NCLB’s Effects

By Anthony Rebora — April 03, 2006 3 min read
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Teaching has undergone fundamental changes in the four years since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to a new national study.

The study, conducted by the Center for Education Policy, also finds that the landmark education law has led many school districts to narrow their curriculum offerings.

In response to NCLB’s accountability requirements, says the CEP, schools have more closely aligned instruction with state academic standards and assessments, and both principals and teachers are making greater use of test data to address students’ individual needs.

Based on surveys of all 50 states and 299 school districts, as well as case studies of individual districts and schools, the study says that many schools have also become “more prescriptive about what and how teachers are supposed to teach.” For example, some encourage teachers to use curriculum-pacing guides, or employ instructional coaches to oversee lessons, the CEP notes.

In addition, many school districts (71 percent) said they’ve cut back on teaching some subjects in order to target math and reading, which are the focus of testing under NCLB. Thirty-three percent of districts reported reducing time for social studies, while 29 percent cut time for science and 22 percent scaled back arts and music.

The CEP’s survey information shows that student scores on standardized tests have risen in most states and districts since the implementation of NCLB, but some study participants highlighted negative effects of the law. These included “shortchanging students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that keep children interested in school.”

A number of Teacher Magazine articles have charted the complex effects of NCLB and standards-based reform on education, offering context for the CEP’s findings.

In an October 2004 interview, Douglas Carnine, one of the architects of the Bush administration’s education policy, suggested that the teaching profession was going through a “very painful process” in which objective data was increasingly becoming the basis of methodology. And in January of this year, Lynn Olson, executive editor of Education Week’s report “Quality Counts 2006: A Decade of Standards,” forecast that teachers would see “continued emphasis on using data from a variety of sources … to help inform and adjust instruction on minute-to-minute basis.”

A September 2005 feature story, meanwhile, profiled a low-income school in rural northern California that had risen to the top of the state’s performance index through an unabashed policy of “teaching to the test.”

Other voices have knocked NCLB and standardized testing for stifling educational creativity and variety. In an October 2005 interview, a filmmaker who’d produced two documentaries on test preparation in Harlem elementary schools expressed her feeling that teachers’ talents were being “squelched” by the demands of standardized testing. In a First Person essay from September 2004, an English teacher satirized a test-obsessed educational environment in which a class trip to Europe could be seen as detrimental to children’s progress.

As magnified by NCLB, added Ronald A. Wolk in an October 2004 Perspective column, “standards-based reform ignores the diversity of needs and talents among adolescents and fails to provide them with a matching diversity of opportunities in education and work.”

Finally, a pair of feature articles raised questions about the possible displacement of arts education in the NCLB era. A September 2004 piece about an award-winning children’s percussion ensemble in Kentucky pointed to research showing that kids involved in the arts “outperform ‘arts-poor’ students in virtually every area—including standardized testing.” A May 2005 story profiled a ballet-centered charter school that, remarkably to some, excels on state tests.


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