There is a nationwide effort underway to repair the major flaws of the No Child Left Behind Act before it is reauthorized, most likely this year. This effort is supported by teachers unions and associations of school administrators and school boards at the state and national levels.
Many of these organizations have developed lengthy lists delineating what elements of NCLB need fixing. The lists are remarkably similar, covering approximately 45 problematic elements. You may find even more if you download the 670 pages of NCLB.
In fact, it is difficult to find an educator who does not find fault with NCLB and doesn't want it fixed. An exception would be U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spelling, who is promoting inclusion in NCLB of even more damaging actions towards our public schools including government "scholarships" to private schools (think "vouchers").
Knowing that NCLB has flaws that harm instead of help our public schools and students, I was proud to represent PVUSD and be our area's delegate to the National School Boards Association's Federal Relations Network Conference. School board trustees from all 50 states convened in Washington D.C. last month. There were about 900 of us with shared commitment to make NCLB a useful document that helps public schools and provides a valid accountability system of a school's effectiveness.
My special assignment was meeting with Congressman Sam Farr since I was the sole constituent of his district at the event. I also joined members of the California School Boards Association for a meeting in the office of Senator Barbara Boxer. Both legislators are known to be supportive of our public schools, but they can't be expected to know the burdens NCLB places on our schools unless people who are in the trenches day-in-and-day-out tell them.
I talked about the concerns I share with other board members, including the narrowing of the curriculum brought about by a focus on preparing students to take the standardized tests that NCLB uses to judge a school's performance. Narrowing the curriculum means eliminating electives such as woodshop, music and art in favor of core subjects. The result is double or even triple English and math classes for students who fall below proficient levels. But for kids who struggle academically and in an imperfect world, there will always be these kids such scheduling can prevent them from ever experiencing the love of learning that is so crucial to success. We must not sacrifice creativity and joy in school in favor of preparation for bubble tests (multiple choice tests with bubble score sheets).
Another concern was the definition of "Highly Qualified Teachers." NCLB values credentials and degrees to the exclusion of intangibles like passion, wisdom and love of teaching that make a great teacher. Congressman Farr told me that under NCLB he would not be qualified to teach political science in our public schools. We talked about how framed certificates hanging on a wall do not guarantee quality teaching. Of course teachers should be highly qualified, but in these days of baby-boomer retirements and inadequate funding there may never be enough highly qualified teachers to meet the need.
The chronic underfunding of the federal government's education mandates, including special education and NCLB, was also discussed. While most school funding comes from the states, federal mandates that go unfunded force districts to divert money from classrooms. It is important that the federal government be accountable for funding mandated programs.
Educators have always embraced accountability, high expectations and clear standards for students. We agree that no child should ever be left behind. But the devil is in the details, and NCLB must be fixed before it is reauthorized.
Predictions stand that essentially all public schools will be deemed failures by the year 2014. One reason is that no matter how great your schools become, you simply cannot reach 100 percent proficiency with all students. It's not due to low expectations, but rather the actual variability of human beings.
Consider the severely disabled student. Consider the immigrant student who must learn English and make up for any inadequacies in his or her prior education. How about a student whose education is slowed by significant illness? Public schools accept every student. Human variability dooms the expectation of 100 percent proficiency to failure.
From the conference, 900 trustees fanned out from the seat of government. Armed with laser pointers, laptops and information, we are now back in our districts. Our job is to continue to connect with legislators, make presentations and meet with the public in our attempt to fortify greatness in public education.
Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Vice-President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County, Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.
© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2007