Examining the true impact of PL 107-110: The No Child Left Behind Act

Posted by

By Tonna Nelson

Tonna Nelson is a teacher and doctoral candidate pursuing a doctoral degree in education from the University of St. Mary’s.

There has always been a pursuit for power in the American educational structure by teachers, administrators, parents, students, community members and businesses.  In this age of Public Law 107-110, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all stakeholders in education are hard pressed have any power to make real changes to the education our nation’s students receive.  Foucault [nbcite author=”Foucault, M” year=”1980″ title=”Power/knowledge: selected interviews & other writings 1972-1977″ publisher_place=”New York, NY” publisher=”Pantheon” type=”book” ] promotes the use of inquiry, dialogue and debate to clarify ideas or thoughts deemed as truth.  Goleman [nbcite author=”Goleman, D” year=”2006″ title=”Working with emotional intelligence” publisher_place=”New York, NY” publisher=”Bantam Dell” type=”book” ] believes that educators must incorporate emotional intelligences into school programs and that students must be taught to think critically.  Apple [nbcite author=”Apple, M. W.” year=”1995″ title=”Education and power” publisher_place=”New York, NY” publisher=”Routledge” type=”book” ] makes repeated statements about the lack of schools’ impact on real social change; schools are reproductive social agents that perpetuate hierarchical social structures through a hidden curriculum.  Bohm [nbcite author=”Bohm, D” year=”1996″ title=”On dialog” publisher_place=”New York” publisher=”Routledge” type=”book” ] believes that the use of dialogue (as he defines it) can bring about bona fide change.  It is the argument of many that the philosophies of Foucault, Goleman, Apple and Bohm are lofty even if implemented under ideal circumstances and next to impossible given the restraints of NCLB. The No Child Left Behind Act looks quintessential in its written form.  In real-world application, it is a far cry from the reform act it was intended to be.

No Standardized Test Left Behind

The goals of NCLB (to improve the academic achievement of the disadvantaged, improve basic programs of local educational agencies and prevention and intervention programs for children who are neglected, delinquent or at risk) are being left behind by educators who are forced to measure their success and the successes of their students based on standardized test scores.  States are mandated to meet adequate yearly progress as measured by student performance on standardized tests.   Many believe that these standardized tests are changing the environment of schools in a negative way.  Teachers are finding less time for instruction and enrichment because of the demands for test taking strategy instruction and time to take the tests as well.  Instead of exploration and inquiry based learning, students and teachers spend the bulk of their time preparing for a test that provides no usable data.  In Minnesota students take the MCAII test in April and results are issued during the summer months.  By the next school year the data is obsolete for all practical purposes; it cannot be used to guide instruction for individual students.

David Berliner [nbcite author=”Amrein, A. & Berliner, D.” title=”High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning.” year=”2002″ publisher=”Education Policy Analysis Archives 10″ url=”http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18″ type=”website” ] and others have written extensively about the negative effects of such “high stakes” testing on curriculum, teaching methods, teachers, administrators and student achievement.   Through research and case study, the aforementioned authors have discovered that a disproportionate number of minority students are negatively affected by state mandated tests.   They have also found a correlation between increased pressure students feel because of standardized tests and an increased drop-out rate.  Students are giving up because they don’t see how they can achieve at the level they are being asked.  Audrey Amrein and David Berliner [nbcite author=”Amrein, A. & Berliner, D.” title=”High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning.” year=”2002″ publisher=”Education Policy Analysis Archives 10″ url=”http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18″ type=”website” ] state their findings very concisely in their article “High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty and Student Learning” when they write:

“Evidence from this study of 18 states with high-stakes tests is that in all but one analysis, student learning is indeterminate, remains at the same level it was before the policy was implemented, or actually goes down when high-stakes testing policies are instituted.  Because clear evidence for increased student learning is not found, and because there are numerous reports of unintended consequences associated with high-stakes testing policies (increased drop-out rates, teachers’ and schools’ cheating on exams, teachers’ defection from the profession . . .), it is concluded that there is need for debate and transformation of current high stakes testing policies.” (p. 2)

“The more important that any quantitative social indicator becomes in social decision making, the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor.”

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies here:  “The more important that any quantitative social indicator becomes in social decision making, the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor.”  [nbcite author=”Amrein, A. & Berliner, D.” title=”High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning.” year=”2002″ publisher=”Education Policy Analysis Archives 10″ url=”http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18″ type=”website” ] Because so much rides on one standardized test score, the temptation to enter into corrupted acts is tremendous for teachers, administrators and students alike.   When school funding, teacher performance ratings and determinations about whether or not to pass or retain students rests on one test score, cheating enters into the minds of many; unfortunately some do cheat. The response of the state is to clamp down even harder, spending huge amounts of time and money on test security.   Even if cheating on test day were to be taken out of the realm of consideration, the importance of scoring well on the standardized test dominates the mindset of K-12 education.  Curriculum, instruction, school environment, and overall morale are negatively impacted.

The repercussions of NCLB extend beyond the schools into communities.  Amrein and Berliner  found that families are making decisions about where to live based on average test scores of schools in certain communities.  “This occurs because real estate agents use school test scores to rate neighborhood quality and this affects property values.  Test scores have been shown to affect housing prices, resulting in a difference of about $9,000 between homes in grade “A” or grade “B” neighborhoods.”  [nbcite author=”Amrein, A. & Berliner, D.” title=”High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning.” year=”2002″ publisher=”Education Policy Analysis Archives 10″ url=”http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18″ type=”website” ] Unfortunately those families of limited financial means do not have the luxury of moving to a grade “A” neighborhood; they are forced to remain in neighborhoods with schools that have been reported as below standard according to the NCLB stipulations for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  While Apple did not base his theory of social reproduction on NCLB because the legislation was not yet written, he did have the foresight to realize that schools play a significant role in keeping citizens at stagnant socio-economic levels.  One would be hard pressed to deny that NCLB exacerbates this process of reproduction.

Lawrence V. Castiglione [nbcite author=”Castiglione, L.V” year=”1994″ title=”Psychology, control and policy formation: Empowerment and control—can power be given?  Can control be learned?” title_periodical=”Arts Education Policy Review” volume=”95″ issue=”6″ pages=”17-22″ type=”periodical” ] asserts that a variety of societal elements “shape the content of curricula and textbooks . . . as well as what is taught and how it is taught at all levels of education.  These beliefs and values form the web of common culture.  Culture is an ever-present and potent factor that has great control of education.” (p. 20)

Michel Foucault was also concerned with outside influences on educational systems.  He was particularly troubled by government’s involvement with structuring the actions or conduct of individuals and groups of people.   He made note of the ways in which schools participate in the growth of disciplinary power.

The fact that schools and teachers should be held accountable is beyond reproach.  To whom we should be held accountable is not.  Most of the accountability measures put into place by NCLB are making schools accountable to the state and federal government when we should be held accountable to students, parents and communities.  [nbcite author=”Goodwin, B” year=”2003″ title=”Digging deeper: where does the public stand on standards-based education?” title_periodical=”Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning” pages=”1-8″ type=”journal” ] Of course parents want their children to be successful at school.  There is so much more to a child than just language arts and math abilities, however.  Parents are concerned that schools are being held accountable for too narrow a measure of success.  Cawleti [nbcite author=”Cawleti” year=”2006″ title=”The Side Effects of NCLB” title_periodical=”Educational Leadership” volume=”64″ issue=”3″ pages=”64-68″ type=”journal” ] cites a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll that asked “How much, if at all are you concerned that relying on English and math only to judge a school’s performance will mean less emphasis on art, music, history and other subjects?”  Results indicate that seventy eight percent of respondents indicated a “great deal or fair amount” of concern.  Just as teachers, administrators, school districts and even states are powerless to change the ways in which student success is measured, so are parents powerless to insist that educators measure their children’s success based on more than just language arts and math.

Curricular “Choices”

The truth of the matter is, though, that NCLB is not going away.  Educators, administrators, students, parents, community members and businesses must find a way to have a positive impact within the status quo.  One area in which some control can be taken is the curriculum presented to students.  Michel Apple  contends that teachers have curricular choice in theory, but they are usually restricted to ready-made materials produced by a handful of big name companies.  These companies in turn are limited by state adoption policies and must meet different standards for each state, sometimes each school district.  (p. 145).   Apple states,

“At the level of content, especially in elementary schools, perceived ideological differences over race, sex, and class in the communities in which publishers want to sell their products will provide substantial limits on what is considered ‘legitimate’ (or safe) knowledge.” (p. 145)

Once a district does adopt curriculum, money constraints oftentimes prevent it from replacing inadequate and/or obsolete materials.  If a new material is chosen, it can often not be replaced because of the expense later on. This theory is supported by Lawrence V. Castiglione in his article “Psychology, Control, and Policy Formation:  Empowerment and Control—Can Power Be Given? Can Control Be Learned?”  when he states:

“For example, it is beguilingly easy to attribute curricular change to a potent idea advocated by dynamic and skillful proponents rather than to the more mundane, situational explanation that fiscal constraints compelled a board of education to adopt a less-costly curriculum, just as those constraints determined all decisions that cost money.”

Curricular limitations go beyond fiscal impediments.  Apple maintains that business and societal influences have produced a “hidden curriculum” in schools.  Because societies need “docile workers,” schools must structure their environments and curricula to produce them (p. 62).  Apple cites Bowles and Gintis’s (1976) “Schooling in Capitalist America” and states:

“Here the hidden curriculum is differentiated by economic class and one’s expected economic trajectory. . .working-class students are taught punctuality, neatness, respect for authority and other elements of habit formation.  The students of more advanced classes are taught intellectual open-mindedness, problem- solving, flexibility and so on, skills and dispositions that will enable them to function as managers and professionals.”

Apple asserts that the existence of a hidden curriculum calls for specific actions of teaching labor history, particularly examples of laborers who have overcome the obstacles of a hidden curriculum and production of a feasible curriculum and teaching strategies that remove societal bias.

Both Apple and Goleman believe schools are missing the mark with curricular content.  Apple contends that schools should be teaching students to be critical thinkers (p. 13) and Goleman believes curriculum should include emotional literacy (p. 313).  Goleman states: “. . .this demands rethinking the notion of the ‘basics’ in education:  Emotional intelligence is now as crucial to our children’s future as the standard academic fare.”  (p. 313)  At the time his book, Working With Emotional Intelligence, was published, a collaborative connected with the University of Illinois reported that “more than 150 different emotional literacy programs are being used by thousands of American schools.” (p. 313)  Companies then and now are promoting schools’ implementation of an emotional competency rich curriculum; if schools don’t foster the development of emotional competencies, businesses will be forced to compensate for this deficiency through remedial measures such as workshops, sending employees to off-site classes and the like.  This is costly at a time when businesses are looking at where every dime goes.

Once again NCLB poses a monumental barrier for schools; there is little time to teach students reading, writing, math and science let alone another component.

The Center on Education Policy (CEP) conducted an analysis of changes in instructional time since NCLB was enacted (Goodwin 2003).  The CEP’s  report, “Instructional Time in Elementary Schools: A Closer Look at Changes for Specific Subjects,”  states that forty-four percent of districts nationwide have added time for English Language Arts (ELA) and math while cutting time for social studies, science, art, music, physical education, recess, and lunch.   On average, districts increased instructional time for ELA and math by forty-three percent while cutting instructional time on other subjects by thirty-two percent. (Goodwin 2003)

Gordon Cawelti cites a more recent CEP study in his 2006 article “The Side Effects of NCLB.”  This study found that seventy-one percent of school districts nationwide saw a reduction in instructional time in at least one other subject while increasing time for reading and math.  A more troubling finding of the 2006 report is that academically at-risk students in some districts receive double class periods of reading, math or both and sometimes miss other subjects altogether.  Many times these are the students who excel in the subject areas that have been removed from their school day.  All students benefit from a balanced curriculum that provides opportunities to develop multiple intelligences; many are deprived of this for the sake of working to pass a standardized test.

The cyclical nature of all the effects of NCLB continue: schools are charged with meeting adequate yearly progress as measured through a single standardized test, teachers attempt to squeeze in as much core content instruction into each day and teach test taking strategies, students and teachers alike feel the pressure to pass the mandated test and frequently attempt to ameliorate their stress through even more intensive sessions of reading, writing, math and science classes.  There is little to no opportunity for critical thinking or emotional competency instruction when schools are forced to arrange each day as such; therefore, teaching to pass a standardized test to meet NCLB mandates does not produce critical thinkers with emotional capacities.  We are doing a tremendous disservice to our nation’s students.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Ado implies a confused bustle of activity, a considerable emotional upset, and a great deal of talking.  Communication within schools is ever-present, but is it effective?  Are students reaping any benefit from their teachers being required to attend Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings, Student Assistance Team meetings, Leadership Team meetings, and district mandated workshop sessions?  In his article “Coherent Instructional Improvement and PLC’s Is It Possible to Do Both?”  David Jacobson proposes what he calls a “Common Priorities Framework” for Professional Learning Community sessions.   This framework charges teachers to:

  • Analyze state assessments, national and state standards and the expectations of the next level of education.
  • Identify priority learning goals or essential standards within each content area and align them across curricula and grades.
  • Develop common assessments of essential standards so student learning patterns can be analyzed.
  • Collaboratively design lessons.
  • Formatively assess student progress.
  • Brainstorm instructional adjustments to meet student needs.
  • Compare results of state assessments and other test data to their own students’ results.
  • Assess school and team goals and revise standards

Much like other components of the NCLB act, a framework such as this looks ideal on paper, but in reality it is unachievable.  In theory, PLC’s should be very effective toward designing instruction, analyzing student performance and adjusting methods to meet students’ needs.  Teachers should be collaborating, observing each other, analyzing student work and monitoring student progress through meaningful discussions during their PLC meeting sessions as Jacobson outlines.  The reality is that it is impossible to do all the things within the framework in one weekly hour-long meeting.  What typically takes place during PLC meetings is teachers use this time to decide what concepts will be taught in the upcoming week or two, pull together materials and if there is any time remaining, discuss a problem situation or two.

There are organizations such as Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) that are working to provide sessions of discussions on standards.  These sessions are “designed to engage communities across the nation in deliberation on standards-based reforms.” (Goodwin 2003)  It will take more than just McREL implementing discussion sessions; it is necessary for other such institutions and groups in each state to do the same.  Only then can adequate time be devoted to the dialogue necessary to truly make significant changes in curriculum and instruction in America’s schools.

Bohm suggests a different form of communication through dialogue.  He makes a clear distinction between discussion and dialogue.   Bohm defines discussions as breaking things up.

“It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one—analyzing and breaking up.  That obviously has its value, but it is limited and it will not get us very far beyond our various points of view.” (p. 7)

A dialogue, however, is a process during which participants suspend assumptions, do not engage in the communication to solve problems per se, and allow the free flow of thoughts and ideas to enlighten participants into a new way of viewing situations.    Entering into such dialogue sessions is completely foreign in America’s K-12 school environment.   School board meetings, PLC sessions, faculty meetings, parent teacher conferences, PTA meetings and even classroom instruction fit into Bohm’s definition of discussions.  Most often educators are left with a feeling of having put out the biggest fires and containing the smaller ones.

This is no surprise when considering Bohm’s statement:

Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs . . ., there has been a growing feeling of concern to solve what is now commonly called “the problem of communication.”  But if one observes efforts to solve this problem, he will notice that different groups who are trying to do this are not actually able to listen to each other.  As a result the very attempt to improve communication leads frequently to yet ore confusion, and the consequent sense of frustration inclines people even further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust. ( p. 2)

Perhaps following Bohm’s model for some of the meetings educators take part in would be a step to making true headway toward providing students with a better education.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Obviously there is much that must be changed within America’s K-12 school system.  Educators are charged with the task of preparing our students for post-secondary education, the workplace or both.  Professors and employers want to work with people who possess strong emotional competencies, think critically and can be flexible enough to handle less than ideal circumstances that invariably present themselves.  It is also clear that the NCLB Act of 2001 is not the panacea some believed it would be.  At the time of this writing, NCLB is being revised.  This is a long process, however, and there is no guarantee that the revised form will be any better.  In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch (former Assistant Secretary of Education) recants her research and beliefs of using standardized test scores to measure student success.  She also relinquishes her support of NCLB. [nbcite author=”Dillon, S” year=”2010″ title=”Scholar’s school reform u-turn shakes up debate” title_periodical=”New York Times” url=”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/education/03ravitch.html?scp=2&sq=diane%20ravitch&st=cse” volume=”64″ issue=”3″ type=”newspaper” ].  While some may question why Ravitch did such an about-face, others find hope in it.  With such a crucial member of the original team who wrote NCLB working to either its repeal or at least significant revision, there is finally some light at the end of the very long and dark tunnel of PL

[nbcite print_headline=”Bibliography” print=”apa” ]

Homepage image credit

Comments are closed.