99.9 Percent Bunk

Why NCLB is far from perfect.

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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.

Vol. 18, Issue 02, Page 54

Published in Print: October 1, 2006, as 99.9 Percent Bunk
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