As part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act – a piece of legislation with serious implications for the state of Michigan – 2,500 elementary and middle schools in Michigan will find out within days whether they have reached “adequate yearly progress.” It is expected that nearly 400 of these schools will face sanctions for failing to meet minimum education standards. Under the legislation, failing school districts must provide assistance such as tutoring and mentoring. The state is allowed to set its own targets under the program, but it must show annual improvement and achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014. A school that misses the mark for over two years can face state takeover or district restructuring.
Though the legislation appears to be well intentioned, the bill has far too many defects. First, the standardized tests at the heart of the plan are not an accurate representation of a school’s performance; many districts spend time “teaching” the test material. The phenomenon of teachers monomaniacally focusing their efforts to improve students’ performance on arbitrary and capricious standardized tests appears to be growing rapidly and important learning experiences, such as arts programs, are eliminated to make time for the tests.
Moreover, like those on the SATs and ACTs, it is believed that the test questions may discriminate against minorities. State-mandated proficiency marks are just as nonsensical. Michigan led the nation in the number of schools last year that did not meet standards, but this year those statistics have changed. This is not the result of improved facilities or better teaching, rather, the state simply lowered its target from 75 percent proficiency to a mere 31 percent in math and reading for middle school students. There is no purpose in trying to reach a swinging yardstick. Thus, we are forced to seriously question the goal of Bush’s plan: 100 percent proficiency. Such lofty aspirations are utterly unproductive. Even if failing schools can clean up their acts, there’s no meaning in reaching 100 percent proficiency once the standards are inevitably manipulated.
Disguised as progress, the No Child Left Behind Act ignores the real problem: a disturbing gap between inner-city and suburban education. Children who attend poorly performing schools usually live in communities where parents are less educated and schools lack quality teachers with ample facilities. This condition is particularly acute in Michigan and the state has an important role in creating solutions to this gap. But the current legislation hamstrings any attempts to usher in substantive change. Mandatory tutoring and mentoring are an excellent start, but they are not sufficient solutions to the serious problems facing education in this country.