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Reflections On “No Child Left Behind”

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“Rather than encouraging holistic, progressive, or other alternative programs (public or private) that are WORKING for ALL children in their schools, NCLB and any federal legislation that mandates standardization by grade-level testing implicitly DISCOURAGES the continuation of programs that focus on the particulars of children’s needs.” Robin Ann Martin, PHD on “No Child Left Behind.”

During the early eighties when I began to teach English as a career, education was rife with change. Mantra one day became dogma the next. New buzzwords came into play quicker than notes blasted from a rusted trumpet found at a yard sale: whole language, holistic grading, writing process, learning styles, etc. And just about everybody with an edD had a workshop or a writing program that would provide a remedy for just about any situation encountered in the classroom. And as much as I had a tendency to accept some of the “newer” ideas being bandied about—especially those that were presented in the education courses I had to take at the University of Maine to obtain teacher certification—I felt uneasiness with trying to implement them in the classroom. When you have students who have limited knowledge and experience with a new subject, you have to have input and intake from the teacher. To think that a student is going to be able to make discoveries with a text–or in creating text–without the teacher providing some kind of framework is at best naïve.

Too often in teaching, we make the mistake of seeing students as objects rather than individuals. It is almost as if we do this to hide behind a veil of timidity. What’s worse, though, is how we sometimes rationalize our failure to establish trust and rapport with our students. Today’s teaching environment certainly isn’t very friendly, nor is it very conducive to learning. Students do need help initially with defining goals that they can achieve on their own. But if students are to achieve mastery of a subject, than instruction has to be tailored to meet their specific needs, especially in regard to having a sense of competence and relatedness to others.

I think what troubles me, then, with any teaching system or style—whether it be teacher-directed or student-centered—is the unbearable superficiality that evolves whenever a teacher or curriculum committee subscribes to a particular method, or set of beliefs, and tries to put it into practice without fully understanding the theory behind it, or when evidence to the contrary suggests something entirely different. As John Gatto puts it in Dumbing Us Down, “Experts in education have never been right; their ‘solutions’ are expensive and self-serving and always involve centralization” (1992, p. 34).

Now that the federal government has mandated that no child should be left behind, the struggle today continues and seems even more acute now than it was when I started out in teaching. In Maine, for example, the big buzz word for the last couple of years has been “reform,” especially in regard to the new state standards that are covered under the umbrella of the Maine Learning Results, a behemoth document which mandates what students are supposed to learn and know by the time they graduate high school. All curricula for all subjects taught from kindergarten through 12th grade have to be in alignment with the new standards. It would seem Pavlov’s dogs are baying at the door, which I think is ironic considering that the very remedy that educationalists are trying to cure us of is what led us to our malady to begin with, and that is the sickening mediocrity that behaviorist, objectivist philosophy has inflicted us with. But there is hope. The ideas developed during the seventies and eighties in regard to student-centered teaching based on constructivist philosophy continues to evolve and is referred more commonly today as “project-based, authentic learning.” Again, the distinguishing difference is that the emphasis is on “process,” not “product” (von Glaserfeld, 1996).

Teaching is not just a quest. It is a process of becoming and being. It is a testament of what it means to be human. But above all else, it is an expression of love. To effectively teach, you quite literally have to stand before your students as one who has gone before. To teach requires and demands a high level of commitment and responsibility to your students. By teaching, we are guiding our students by showing them the path that will lead them toward becoming self-actualized adults who can participate effectively and responsibly in society. It does not matter necessarily that students may be planning to go on to college or enter the world of work. What does matter is whether they can participate effectively and contribute meaningfully in a society of shared but diverse ideas and standards. Will students who graduate high school have learned to connect with others? Will they have the necessary skills to write and communicate effectively? Will they be able to define and complete tasks? Will they be able to work with others in developing a project to its completion? Will they be able to propose and contribute new ideas? Will they be able to conduct research and analyze information? Will they be IT literate? Read any job description, and you will see that today’s employers not only require new employees have these skills, they demand it.

1. Robin, Ann Martin. Paths of Learning. 2004.
2. Gatto, John. (1992) Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
3. von Glasersfeld, E. (1987). “Learning as a constructive activity.” In C. Janvier, Problems of representation in the teaching and learning of mathematics, (pp.3-17). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
4. von Glasersfeld, E. 1996. “Introduction: Aspects of Constructivism.” In Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives,and Practice, (pp. 3-7). C. Fosnot, Editor. New York: Teachers College Press.

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About S L Cunningham

S L Cunningham is a freelance writer and has poems and feature articles published in several small press magazines and newspapers. His column, "Unburned Pieces of the Mind" has been featured in the Village Soup Citizen. A former resident of Belfast, Maine, he now lives in Houston.
  • It may seem simplistic, but has anyone ever done a study to find out the comparitive success of students at grade 12 against their reading and math scores at grade 3.

    I just continue to believe that if kids are all reading, writing, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing by grade 3 at grade 3 level, they will do pretty well through grade 12.

    One little exception. Unless they get destroyed by the most horrible part of school – Jr. High. Someone please reform this rediculous part of education.

  • As a fellow teacher, I see on a daily basis the effects of the many educational fads that have been implemented throughout the years.

    In college, I was told to grade essays based on content, and to disregard mistakes in spelling and grammar. Result? A bunch of papers with things like this: “They was goin down the street in there knew car.”

    Then states started requiring students to pass a writing assessment, and all of a sudden we are “going back to basics.”

    Now, thanks in part to programs such as Accelerated Reading, there is a generation of kids who HATE books. HATE THEM. And our reading comprehension scores are down on the state tests so … now we as teachers have to teach Reading in the Content Area.

    It’s not that I disagree that students should read, but I wish that it hadn’t taken test scores to make people realize that they aren’t.

    Everything in the school is driven by test scores, and I feel that the students are being cheated because they are missing out on things that could provide rewarding experiences for them, things like hands-on experiments in biology, learning ratio in math by doing graph drawings (it’s hard to explain), or reading The Odyssey in English. Since those things aren’t tested, they are devalued and tossed aside in favor of more practice tests.

    When is the government going to figure out that intelligence can’t be found in a test score?

    If there are nine intelligences, how come students are tested in only one? What if your learning style is not the one that makes it easy for you to pass a written test? Doesn’t that contradict the very words “No Child Left Behind”?

  • gonzo marx

    tough subject, and difficult Questions arise from it..

    i can’t speak for teaching in the public school arena, since i don’t do that…but i did spend many years teaching gung fu…

    i was quite Traditionalist in many of my approaches, but did temper it , as i was taught, but incorporating some modern techniques as well as some of the overall approach…

    a large difference between eastern and western teaching techniques can be summed up in a few simple ways…

    in the West, we tend to slam the students with factual bits of information for them to memorize: names, dates…rote memorization which requires very little analytical process or synthesis in Thought…this leads to shallow memorization for the sole purpose of regurgitating it on Test Day, where it is then dumped from short term memory to make room for the next round of rote memorization

    much of Eastern teaching technique (at least in the Martial Arts) resolves around giving some information to the Student, making them work at the process themselves without too much explanation at first…as they work at it, they find their own Questions…answer some of them themselves, and thus learn in a much deeper fashion…when they do begin to bring Questions to the Teacher, they are not shallow , but thoughtful, stemming from the time spent contemplating and absorbing what they have been given so far

    another quick example is the differences in paradigm…in the West, we expect success…and “reward” every little bit gained with extra attention lavished on those that accomplish artificial goals while ignoring the rest

    in the East, they punish failure…the goals are set so that work can achieve them and are clearly set out, those that do not measure up are usually given more to do to bring them up to speed

    looking at some of these differences in attitude and approach, it is not really suprising to see the results of the differences that are so well documented today as to be almost sterotypical in their pronouncements…

    your mileage may vary


  • Nancy

    “No Child Left Behind” is SUCH a crock. There will ALWAYS be kids left behind, because (altho it’s politicially incorrect to say so) they are stupid, lazy, or downright contrary; because their home lives are untenable for various reasons; or any other of a million reasons. The entire educational philosophy these days seems to rest on the faulty assumption that it is the responsibility of the teachers & schools to raise kids as well as present them w/educational information, to correct deficiencies in their characters & intelligence, etc. In sum, the educational geniuses & government ed. geeks are vastly over-reaching. Stupid, lazy, or hostile kids are NOT going to make it, and no amount of educational dog & pony shows will make them. Stupid, lazy, or hostile parents are NOT going to get their kids learning. It’s a pity, but there are some who are just plain losers & that’s the way it is. Trying to tailor a lifestlye & an education to each student is mission impossible; there are too many kids, & too few teachers, and the whole issue begs the question of student responsibility to begin with. In my observations w/myself & other kids, those that wanted to learn did so, regardless of how bad their circumstances were & how poor the teaching materials. I also look at those persons in history who had even less than kids in the ghettos today, but they managed: Abe Lincoln didn’t have paper, pencils, pens, even candlelight. He managed. Booker T. Washington had to work 14 hours a day before he could attend classes at night – & this was while he was a kid. He didn’t have fancy labs, computers, books, or school supplies either. Just a will to learn. The same with countless men & women thruout history: they struggled under even worse conditions than kids have today, with less advantages & far fewer material supplies, but they made it, not because some government determined they should, not because some ivory-tower educational ‘expert’ decreed a theory of learning, and (in a good many cases) not because their parents made them or even encouraged them, but because they wanted to. All the theories in the world, all the government programs can’t negate that the basic responsibility to learn lies with the student, and the next basic responsibility lies with the parents, not the teachers, schools, or government at any level.

    IMO, fancy programs are a waste. Why? I can again only go on what I know from what I myself have experienced: I went thru school just before the Big Change, in a very conservative school system. We did basics. We got graded, and graded hard – on everything, not just content. We were not promoted if we didn’t pass, our egos be hanged. We had homework – lots of it – & if we didn’t do it, we were barred from what USED to be ‘extra’ activities like band, chorus, sports, etc. (but now are apparently considered entitlements like everything else). We were told by everyone we knew (including each other) that kids who didn’t do well in school were doomed to be burger flippers, failures, bums. We learned by rote, true, but after awhile rote becomes second nature & you do learn to use it if you have half a brain. We weren’t subjected to fancy, experimental methods of teaching. It was the same as it had been since … lord knows when. By the time my younger sister & cousins got to school, some 7-8 years after me, the situation had changed radically. They were taught to read using all kinds of crazy empirical methods, including, I swear, ‘absorption’, whatever the hell that is. They didn’t have to memorize anything, or at least very much. Every subject was tailored To The Child. Kids were promoted lest their egos be stunted & they suffer from lack of self-esteem, and NO ONE, ever, was barred from participation in extracurricular activities lest they suffer socially or stunt their ‘peripheral academic capabilities’. What bullshit.

    The difference between us says it all: I can read & write. I have advanced degrees. I am capable of learning & teaching myself. I am also capable of learning from failure as well as success. My sister & younger cousins are not. My sister is functionally illiterate, hates anything even vaguely smacking of education, learns only with difficulty, my younger cousins the same or nearly so. It could be argued that a good deal of this is due perhaps to happy circumstance of natural gifts & personalities, except that I do note that it is a very stark divide, with myself & older cousins in my own cohort on one side, and my sister & younger cousins in their cohort on the other. The conclusion is inescapable.

  • Thanks to all for responding. I especially appreciate the observations you have made and shared in regard to your own educational experiences.

    Mei Flower makes a good point in her comment: “Everything in the school is driven by test scores, and I feel that the students are being cheated because they are missing out on things that could provide rewarding experiences for them, things like hands-on experiments in biology, learning ratio in math by doing graph drawings (it’s hard to explain), or reading The Odyssey in English. Since those things aren’t tested, they are devalued and tossed aside in favor of more practice tests.”

    When I taught English I never relied on tests to form the basis of my evaluation of a students’ work. Instead I relied on the portfolio of their writing and their response journals. By doing so, I could determine what specific skills they needed to work on in terms of improving and developing their writing. As Gonzo argues, it is that “they work at the process” that’s important.

    And Nancy provides good examples of what happens when schools and teachers put into practice new methods of teaching when they have not taken the time to question the validity of the instruction itself.

    What most educationalists and teachers sometimes fail to understand is that learning is not necessarily the result of teaching; it is the result of being actively involved in accomplishing or achieving something. Teaching, based on Pavlovian, Skinner philosophy is the anachronism that kills the spirit of learning. And as such, it is enabling instead of empowering.

  • Now that Bush’s No Child Left Behind has been in place for awhile, we can examine the results.

    At this link here, are the results of a study that shows that simply training children to pass tests (as No Child Left Behind does, since it is all about test results), has lessened our childrens cognitive and conceptual development and ability to handle new ideas.

    In fact, they claim, 11- and 12-year-olds are “now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago,” in these regards.

  • Tell all that to Ted Kennedy. He got to write the bill.

  • I’d have no problem telling that to Ted Kennedy. I am on record here as being against it from day 1. The President is the one with the power to sign it and turn it from simply an idea on paper into reality. For those of us with memories, we can clearly remember when Bush was signing it into effect, how Republicans and conservatives were touting it as the only way to save the educational system, not only here at BC but all over the media. Now suddenly, it’s all Kennedy’s.

    Partisan politics aside, it would be nice to finally address the actual issue and show some concern for the children, which is why I posted the update.

  • for clarification, my criticism here is against an administration that implemented a failed policy. I would criticize it, no matter what the political affiliation of the administration would be. The bottom line is that there is growing evidence that our children are currently being harmed via No Child Left Behind.

  • It was passed by a wide-ranging bipartisan vote (former Sen. Edwards, Kennedy, etc) and signed by President Bush. Damnation to both sides of the aisle for what it has become.

  • Works for me, DJ.

  • Greensboro

    NCLB clearly has failed and needs to be revamped. I like the broad concept of standardized testing and accountablility to teachers, but I have to admit, I’ve yet to see it well implemented. And, If we’re going to start holding teachers accountable, when are we going to share that accountability with parents?

  • Amanda-Beth

    I find that this way is really stifling a child and by haveing to take away art and music so can teach to test which isn’t giving every student fair shot it makeing kids who don’t know how to think. We don’t need a bunch of humans with robot brains. My siblings and their friends are lucky becase circumstances had me takeing care of siblings and when they said art and music were gone at school I provided them and thsir freinds art and music because simply the look on siblings faces said it all. Though brother was not best at art he still enjoyed doing it just like sister with music. He is sciense wiz who wll soon graduate high school. Sis is now in college studying to be a nurse her kind heartedness nature will help with that she wajted to be in public in some sort of glamor job but that dream changed. We do have 4 othsr siblings but one is only 4 yrs younger then me has always had her own will. The one has lived with her aunt sence she was born. The other 2 are way behind in devolment and I’m not even sure mother put them in school. But 2 I had pratically raised had opertuinty to be well rounded despite the changes in school system.

    I really think school is ften to long for younger kids. This is my slightly nutty idea for schooling. If parent wishes to have child in preschool at age 3 no more then 3 hrs 3 days a week. 4 yr olds 4 hrs 4 days a week. They should mostly be learning numbers and abc and maybe letter sounds for 4 yr olds and how to get along with one another. Kidergarten thru 3rd grade 5-6hrs 5 days a week. Kindergarnters should learn primarly reading that’s it so kids can learn to read. 1st grade can work on math skills and science skills and if time in day can do art cause believe it or not art ties into math and science. 2nd graders should learn english in adition to math and science. 3rd grade can go over everything they should’ve have learned in previous grades to make sure they aren’t stuck. 4th grade and up can handle regular school day. 4th and 5th grade georgphy and music should be incoorperated into ciruculum.
    6th-8th grade can set up 8 hr cirruculum that’s in favor of where students lack. High school ok so really high schoolers should have idea of what they want to do offer them choses of classes they wakt to take tuat can prepare them for future including everything you find in after school cirruculum and should to certain extent be allowed to set own shedule with in school reasons so they can prepare for whatever their future might be. Believe it or not their are was to grade art and dance though may not be way you grade a test.