(December 21, 2006) — The No Child Left Behind law is a fraud. That may be strong language from a school superintendent, but the law is a definite political, social, and economic con.
First, the law's basic premise — that public schools are performing poorly and need to be improved, or else something really bad is going to happen to America — is political nonsense. Right-wing zealots have used the phrase "failing public schools" so often that some think it's a fact, when it isn't.
American public education is the backbone of our democracy. It's the great equalizer. Gerald Bracey, an independent, highly regarded education researcher, notes in an article for the Stanford University Alumni Association that since the end of World War II, the proportion of high school graduates among those 25 or older has grown from 34 percent to 74 percent, and the percentage of college graduates has increased from 6 percent to 19 percent.
Bracey points out that according to a 2006 report published by a Columbia University research center, public schools outperform private schools when controlling for poverty. And, a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report found that despite all the rhetoric about charter schools, they're "less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools."
No Child Left Behind is deceptive in social and economic ways as well. The law helps hide two of America's dirty little secrets:
The first is the incredible amount of poverty in America. Thomas Smeeding, professor of economics and public policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, has found that among the world's nine richest industrialized nations, America has the second highest poverty rate in general, and the highest rate of poverty among children. And, as we know, America's poverty is concentrated in rural and urban areas. Probably the most troublesome and scheming aspect of NCLB is, as Bracey states, that it depends on punishment for schools that don't meet its standards. And its standards are rigged to make good schools look bad. NCLB arbitrarily requires that all schools show "adequate yearly progress" by subgroups, 37 or so of which are based on race/ethnicity, special education, gender, etc. If a school misses the target in just one of these subgroups, it could be deemed "failing," possibly triggering sanctions.
In districts with high poverty rates, the everyday social and economic needs of students are more about survival than passing a test.
So it's America's dirty little secrets, not public schools, that are failing.
Actually, we've been down this road before. In 1983, when the report A Nation at Risk was published, public schools were blamed for every social, economic and military ill that faced our nation. Thirty years later, America is the world's only leading military power and our economy is second to none. That report was a fraud then, as No Child Left Behind is a fraud now.
The No Child Left Behind law doesn't need to be reformed. It needs to be abolished.
Maffucci is superintendent, East Rochester School District.