Herein lies the problem. The conceptual basis of NCLB is deeply flawed. The concept of I.Q. is real. It has not been obviated, yet NCLB ignores the inevitable and natural variation amongst individuals. Therefore the main NCLB goal, Proficiency for All, becomes an oxymoron when the standards set for students are said to be both challenging and achievable. No goal or standard can, simultaneously, be both challenging and achievable by all students across the entire spectrum. A standard can either be a minimal standard, which presents little or no challenge to average and advanced students, or it can be a challenging standard which is unachievable by many below-average students. No single standard can serve both purposes. The goal of having every student at or above average by 2014 also becomes an oxymoron as we would then render the meaning of average moot.

.....But the education of our children is no joke and the labels being attached to schools are real and damaging. It is time to revise NCLB into a serious and meaningful law that is both realistic and pragmatic.

By Jay Mathews  | September 30, 2009; 3:25 PM ET
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This is nothing new! I reached this conclusion during my first year of teaching. I was hired into a school that was n corrective action. When I found out what NCLB was and the significance of 2014, I laughed out loud. But then quickly quieted down as I received a lot of questionable glances. Mr. Difiglio is right on. NCLB does not account for IQ. NCLB is almost trying to create a socialist society by saying "everyone should be equal." We have a lower class because some people just can't cut it OR they are apathetic about life and working a low paying job is okay for them.

NCLB is an attempt to place the problems of society (mainly, the disequity that results from poverty) all on schools. "Well... this kid has a single parent who is always working and is barely able to support herself. He was never read to and was not granted appropriate life experiences. As a result, he cannot read and is in second grade. We'll just let the schools solve that problem."

Give me a break. No wonder why so many teachers leave the profession. Thank you Utah for standing up and telling the government how it is.

Posted by: PoorTeacher | September 30, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Remember, also, that what NCLB defines as 'proficient' would be considered failing in an actual classroom. I am not trying to defend NCLB, but it should be noted that students who fail my Math and Language Arts classes can still be proficient.

Posted by: dylanpickle | September 30, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Schools already attempting to raise education attainment by setting high goals were put at a disadvantage by NCLB. Many people have studied this Act and I agree with the perspective that the purpose of NCLB is to dismantle public education.

Public funds then could be diverted to private schools with complete disregard for the community at large.

It is a shameful and hurtful hoax not unlike the gambling rampant in the financial sector.

Posted by: kelby2552 | September 30, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely dylanpcikle. The state tests are so ridiculously easy. It really is astonishing that so many kids do poorly on them. So many kids are just outright apathetic. I always say to myself, "My goodness. What did these kids do in elementary school?" I'm school Elementary teachers wonder what went wrong from birth to age five. Too many people that cannot support themselves have kids and then those kids are neglected. Or academic skills are not focused on within the family. So many kids are "basic" because so many struggle to receive the most basic human needs. And as the teacher who wrote the letter mentioned, IQ is real. NCLB seems to want to erradicate the fact that some succeed with academics while others do not.

Posted by: PoorTeacher | September 30, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

I thought all states will get around the provisions by constructing a test so easy, that 100% of the students will pass it.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 30, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

Nice of you to print this, Jay, but it ain't exactly new news.

The more interesting angle is why, given all the known and widely derided flaws of NCLB tests, Arne Duncan is so hot for states to use them for teacher evaluation.

Posted by: dz159 | September 30, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

One of the better discussion threads on this site.

dz159 makes a couple good points. 1. It was always evident that every school will eventually be failing under this law. I figured labeling public schools as failures was a Republican strategy to siphon money off to private schools. 2. Duncan/Obama insistence on using the scores to set teacher pay?!?!?!

I would also echo that IQ is 'normally' distributed. i.e. a Bell Curve. This is not to say kids across the spectrum can't learn, but the gifts are unequally distributed. Another normal distribution is height. Imagine passing a law that said every male will be at least 5'9". Would that help make me any taller?

Posted by: bcollom | October 1, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

come on, jay, this is a tired old red herring. nothing's really going to happen if and when 2014 arrives. just like nothing happened when the national education goals weren't reached by 2000 (remember them)?

Posted by: alexanderrusso | October 2, 2009 12:37 AM | Report abuse

We're getting all tangled up. The reason that the goal of teaching all kids to read will not be met is due to the statistically-impossible formula of AYP. ALL schools and districts will be labeled failures by 2014. This was true in 2001 and it's true now.

The tragedy is the belief that all kids, with very few exceptions cannot be taught to read, either due to inherited deficiencies, societal deficiencies, or both.

Certainly, children enter school with varying mental ability, psychological and physical characteristics, and from different SES/ethnic cultures.

HOWEVER, with few exceptions, kids enter school motivated to read, and their parents or caregivers want them to be taught to read. More importantly, aggregate kids have the prerequisites of an adequate spoken language lexicon, working use of syntax, and phonemic awareness to make it feasible too begin to teach the kids to read, really read, from the first day in Kindergarten.

Children will differ in their rate of learning, but it's feasible to teach most kids to read by the end of grade 2. Some will have been taught earlier, and virtually all can be taught by the end of grade 3.Both the UK and France are implementing instruction consistent with view.

It's ironic that the US is ostensibly in a Race to the Top, under legislation that relegates our schools and many of our students to failure.

Posted by: DickSchutz | October 2, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I do not regret leaving teaching at all. I taught high school math from 2003-2005. I learned that NCLB was just a trojan horse by radical politicians who fundamentally oppose free public education for all to deem all public schools as "failing." They would then use the label to defund them in favor of vouchers for super (right-wing) religious schools. The late Sen. Kennedy was duped on this piece of legislation.

NCLB taught me that the role of a classroom teacher in our current society is to take everyone else's abuse and blame, internalize, then embrace it all in the name of "reform." I couldn't deal with being everyone's whipping boy every day for the amount of money I was making. I don't have a degree in education. I have one in physics. You know, the kind of person you'd want to teach math. I left and went back and got a master's so I could work a different job.

Best decision I have made in my adult life.

Posted by: Cavan9 | October 2, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

re: what DickSchutz said about timetables for teaching reading

Brain development research supports the idea that some kids will take until 2nd or 3rd grade to master reading. Yet NCLB seems to have created an environment in which kids *need* to be reading by the end of kindergarten in order to be on pace for later testing. Policy simply cannot dictate how quickly a child's brain develops, no matter how much it wants to.

Posted by: mouse4 | October 2, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Always amazed at people.
NCLB stems from Texas and a governor who does not want to spend to do anything about public educations. Answer: Set up testing and indicate that children are failing because of teachers who are not teaching. Only costs are the cost of testing and not the millions that would be required fix public education.

When this governor becomes President the decision is made to recycle this idea for the entire nation.

Only in America do people believe that education can be improved by not spending much money.

If you think this is something think about charter schools and vouchers. These are for poverty areas where over 50 percent of the children are failing basic skills by the fourth grade.

At best the charter schools and vouchers will only handle 10 percent of the public school population in these poverty areas. Politicians praise charter schools and vouchers. The politicians know that limited charter schools and vouchers are cheaper than fixing the public school system.

The politicians also know that charter schools and vouchers also keep the parents quiet. Parents hope they will win the lottery and get their children out of the public schools. The best way to win this lottery is remain quiet and become friendly with local school officials.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 5, 2009 6:23 PM | Report abuse

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