Can Arne Duncan Fix No Child Left Behind?

Finally. It’s been over 8 years and someone is realizing that while the No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, is a great theory, it is ultimately leaving those they were claiming to help in the dust. With the new Obama Administration, thousands of teachers have been crossing their fingers that President Elect Obama would find someone to take initiative and work with NCLB.

It’s a stick in the side for most teachers who had been teaching prior to 2001. Their hands are tied and it seems all they do is prep for testing. Recently I was talking with a sixth grade teacher and she laughed when I brought up NCLB. “I have been teaching since 2003, so for me it has always been in place. I am a rule follower. I just do what I am told.” I admire her as a teacher. She’s like me but with 4 years experience. Passionate, excited, ground breaking and keeps reinventing the wheel. I wish all teachers were like her. I hope to be one one day. But is it possible to get past NCLB and just “follow the rules”?

Arne Duncan is the new education secretary in the Obama administration. Without a doubt his resume is not one to scoff at. While he has never been a teacher, it might be possible that Arne Duncan knows what he is doing. Will he be the one to truly reform NCLB? Does he really understand the underlying issues of why NCLB is making a bigger mess than what was already there?

NCLB tests all students. “All students” includes students in special education as well as ESL (English as a Second Language) students. While the theory that all children should be able to pass standardized tests seems plausible, in practice it isn’t that simple. It’s not so much an issue that the Special Education students are keeping certain scores down, it’s that NCLB grades you on the passing percentage each year. If the students improve, but do not meet the standards (say 15% the first year), they are put on the “troubled” list. If they are still improving the next year, but do not meet the new percentage rate given to them (which goes up each year, pass or fail), the school is still punished, despite the fact they have improved. The school has four years to try and meet the percentage standards given to them. If the school fails the fourth year they are audited and the government steps in to take control. Sounds like a plan, right? Well unfortunately this plan has its deep rooted flaws that include the stress it is putting on staff, students and parents.

The question is, why is it so difficult to teach these students the right information to pass these tests? Arne Duncan says that kids with disabilities or kids learning English might struggle while the rest of the students make gains (msnbc). But why is this? Is it that the tests are biased? Are the cultural differences of each and every student making it more difficult to test them accurately and fairly? When we have the Special Education students taking the same test as general ed students, isn’t that bringing down the scores for everyone? It seems that the answers to these questions is ‘yes’. We are fighting a losing battle that no one has stepped in to say Stop! Let’s fix this and move on. So what can we do about it? How do we fix a problem that seems impossible to fix? The problem is that even with mental disabilities and lack of English skills, these students are still required to pass the tests. Taking this into account, what can we do to fix the problem? Reform seems the only way to go about it. Duncan gives us hope when he says, “Let’s not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school. Those teachers are doing a Herculean job, and we need to recognize that. We need to reward that” (msnbc). So what does that mean, Mr. Duncan? What is your plan?

I took a look around the room of the sixth grade students who were taking their “mid-term” today. It was an arduous journey for them today; 2 hours in one class reading over questions that obviously didn’t make sense, knowing they would be off to their next class to take the next test that would be no less remorseful towards them. Some sat in their chairs staring at the test booklet, their pencils sitting cold on the desk. Others worked diligently, using more lead than their pencils allowed. I had hope for them. I felt their pain, but knew they would survive; I knew that all the prep and hard work would pay off; until I sent there answer sheets through the Scantron machine. The highest score was 56%. I wondered if they were ready for the testing that was to come in the next few months. I knew their teacher was good at what she did, but what went wrong with the scores? Was it the pressure? Was it the word “mid-term” that frightened them? Maybe they were over confident in their answers. Whatever the case it was obvious it wasn’t the results she had hoped for. It was time to reform her test. That’s what you do when you are not seeing the results you are hoping for. You stop, take a minute to figure out what went wrong, and go from there. You ask questions, you seek answers. You don’t push ahead forward and assume it will work itself out. You fix it.

So, Mr. Duncan, we ask of you to find out why we hate NCLB so much. Your aggressive work habits tell me you will do what it takes, I just hope you make the right decisions. Teachers and administrators are begging you to find an answer. Until then, students will grudgingly take the tests that ultimately mean nothing more to them than “just another test”.

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  • duboisb

    NCLB is not something that should be fixed around the edges. It is totally stupid framework.

    It destroys liberal arts education and demands that educators teach to the test — which may not be the priorities or most important lessons. Selection of Mr. Duncan as Secretary of Education is an insult to all educators.


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