Opinion
Federal Opinion

99.9 Percent Bunk

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 29, 2006 3 min read
Ronald A. Wolk

As the new school year was about to begin, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings declared that No Child Left Behind was, like Ivory soap, “99.9 percent pure.” The 0.1 percent impurity must be the fact that not a single state made this summer’s deadline to guarantee a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

Spellings’ assertion that NCLB is just about perfect is as absurd as the teacher-quality goal itself. There was no way to accomplish it in four years. Even though the law defines “highly qualified” as a teacher who’s state certified, the process these people go through is flawed. Certification guarantees high quality about as much as a driver’s license guarantees a good driver.

I suggest that legislators adopt the oath of physicians: “First, do no harm.” Those who drafted and approved NCLB should have known enough about education to realize that controversy and confusion would result from setting unachievable goals. Even if the law had been adequately funded and provided significant incentives for states, the goal is unreachable. What follows are the reasons why.

Teacher preparation programs are woefully incapable of producing highly qualified teachers. Universities and colleges, for the most part, have shamefully low standards for their schools and education departments and generally regard them as cash cows.

Poor compensation and working conditions are major obstacles to attracting enough college graduates to teaching. Half of those who do enter the field leave within five years. In recent surveys of teachers who’ve left the profession, more than 50 percent cite inadequate working conditions, bureaucracy, lack of support, and poor staff morale.

There simply aren’t enough bright college graduates with majors in math and science who are willing to go into teaching, and those who do are generally disinclined to teach in poor urban schools, where they’re most needed. Nearly 40 percent of middle school students are in science classes taught by teachers who do not have a major or minor in science. “Out-of-field” educators teach one of five high school students in math classes.

There are nearly 3 million public school teachers. It’s virtually a statistical impossibility to guarantee that every one will be “highly qualified.” As in any field this big, there is a spectrum of quality—from a relative handful who are so bad they shouldn’t be teaching to a relative handful who are truly outstanding, with the rest falling somewhere in between.

None of this absolves the states from making sure that kids have good teachers. Ultimately, we’ll get the teachers we need only if we make fundamental changes in the way they are prepared, how they’re compensated, and the conditions in which they work. A dozen blue-ribbon commissions studying the problems in recent years have issued a host of recommendations for solving them. But the solutions are expensive and politically perilous—two conditions incumbent public officials avoid like the plague.

Schools are often hostile places for both teachers and students, and the restrictive and punitive measures of No Child Left Behind—as well as excessive standardized testing—are making them more so. Continuously tinkering with an obsolete model won’t cut it. We need to change the way schools are governed, organized, and operated.

Some of the most ardent critics of NCLB say it represents a deliberate attempt to undermine confidence in public education and create a receptive climate for vouchers and privatization. Even if this is just another conspiracy theory, NCLB may indeed produce these results. Setting unrealistic goals for public schools only increases the sense of defeatism and lowers morale.

By mandating that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2013, No Child Left Behind is setting public schools up for another embarrassing failure.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as 99.9 Percent Bunk

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Biden Taps Ex-Obama Aide Roberto Rodriguez for Key Education Department Job
Rodriguez served as a top education staffer to President Barack Obama and currently leads a teacher-advocacy organization.
3 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
Getty
Federal Biden Pitches Plan to Expand Universal Pre-K, Free School Meal Programs, Teacher Training
The president's $1.8 trillion American Families Plan faces strong headwinds as Congress considers other costly administration proposals.
8 min read
President Joe Biden addresses Congress from the House chamber. Behind him are Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., applaud.<br/>
Chip Somodevilla/AP
Federal Education Department Kicks Off Summer Learning Collaborative
The Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative will boost programs for students acutely affected by COVID-19 in 46 states.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, talks with Fort LeBoeuf Middle School teacher Laura Friedman during a discussion on safely returning to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 3, 2021.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, talks with Fort LeBoeuf Middle School teacher Laura Friedman during a discussion on safely returning to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News via TNS
Federal As 100-Day Mark Approaches, Has Biden Met His School Reopening Goal? And What Comes Next?
President Joe Biden faces a self-imposed deadline of having most K-8 schools open for in-person learning by his hundredth day in office.
6 min read
First Lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, in Meriden, Ct., on March 3, 2021.
First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, in Meriden, Ct., in March.
Mandel Ngan/AP