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Leaving No Child Behind

By Donald B. Gratz — June 11, 2003 10 min read
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Standards require the most progress from students with the farthest to go. Without extra time, such a requirement may not be realistic or fair.

The central irony of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and related state laws is that they assure that many children will, in fact, be left behind. In Massachusetts, for example, 10 percent of this year’s seniors will not graduate with their classes (if at all) because they have failed the state’s mcas exam five times—even though they have completed all other graduation requirements. Last year, these 6,000 students would have graduated. The logic of this approach, if not the scale, is reminiscent of that famous comment from the Vietnam War, in which an official was quoted as saying, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Standards were created, according to proponents, so that teachers don’t give up on kids and kids don’t give up on themselves. High-stakes tests are used to enforce standards. Many urban educators credit standards and tests with creating a greater focus on lower-achieving students than before, in some cases leading to higher expectations. I have seen schools where teachers cared about their kids and worked hard, but simply didn’t expect enough of them. These low expectations, and the consequent lack of challenging material, did have an impact on students. When teachers came to realize that they had to ask more of their students, and particularly when they came to believe that their students could do more, achievement increased.

But there remains a chasm between this human dynamic and the universal enforcement of standards. In particular, there is an enormous difference between expecting every child to succeed and requiring that success—between the rhetoric of “not giving up on a single student” and laws that result in large numbers of student failures. Standards and expectations, while often used interchangeably, are not the same thing. To understand this chasm, and to see whether it can be bridged, it helps to revisit the foundations of our belief in teacher expectations.

In the classic 1968 study Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson demonstrated that raised teacher expectations could, in fact, be directly correlated with student success. In their Oak School experiment, they randomly identified certain children as likely to “spurt” or “bloom.” Neither the children nor their parents knew of this designation, but teachers apparently reacted by expecting the children identified (the experimental group) to outshine their peers. After a year, these students had gained significantly on their IQ tests. In addition, teachers described them as “more intellectually curious, as happier, and, especially in the lower grades, as less in need of social approval.” The effect was still observable, though less pronounced, in the 4th and 5th grades, the highest grades in the study. Also, teachers tended to view students who did not act according to their category more negatively, according to the researchers. “The more upper-track children of the control group gained in IQ, the more favorably they were rated by their teachers,” the authors reported. “The more the lower-track children of the control group gained in IQ, the more unfavorably they were viewed by their teachers.” Thus, children who did not live up to higher expectations, or down to lower ones, were viewed less favorably.

The children in the experimental group were different from their peers in only one respect: Their teachers expected them to perform well. “There was no crash program to improve [these students’] reading ability, no special lesson plan, no extra time tutoring, no trips to museums or art galleries. There was only the belief that the children bore watching, that they had intellectual competencies that would in due course be revealed. What was done in our program of educational change was done directly for the teacher, only indirectly for the student.” This knowledge could lead to a “new expectancy,” the researchers concluded. “The new expectancy may be that children can learn more than had been believed possible. ... The new expectancy, at the very least, will make it more difficult, when they encounter the educationally disadvantaged, for teachers to think, ‘Well, after all, what can you expect?’”

There is an enormous difference between expecting every child to succeed and requiring that success.

When this report appeared in the late 1960s, it complemented concerns about racial equality and equity of that time, and contributed to new modes of schooling and teaching. These ranged from eliminating tracking, to open schools, to more child-centered classrooms. Grades and the “sorting and selecting” functions of schools were widely decried. The deadly dullness and rote nature of learning were exposed. Bureaucracy was attacked and freedom to think, explore, and learn were advanced. Vouchers were promoted by liberals rather than conservatives. Even “de-schooling” was proposed. Although some proposals were extreme, the movement served to loosen the grip of grades—most recently tightened by the Sputnik scare—in favor of more creative, individualized, and humane forms of instruction. The goal was not simply to present material but to help children learn, meaning that children were to be respected as individuals, with different backgrounds, needs, interests, and learning styles. Some remnants of this child-centered approach can still be found today, particularly in elementary schools. At the level of pedagogy, if not policy, we recognize that all kids are not the same.

Standards proponents Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding also decry “the tragedy of low expectations.” In their 1998 book Standards for Our Schools, they write: “One of the most striking features of countries that are more successful than we in educating their students to high standards is the assumption made by parents, teachers, and the students themselves that the students can do it. By contrast, the single most important obstacle to high student achievement in the United States is our low expectations for students— not just students who are poor and come from minority backgrounds, but ... most of our students.”

To make matters worse, they say, American psychologists in the mid-1900s decided that academic achievement “is substantially determined by intelligence. And intelligence is a function of genetic endowment.” While most of the world doubted this finding, they continue, the United States embraced it. Thus, Americans tend to believe that academic success relates mostly to native intelligence, while other high- achieving countries believe success relates mostly to effort. Given tracking and the expectation that success is genetically predetermined, failure is built into our system. “What we have actually had is a vast sorting system based largely on social class and racial background, with the outcome determined for many children before the game began,” Mr. Tucker and Ms. Codding conclude.

This insight is not new. Education critics like John Holt, Ivan Illich, and Jonathan Kozol, along with historians like Colin Greer, Michael Katz, Theodore Schultz, and David B. Tyack, showed years ago that grading and tracking students created winners and losers based largely on race and class. Indeed, these built-in inequities and unequal results, along with the impact of a boring and uncreative curriculum on children’s creativity and interest in learning, spawned the major reforms of the 1960s and ‘70s. By striking contrast, today’s testing proponents minimize student differences and promote an old-fashioned factory model (no longer common in business) which assumes that the reason students aren’t succeeding is that they and their teachers aren’t trying, and that the way to make them try is to punish them if they fail.

The Rosenthal experiment offers substantial proof that adult expectations help shape children’s actions, at least in the younger grades. The key, however, is that teachers believed that specific children would do better than others in the classroom, and therefore really expected them to do better. If teachers truly expect their children to learn more, those children probably will. But this is different from standards. We can only guess what might have happened if teachers in the experiment had been told that certain children must do better or else, but the impact would surely have been different for both teachers and children.

Many of us know students for whom higher demands and sanctions yield increased effort and a new interest in succeeding. But the No Child Left Behind Act approach to achievement justifies sanctions (a threat-based approach) by citing higher expectations (which are not based on threats). This disconnect between justification and policy presents several major problems.

First, the basic premise that standards equal expectations is flawed. We can’t legislate that teachers expect more, only that they require more. For teachers to actually expect more from students, they will need a reason. They could determine through training or analysis that they haven’t asked enough of their students, for example. This has happened in some schools, and if expectations have been too low, it helps.

Or, teachers might believe their students can do better if more help is provided for the student or the teacher. Successful schools and districts have provided such help. But even before the war in Iraq, The New York Times was reporting a 30 percent cut in federal funding, plus huge state cuts. How will extra help be funded? When originally proposed, higher academic standards were accompanied by “opportunity standards,” which recognized that different kids face different circumstances. When was the last time you heard about those?

If we want to go to scale with a concept of high expectations for all, we have to build a system where there is a reason to expect every child to succeed.

Second, although the language of the No Child Left Behind legislation is about all children succeeding, the justification has to do with sanctions, which create winners and losers—exactly the system proponents say they want to end. Suburban schools may report 100 percent proficiency, but we truly do not expect that all schools or students will succeed. In fact, I don’t believe we would stand for it. Any state where every student succeeded would be castigated for cheating, grade inflation, or low standards. Present policy demands failures.

Third, the mantra that all children can learn has been twisted into the belief that if they don’t learn (pass the test) it must be their fault—an argument repeated by policymakers on a regular basis. High stakes may make some students try harder, but do teachers (or politicians) really believe that the 6,000 Massachusetts students who have taken the MCAS five times, and similar students in other states, are not trying?

This is a blame-the-victim approach. It rationalizes leaving behind all the students who don’t pass a test on the presumption they aren’t trying, despite evidence that most are trying very hard indeed. And it ignores the fact that many students lack supports that are common in middle-class households—parents at home, lots of books, a quiet place to work—and that others face social, emotional, academic, or economic problems (for example, homelessness) or speak another language.

Standards require the most progress from students with the farthest to go. Without extra help and extra time, such a requirement may not be realistic or fair. Extra time is essential in a standards-based system, but new time-based schools have not emerged to replace our current age-based schools. Instead, some children are labeled failures through much of their schooling. The extra chances don’t emerge until the end of their school careers.

If we, as a nation, are going to enforce higher standards with high- stakes tests in specific grades, and deny diplomas to students who can’t pass them, we should be honest about our intentions and drop the self-righteous language about leaving no child behind. Standards with age-specific high- stakes tests are about punishments, not expectations. This approach will spur some students on, but will clearly leave others behind. For the students who are trying hard and not succeeding, who need extra help and can’t get it, who have issues with language or cognition, who excel in other areas but not traditional academics, or who simply test poorly, the rhetoric is hollow.

On the other hand, if we want to go to scale with a concept of high expectations for all, we have to build a system where there is a reason to expect every child to succeed. This means treating students as individuals, understanding their different needs, and providing (and paying for) the extra help and time that some require. This will probably cost more than the nation wants to spend, but we should not pretend that the act of creating a barrier somehow ensures that all kids can surmount it.

Donald B. Gratz is an educational consultant in Needham, Mass., where he chairs the Needham School Committee. He also serves as a senior associate on national school reform for the Community Training & Assistance Center in Boston. His e-mail address is dbgratz@rcn.com.

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