Assessment Opinion

We Are Lying to Our Children

By Diane Ravitch — October 13, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

The elephant in the room is No Child Left Behind. This, as you know, is the latest manifestation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was passed specifically to help educate disadvantaged children. NCLB was passed by Congress in the fall of 2001 and signed into law in January 2002. At the time, it had the overwhelming support of both parties.

Since the law was implemented, beginning (I would assume) in the fall of 2002 or the fall of 2003, it has been the subject of much debate. President George W. Bush claimed it as his proudest legacy, and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings defended it fiercely.

Four months ago, I wrote an article in Education Week saying that it was time to kill NCLB and to write a different, better law. I argued that the law had failed: “It is dumbing down our children by focusing solely on reading and mathematics. By ignoring everything but basic skills, it is not preparing students to compete with their peers in the high-performing nations of Asia and Europe, nor is it preparing them for citizenship in our complex society. It has usurped state and local control of education. Washington has neither the knowledge nor the capacity to micromanage the nation’s schools.”

I added, for good measure: “No amount of tinkering can repair this poorly designed law. The time has come for fresh thinking about the best way for Washington to help improve the nation’s schools.”

President Obama promised during his campaign to bring “change” to the nation’s direction and policies. Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged in his speeches that NCLB is “toxic” (at least to parents), that teachers complain bitterly about its emphasis on testing, and that “few subjects divide educators so intensely.”

Yet in his recent speech about reauthorization of NCLB, he praised the law for “exposing achievement gaps” (as though no one was aware of those gaps before 2002!) and encouraging us to “improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs” (an idea whose provenance dates to the Coleman Report in 1966!). He also credits NCLB with expanding the standards and accountability movement (forgive me while I gag).

To add to his embarrassment, he has been traveling the nation on a listening tour accompanied by former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich (not known for his interest in education reform) and the Reverend Al Sharpton (ditto).

Memo to Secretary Duncan: NCLB is the quintessence of the test-based accountability movement. It has nothing to do with standards. It contains no standards whatsoever. It encourages states to lower their standards by mandating that all children must be “proficient” by 2014, a goal that is beyond the reach of every district and every state unless they dumb down their standards.

Many states have indeed lowered their standards. New York started testing grades 3-8 in 2006, and in every subsequent year it has lowered the bar to reach proficiency in almost every grade. Illinois also lowered the bar for the same reason.

For Secretary Duncan to associate NCLB with higher standards—or any standards at all—is a cruel joke. As he has often said (one of his favorite phrases), we have been “lying to our children” and their parents when we tell them they are proficient, but they are not.

Now Secretary Duncan wants to get moving to reauthorize NCLB. Presumably, since the brand is toxic, he will want a new name. But the nation needs something very different from NCLB and renaming it will not cure its defects.

As I wrote last June, we are dumbing down our children and calling it reform. We are indeed lying to our children.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.