Eulogy for No Child Left Behind

Although no one seemed to pay it much attention, seeing as how the economy continues to behave like a two-year-old without a nap, No Child Left Behind died on August 8, 2011.  After nine years of causing teachers and administrators great heartache, the federal powers that be quietly said, “Our bad,” and went back into their offices.  Teachers would have celebrated, but they are sort of busy right now moving furniture and making copies.

I can’t tell you how many times I sat across from another teacher and said, “What they are asking us to do impossible.  So don’t sweat it.”  Or: “They can’t fire every teacher in America.  They can’t close every school for poor kids.  Once the richer school districts start failing too, the whole thing will fall apart.”  It did.  You’re welcome.

It was painful to talk people through it, though.  The insanity of the model, continuously accelerating improvement, appealed to teachers’ perfectionism and stubbornness.  Sure, we can do it!  We can do anything!  The usual perfectionist insanity.  I suffer from it, too.  I understand.  If anyone could do anything, we’d each have a Mr. Fusion under the hood of our car.  And I’d be zooming around on a hoverboard.

I’d celebrate NCLB’s death if I weren’t so angry about how many people feared and beat up on themselves during that nine years.  People who, for the most part, had chosen a profession based on ethics and heart, not money or self-promotion.  It made me sad.

The fact is, it doesn’t work to have teachers motivated by test scores, or by money.  The experiment in New York City schools to offer bonuses to teachers was curtailed.  Teachers, as a group, work for the satisfaction of doing a good job, and the satisfaction of seeing kids heal and grow.  Crazy, I know.

We have to learn that testing kids didn’t motivate teachers (the opposite happened), and that it didn’t reveal any secrets.  We already knew poor kids, and minority kids, are behind.  We knew that testing measures a teacher’s proficiency very imperfectly– a hundred other factors come into play when a student takes a test.  We knew that testing takes time away from much more productive activities that can happen in school, and that it wears kids out.  That doesn’t mean we don’t test.  It means we test thoughtfully and as rarely as possible.

A huge question now is, how much of the education budget do you want going to paying test graders and creating tests, and how much do you want going to books and music classes and smaller class sizes?  You know, things that have actually been proven to enhance students’ learning?

And the other question: if our teachers aren’t trustworthy to create curriculum, to assess and push student learning in their own classrooms of unique personalities, who on earth is?

NYC teacher bonus experiment ended:

NCLB death notice:

2 thoughts on “Eulogy for No Child Left Behind

  1. You have the perspective of teacher, I have the perspective of college professor who gets these kids after years of testing. Nobody ever got around to telling students that the goal of education was to learn to think. Now they are in college wanting to know what’s going to be on the test and terrified to use a part of their atrophied brain. And that’s the real cost to the whole process – not adult teachers egos. Harsh words, I know, but I don’t mean them to be harsh – they define how much these past ten years have cost a generation.

    1. Oh, absolutely. No argument there, except I wouldn’t say “ego,” I would say “morale.” Ego is not what people are generally looking for, it’s just a feeling of knowing that what they do is significant and useful. And I think hurting teachers is just as bad as hurting students– setting up false goals and blaming people for things beyond their control is wrong whatever the age group.

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