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Education Wed Jan 18 2012
I recently discovered that my alma mater, New Trier High School, did not make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act this year. (See here for the letter sent home to parents). Yeah, that New Trier. The one with all the awards, the trophies, the students going on to Ivy League schools, and the highest SAT/ACT scores in all of Illinois for open-enrollment schools. It's the same school where all those kids from Chicago protested in front of a few years back with Rev Meeks to highlight the unfair school funding practices in Illinois. It's the one written about in the infamous book (and still an enthralling read 20 years later) by Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities. It's produced some big shots like Donald Rumsfeld (sorry about that one, world.)
Oh, and Happy Birthday NCLB! You just turned 10 this past Sunday. Now the only question is... when will you die? Because NCLB has proven to be a failure of epic proportions. Quite a few articles have come out to commiserate, oops, I mean commemorate, the occasion including Fairtest.org's NCLB Lost Decade Report, and this Wapo piece by Valerie Strauss, and this blog by education great Diane Ravitch.
As a little bit of background, the No Child Left Behind act was signed into law back in January of 2002 and was the first major piece of legislation to come through Congress after the 9/11 attacks. Looking back, many Congressmen admit they probably wouldn't have agreed to the bill, on either side of the aisle, if they weren't focusing so hard on appearing united after the terrible events that past September. (In many respects, the passing of NCLB was Shock Doctrine at its finest.) The act itself set a timeline to hold schools "accountable" by testing grades 3-8 every year and punishing schools that did not meet their AYP. The punishment generally involved withholding much-needed federal funds, and after a certain number of years on probation, the school would be eligible for disciplinary actions such as firing all the staff, handing the management of the school over to a private charter school operator, or closing down the school. (Starting to sound familiar Chicagoans?)
The bar for meeting AYP would be gradually increased year after year until 2014 where all schools would be required to be at 100 percent proficiency in reading and math in every subgroup (special education, low-income, English language learners, all must be at 100 percent.) Now, just scratching at the surface of these goals should quickly reveal how very ridiculous this law is. Think of it this way, does it make ANY sense to tell, say, a police department that they need to reach 100 percent crime-free streets in just over a decade and if they don't make the impossible goal, we will SHUT YOU DOWN. Great, so now crime is no better and there are fewer police stations. You starting to see the problem here??
And let's take a minute to look at the issue of getting 100 percent in all sub-groups. I'm a special education teacher. There are kids who learn differently, at different speeds. Do I expect the non-verbal child with autism to make progress? Yes I do. Do I expect that child to pass a test designed for his typically developing peers? Of course not! And what about English language learners? Kids are constantly arriving in our country not speaking any English. As the bar gets raised higher and higher, the new kids continue to flow in. So that child who just arrived from Cambodia last week is expected to pass a test in English at the same level as his American-born peers? What a joke.
And it was the students with special needs which caused the great New Trier to not be able to meet AYP this year. As the bar gets higher in these last couple of years before 2014, expect more and more schools, yes even "high-performing" schools, to be labeled as failing. It really doesn't make much sense now does it? I went to New Trier. It is actually the best education public money can buy. I mean, I took rock-climbing in gym class, was part of the giant music program there (want to see some Broadway quality shows? Go to Winnetka. It's cheaper...) went on a field trip to Japan, took enough APs that I started college as a sophomore, and got a stellar score on my SATs. And I was not an especially great student by New Trier standards.
Ultimately, though, NCLB was never really about improving education or eliminating the achievement gap. Under the banner of an invented "education crisis," the law opened the door for private profiteers (such as for-profit charter school management companies) and union-busting oligarchs who would replace experienced unionized teachers with cheap, young, untrained teachers who had no intention of sticking around long enough to collect pensions. No Child Left Behind was the culmination of years of trying to infuse free-market and neoliberal ideologies into education. And wow have edu-companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, the franchise charter operators (like our UNO, Noble Street and Chicago International Charter Schools), and turnaround providers (such as AUSL) prospered!
Chicago has become ground-zero for these unproven, destructive, highly controversial practices proposed by No Child Left Behind. Let's see...we've had a decade of school closings, charter/privatization proliferation, narrowed, boring test-prep curricula sold to us at massive profit, teachers, administrators, and staff being fired (bye-bye unions!), and children and schools being labeled as failures. Yep, NCLB is doing great things for Chicago!
And instead of change schools can believe in, the Obama administration has effectively doubled-down on this terrible law with Race to the Top. Oddly enough, Congress and Arne Duncan himself have acknowledged how ridiculous this law truly is. The Department of Education even started handing out waivers for states unable to be meet AYP. But did they go in and change the law, get rid of the law, anything? No, of course not.
Meanwhile, those poor unfortunate souls in the trenches, namely our teachers and the children they teach, continue to reel from the effects of this terrible piece of legislation.
So yeah, Happy Birthday NCLB. I'm waiting for your funeral.