As a graduate student and prospective elementary school teacher out of Eastern Connecticut State University, I have been struggling to come to terms with understanding an education system that has time and time again proven to be dysfunctional and contradictory to the intentions of “No Child Left Behind”.
Under “No Child Left Behind”, the false assumption was that every school system in every school district from the beginning of implementation of this program could function as though on an equal, level playing field economically and academically. The federal government would financially reward those schools and school districts that produced students who could meet or exceed their state’s core curriculum standards and national standardized test standards. Those schools that failed to produce students that met these standards would receive far less federal funding or no financial incentives at all. The original intent then was to present schools with an incentive to produce better students and to have a system in place that held teachers and administrators accountable for the success or failures of students.
Here is the reality though. There is s no level playing field. No two school systems or school districts are alike and there has always been and will likely always be discrepancies between affluent school districts and struggling school districts in this country. Urban inner-city schools in densely populated cities for example will have a different set of financial burdens and financial restraints than say the suburban schools in more affluent neighborhoods. Some towns have the benefit of more affluent residents than other towns or neighborhoods. Some school districts receive more tax revenue for their budgets than others. It’s a simple observation. Those schools that can afford the latest classroom technologies and attract the most competitive, most qualified teachers, and purchase more resources are obviously going to be in a better position to produce successful students than those school districts where the student population is predominately poor and coming from households struggling to make ends meet.
Why at the federal, state, and local levels are we making these assumption that all schools have an equal chance to succeed when clearly this is not the case? The very system that was supposed to narrow these education gaps between the affluent and struggling is the very system that is widening the socio-economic gap underlying the whole issue. By denying the financial support at-need, struggling schools require just to meet minimum standards in favor of handing over this needed funding as reward or incentive to those school districts and school systems already well-endowed, that exhibited no risk of failure status to begin with, “No Child Left Behind” and its allies are reinforcing the ideology that the rich will always produce the most educated, most promising, and most advantaged of society while the poor will always be playing perpetual catch-up with ever decreasing funding and support.. And why do we assume that “No Child Left Behind” is going to fix these discrepancies or account for them? The issue here is how we close the gap between students from lower socio-economic status in struggling schools and those students from higher socio-economic status in exemplary schools that can comfortably meet or exceed the goals and standards being enforced.
Should a school that has already proven itself successful receive more funding than a struggling school that would need more funding just to operate and function let alone have a fighting chance at meeting standards? Why should we punish a failing school by denying them the very funding they would need to improve their facilities, hire or support better teachers, and increase their resources?
On the subject of accountability, there is no question that we want to hold teachers accountable for how they teach and prepare students for their futures. However, we do teachers a disservice if we do not account for the fact that teachers cannot succeed if they do not have the resources they need to teach, let alone keep up with the increasing costs of living. So many teachers in struggling school districts supplement their school budgets with money out of their own pockets for supplies and resources their schools simply cannot afford. And yet their funding is cut continuously so long as their school continues to struggle in producing students that meet standardized test score minimums or target goals.
A school system that repeatedly fails and is repeatedly denied the resources and financial support to improve its facilities and faculty cannot be expected to improve or succeed. Teachers in this environment cannot succeed if their support system is routinely undermined by a system that spends more time, effort, and money rewarding the affluent and sweeping the struggling under the proverbial rug.
Under the provisions of “No Child Left Behind” I have seen firsthand teachers who have lost their jobs because their students’ standardized test scores have failed to meet their state’s standards. I have seen whole schools close down on the basis of their status as a failing school. Yet no one ever asks the question, “Did they receive what they needed to improve?” “If they had access to the same level of funding as the most affluent school district in the state, would they still have failed?” The questions that are being asked however, are, “How much money did this school closing and these lost teacher jobs save the state?” “Where will my kids go now that their school has closed?” “Why should my kid’s future be decided based on the outcome of a standardized test?” “Why should my career as a teacher be decided on the basis of how my students do on a single standardized test?” “What are we as teachers willing to do to keep our jobs?” “What are schools willing to do to ensure that our students ace their standardized testing?” “How much of a student’s curriculum should be dedicated to test preparation and state mastery examinations?”
Standardized testing is only part of the problem. It is a large part, but not the end-all of the more complex problem of handling education reform. The idea that there is a minimum standard to be achieved in order to ensure success and competitiveness with other nations or states or etc. is based on the assumption that the standard can be achieved by everyone if all things were equal and/or unequal. All students from all environments and cultures and backgrounds are being tested to meet a single standard that applies across the board. Regardless of their differences, students are expected to meet an overarching standard decided not by their classroom teachers on a day-to-day basis through formal or informal assessment, but by politicians and the U.S. Department of Education, who by and large are distanced from the day-to-day operations of the very schools and school systems they wish to observe, judge, improve, critique, and evaluate. While a teacher can adapt their teaching and assessment styles to meet the needs of individual students based on their individual learning styles and aptitudes, all of this is given secondary treatment to the much larger priority of how these students perform on these standardized tests. Knowing that jobs could be lost, schools could be closed, students may not graduate grade levels all based on the results of a single standardized test in a high stakes pass or fail scenario, why do we reinforce and persist on this course of action? Underlying all this however, is how “No Child Left Behind” fails at closing the gap between those of affluent means and those living in poverty. Socio-economics is at the heart of the issue of why schools succeed or fail. It is more about dollars and cents than we realize or are willing to admit to ourselves.
The idea of standardization is also at the heart of the issue. English language learners, fluent in a language other than English are not going to be on an equal par with their fellow English fluent classmates. Yet both groups will be faced with meeting the same English language comprehension standards and the same culturally-biased, language biased standardized test. The same standards that apply to “mainstream” students are applied to students with learning disabilities. Special needs students on individual education plans are still expected to take their standardized tests along with their “mainstream” classmates. A standard is applied to a population of students that is anything but standard or uniform. A standard is applied to a population that reflects a diversity of learning styles, cognitive abilities, scholastic aptitudes, and educational backgrounds. Yet we hold the teachers and schools accountable for when these diverse students don’t meet or exceed a standardized test score that cannot accurately assess their actual day-to-day classroom content knowledge or learning abilities or levels of cognitive functioning on terms that reflect their individual abilities and takes into account their individuality.
What frustrates me the most about this whole situation is that this country knows what the problem is but seems to lack the fortitude and conviction to do something constructive about it. If we can’t close the gap between the affluent and struggling, the least we can do is re-evaluate our standards and realize our priorities shouldn’t be focused on competition with other nations by our standards or their standards–but focused on educating our students so that they better themselves for their own sake and for their own progress and personal goals.
Do students have what they need to be productive and successful in their communities? Do they have the education they need to achieve their personal goals? We have the studies and reports that tell us which nations have more successful students than our own, but our students are not expected to live and work and thrive in these other nations by these other nations’ standards or needs. They are going to live and work and thrive here in this country, by their own standards–and these standards must change and adapt as society changes and adapts. As the workforce changes and adapts, so will our needs and priorities. Our expectations and standards will undoubtedly become outdated and will therefore need to change and adapt as well. We haven’t even considered how technology and our use of it and our ability to use it effectively plays into what we should expect from students who will no doubt need to graduate prepared to face a world of technology that might just as easily outpace their ability to use it. Think about it. There are entire generations still among us who have never experienced or used the internet, or smartphones, or webcams, or WiFi, or iPad tablets. Ten years from now, what will technology have in store for us and will our future students have enough of an education to use any if this new technology or have the means to be self-reliant enough to get by without it? What will define a standard education?
At the end of the day, how far a person achieves in life should not and realistically and practically can not be determined by the outcome of how one did on their standardized test scores in the 2nd, 4th, or 6th grade. Why should we continue to beat it into our students’ heads that their life depends on how well they did on their standardized tests? Why should we beat it into our educators and education system that the sum of all our students’ worth and potential can be summarized and evaluated on the basis of a few so-called “standardized” tests?
As long as we continue to reward the already achieving and deny the struggling, we are not going to reach every student. As long as we continue to believe that some are more deserving than others, we are not going to be practicing what we preach if we preach “No Child Left Behind”. The matter may come down to how we give the right incentives to the right causes and how we maintain accountability for teachers, students, and administrators without restricting progress and improvement and development. We want to improve what is dysfunctional and broken. We don’t give up or toss something aside if it doesn’t quite meet our standard or ideal. Ours is a nation of builders and innovators, not a nation of lazy and complacent slackers who let opportunity pass by. We have an opportunity to put the resources we have where they can do the most good. We have to make some hard choices and the affluent and advantaged schools can afford to make some reasonable and rational sacrifices. We have to realize that our standards need to be realistic and applicable to the students we are neglecting. Our standards need to be fairly applied most of all. To meet these standards, we must first come to some agreement that the standards should serve a purpose other than winning a competition or measuring just how much our students are like or unlike those students in that other state or foreign country.