Like many education advocates, attorney Alice O’Brien dislikes the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law by President Bush in 2002. So when asked Sunday at a Law School panel what Congress should do to improve the federal policy, O’Brien put her feelings in no uncertain terms.
“Revisit the whole thing,” she said.
Other members of the “No Child Left Behind: No School Left Standing?” panel — held as part of the Law School’s Rebellious Lawyering Conference this weekend — voiced similar opinions about the legislation. Charging that NCLB is, as one panelist put it, a “train wreck,” the three speakers urged a large crowd of assembled law students to work to counter the act’s negative effects on the nation’s school system.
A bipartisan initiative, NCLB requires states to implement stricter performance standards for their public schools in order to maintain federal funding. By demanding annual evaluations of school districts based on student testing, the act aims to have all students reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math within 12 years.
But Daniel Losen, a research associate at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, said there is no evidence that high stakes testing improves the education system. An onslaught of tests, Losen said, is not the cure for failing schools.
“It’s like buying more thermometers for your sick patient instead of investing in the rest and medicine that you know would make them better,” he said.
Not only does more testing not work, Losen said, but it creates “perverse incentives” for schools to take destructive measures in order to keep test scores high. For example, he said, many schools boost scores by encouraging students who are already behind — disproportionately minority and special education students — to “voluntarily” drop out. Districts can do this, Losen said, because while NCLB provisions require schools to improve graduation rates, these provisions are not as rigorously enforced as those demanding improvement in test scores.
Panelist Elisa Hyman, deputy director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York, said the “discharging” of low-performing students who could harm test scores is a widespread problem in New York City public schools. At one school, 5,000 students were discharged over the course of a year, she said. And overall, she estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 students have been discharged from New York City schools in the last few years.
During her presentation, Hyman described some of the discharged students who have asked her organization to help them gain readmittance to their schools.
“It’s sad,” she said. “A lot of the kids had all of their credits and all of their exit exams but one. Most of the other kids are struggling with literacy, and they’re being moved nowhere or to a GED program where they have no chance of getting a GED.”
All of the panelists said schools felt forced to take such desperate measures by NCLB’s coupling of overzealous — though well-intentioned — goals with insufficient funding. They said districts simply cannot afford to meet these goals, meaning that many already-underfunded schools are set up for failure.
“NCLB has brought up issues of race-consciousness, a focus on improving teacher quality, the idea that all children can be held to high standards,” Losen said. “I think that’s an important starting place, but they’re not putting money behind it to make it successful.”
After the presentations, an audience member asked the panelists how to raise awareness among policy-makers about NCLB’s insufficient funding. In response, Hyman suggested encouraging officials to view funding in relative terms.
“In New York, it costs something like $120,000 a year to incarcerate a student,” she said. “It’s significantly less expensive to provide an education.”