The fallacy of No Child Left Behind


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  "There is a big difference between advocating a level playing field in the schools and measuring everybody by the same yardstick. That is the fallacy of NCLB!"


here is one dramatic performance that has been playing on stages near you for hundreds of years. Admission is free. Sometimes the drama evokes tears; sometimes cheers. The costumed players parade across the stage and you hear tales of heroic victories accompanied by "Pomp and Circumstance."

These are our graduates, commencing on a new step in the journey of their lives. Only a stone would watch un-moved!

As I stood there shaking hands with the newly diplomaed, I reflected on the accomplishments represented by a piece of paper in a fine leather-like cover and what that diploma means to the graduates. I also contemplated how "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) will affect our children's school experience to an increasing degree every year that this system remains in place and unmodified.

Clearly a diploma represents something standard and something unique in the case of each student. Each one met the minimum standard for graduation. Each one faced unique circumstances with individual abilities and talents.

Recent changes in the educational system wrought by NCLB are not all positive. Hello! Granted that defining criteria for holding schools accountable is desirable, let's not forget that schools are not factories and that the "products" of the educational system are living, breathing, feeling human beings.

There is a big difference between advocating a level playing field in the schools and measuring everybody by the same yardstick. That is the fallacy of NCLB!

Yes, students should have clean, well cared for schools. Yes, every single one of them should have highly qualified teachers. Yes, they all deserve quality textbooks and to be treated with respect.

But they shouldn't all be expected to come out the same or to benefit equally from an equal opportunity. It's not that way when you're talking about human beings.

Our educational system should not be disposing of the offerings of different pathways for students to reach their goals. Our educational system should recognize creativity and independent thinking as worthy objectives. The fact that these assets may be less measurable than regurgitation of facts does not mean they have less value. I find nothing in NCLB that speaks to individuality or creativity.

Human beings are not well accommodated by a one-size-fits-all educational approach. It is absolutely necessary that the wide range of human behavior and abilities be taken into account in the system. While leaving no child behind continues to ring out its positive message (How can anyone object to every child being on par with the valedictorians?), it just isn't humanly possible. Only in a "Stepford Wives" scenario could a single set of standards be applied to all of the unique individuals who enroll in the public schools.

Should Johnny's dyslexia be disregarded? Should Xochilt's lack of familiarity with English be ignored?

In dynamic classrooms teachers relish the opportunity to use "teachable moments," those in which a lesson happens spontaneously brought on by a significant and urgent need-to-know on the part of the students. In a NCLB world, the need-to-know is brought on by an impending state or nationally approved test for which some people, probably in Washington have decided this is what your kids need to know.

NCLB should be put in the perspective of the real world and what actually happens to our students during their school careers.

At a recent grad ceremony, I heard a women speak about her educational journey. She came to the United States to pick fruits and vegetables with her family when she was 15. She did not attend high school. She worked in the fields picking strawberries. She married, had children, and continued picking strawberries. When her daughter reached the age of 5 years, the child said, "Mom, when I grow up I want to be just like you and work in the fields picking strawberries." That made the women reflect on herself as a role model for her children. She enrolled in Adult School and then Cabrillo College. Now she is a nurse.

In the real world, we have students who do battle with drugs and students who excel in academic coursework. We have students with illnesses that impede school progress and students who travel to distant hemispheres. We have new students who do not speak English entering the school system at all levels and at all times. We have students who need dental care and students who march to a different drummer. We have student athletes, musicians, airplane mechanics, artists, dancers, actors, computer wizards, writers, and videographers.

Trying to squeeze square pegs into little round holes is an exercise in futility. Let's recognize the many wonderfully unique individuals who make up a school system, appreciate their diversity and see to it that NCLB is amended so that our schools are responsive to all students and their individual needs.

Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

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© Sandra Nichols 2004