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Ten Moral Concerns in the Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act A Statement of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy
Christian faith speaks to public morality and the ways our nation should bring justice and compassion into its civic life. This call to justice is central to needed reform in public education, America’s largest civic institution, where enormous achievement gaps alert us that some children have access to excellent education while other children are left behind. The No Child Left Behind Act is a federal law passed in 2001 that purports to address educational inequity. Now several years into No Child Left Behind’s implementation, as its hundreds of sequential regulations have begun to be triggered, it is becoming clear that the law is leaving behind more children than it is saving. The children being abandoned are our nation’s most vulnerable children—children of color and poor children in America’s big cities and remote rural areas—the very children the law claims it will rescue. We examine ten moral concerns in the law’s implementation.
1. While it is a civic responsibility to insist that schools do a better job of educating every child, we must also recognize that undermining support for public schooling threatens our democracy. The No Child Left Behind Act sets an impossibly high bar—that every single student will be proficient in reading and math by 2014. We fear that this law will discredit public education when it becomes clear that schools cannot possibly realize such an ideal.
2. The No Child Left Behind Act has neither acknowledged where children start the school year nor celebrated their individual accomplishments. A school where the mean eighth grade math score for any one subgroup grows from a third to a sixth grade level has been labeled a “in need of improvement” (a label of failure) even though the students have made significant progress. The law has not acknowledged that every child is unique and that thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings. Now, four years into implementation, the Department of Education has stated it will begin experimenting with permitting 10 states to measure student growth. Too many children will continue to be labeled failures even though they are making strides.
3. Because the No Child Left Behind Act ranks schools according to test score thresholds of children in every demographic subgroup, a “failing group of children” will know when they are the ones who made their school a “failing” school. They risk being shamed among their peers, by their teachers and by their community. The No Child Left Behind Act has renamed this group of children the school’s “problem group.” In some schools educators have felt pressured to counsel students who lag far behind into alternative programs so they won’t be tested. This has increased the dropout rate.
4. The No Child Left Behind Act requires children in special education to pass tests designed for children without disabilities.
5. The No Child Left Behind Act requires English language learners to take tests in English before they learn English. It calls their school a failure because they have not yet mastered academic English.
6. The No Child Left Behind Act blames schools and teachers for many challenges that are neither of their making nor within their capacity to change. The test score focus obscures the importance of the quality of the relationship between the child and teacher. Sincere, often heroic efforts of teachers are made invisible. While the goals of the law are important—to proclaim that every child can learn, to challenge every child to dream of a bright future, and to prepare all children to contribute to society—educators also need financial and community support to accomplish these goals.
7. The relentless focus on testing basic skills in the No Child Left Behind Act obscures the role of the humanities, the arts, and child and adolescent development. While education should cover basic skills in reading and math, the educational process should aspire to far more. We believe education should help all children develop their gifts and realize their promise—intellectually physically, socially, and ethically. The No Child Left Behind Act treats children as products to be tested, measured and made more uniform.
8. Because the No Child Left Behind Act operates through sanctions, it takes federal Title I funding away from educational programming in already overstressed schools and uses these funds to bus students to other schools or to pay for private tutoring firms. A “failing” school district may not be permitted to create its own public tutoring program, but it is expected to create the capacity to regulate private firms that provide tutoring for its students. One of the sanctions provided is to close or reconstitute the “failing” school or to make it into a charter school, but in many places charter schools are unregulated.
9. The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as “in need of improvement.” Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.
10. The late Senator Paul Wellstone wrote, “It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage. When we do this, we hold children responsible for our own inaction and unwillingness to live up to our own promises and our own obligations.” The No Child Left Behind Act makes demands on states and school districts without fully funding reforms that would build capacity to close achievement gaps. To enable schools to comply with the law’s regulations and to create conditions that will raise achievement, society will need to increase federal funding for the schools that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children and to keep Title I funds focused on instruction rather than on transportation and school choice. Christian faith demands, as a matter of justice and compassion, that we be concerned about public schools. The No Child Left Behind Act approaches the education of America’s children through an inside-the-school management strategy of increased productivity rather than providing resources and support for the individuals who will shape children’s lives. As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings to be nurtured and educated. We call on our political leaders to invest in developing the capacity of all schools. Our nation should be judged by the way we care for our children.