Accompanied by a bipartisan collection of senators who helped author the bill, President Bush traveled the country last week in support of the No Child Left Behind Act. Despite the diverse group of legislators behind the bill and the presence of several necessary reforms, the act has serious flaws.
A central part of the bill is the mandatory annual testing of all third- to eighth-graders in public schools. The results from these examinations will be used to determine which schools are underperforming. After two years of underperformance, parents will be able to move their children to a different school. While a desire for higher academic standards is vital for the future of the nation”s public schools, the extensive use of testing can obscure the true goals of education. In the words of Harvard University Law Prof. Lani Gunier, “what the tests actually test is quick, strategic thinking with less than perfect information.” This system neglects such crucial skills as analytical capacity and writing ability.
Extensive testing in President Bush”s home state of Texas serves as a possible glimpse into the future of public education. Scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills have risen and some politicians point to this as proof of genuine academic improvement. However, according to a study done at Rice University and the University of Texas, many schools with low-income and minority students have suspended science classes for weeks and sometimes months before the state tests. Similar problems exist throughout the nation field trips, the arts, current events and in-depth projects have all been cut back in an effort to improve test scores.
One of the major reasons for the bill”s bipartisan appeal was the absence of school vouchers in the legislation. Vouchers allow parents of children at underperforming schools to send them to private and parochial schools at the government”s expense they have been criticized for violating the separation of church and state and for allowing already ailing schools to lose students and federal funding.
Further, under the act school districts that do not allow the Boy Scouts of America to meet on school property a decision some districts have made to protest the BSA”s anti-gay policies will not receive federal education funding. The bill also mandates that schools provide the names and phone numbers of their students to military recruiters or lose federal dollars. These two provisions have nothing to do with education reform they are clear attempts to legislate and change the political beliefs of others through monetary incentives.
Despite all this, the bill does contain a few beneficial items. Federal spending on education will rise by 20 percent. The federal reading program will enjoy a three-fold increase in funds. Current teachers will be required to hold a bachelor”s degree in their subject within five years and all new hires will not be considered without the degree. Schools earning low scores on tests will receive necessary increases in funds.
The No Child Left Behind Act is a conflicted piece of legislation. Public schools do need significant changes, including dedicated teachers, engaging curriculums and smaller class sizes, but the bill”s rigid system of standardized tests and playing favorites with funding could do untold harm to schools and students alike.