NCLB, poverty and public education


From the Record-Journal Editorial Page

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As the merits and misgivings of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are debated in communities across our nation, we want to encourage an understanding of the urgency that we not lose sight of the value, importance and success of public education.

When we ask students, parents, administrators, and teachers themselves, what qualities and skills they expect their teachers to possess, we tend to get the same responses. They want our educational professionals to be smart, inspiring, caring, and dedicated. Never do we hear in response that we want the teacher who is able to get students to reach Proficiency or Goal levels on Federal or State mandated standardized testing measures. Our high achieving private schools do not even value these test results enough to spend the time required to administer high stakes testing measures. They are rightfully more concerned with a student's ability to be innovative, imaginative, and creative as they develop into productive members of the global society. These schools also recognize that these standardized testing measures have been known to narrow the curriculum by focusing education on the contents of the test requirements and they have fostered dishonesty and cheating on all levels of the academic process.

The No Child Left Behind Act is a failed federal policy and it needs to be repealed or completely overhauled. NCLB sets schools up for failure and ignores the real issue plaguing communities across our nation; poverty. In education, particularly in urban districts, poverty is not the excuse, it is the reality. Our nation continues to see its poverty rates rise. Students who are hungry, homeless, in need of medical care, or living in crime ridden neighborhoods need more support, not less. Further, federal dollars should not be a competition among states, but rather those dollars should be targeted to the schools with the most needy and poverty stricken students. Thus, we also take issue with the Federal Race to the Top Grant.

When we look at the highest performing country in the world, Finland, we notice impressive results and well respected teachers. What most don't recognize at first glance is that Finland's poverty rate is under three percent. Our nation's poverty rate is currently over twenty percent and continues to climb at a consistent rate. Finland also boasts small class sizes, exceptional early learning options, a vast array of course offerings, a collaborative relationship amongst teachers and administrators, an extremely well-educated teaching force, and a high level of respect for and pride in their teachers. In the 1960s, the United States scored lower than all other industrialized nations in standards set by some international testing measures. Yet, our nation has continued to excel and lead the world in so many areas. Maybe these tests are not the best standard for measuring future successes and maybe our students have the understanding to know this to be true.

There is a great deal of important work to be done. If we are to be successful, it will be our dedicated teachers that will do that work and that will guide our students through their achievements and successes. Yet, we are demoralizing our teachers with unfair criticisms and impossible expectations. In the end, this will not only hurt our students, but it will set back our great nation. Educational historian, Diane Ravitch asked us to consider a few thoughts when contemplating the declining teacher morale issue: The teachers did not speculate wildly on Wall Street. The teachers did not ask for billion dollar bailouts. The teachers did not get million dollar bonuses. And it was Enron who taught us that data can certainly be manipulated. So, why are the teachers getting all of the blame? We could not agree more with her.

We will not improve our nation's public education system by blaming the teachers, penalizing the schools or categorizing them as failures. The way we will improve our schools is by supporting them and creating cultures and climates that inspire students and staff, foster collaboration amongst all stakeholders, and get people excited about achieving common visions and goals. Let us look at individual student growth and have students compete against themselves. Testing should be about self-improvement, and the teachers and schools should be judged on how well they help students make personal gains.

It is time for us to say "no more" – no more misstatements, no more misrepresentations and no more not keeping our promise to our youngest citizens.

Mark A. Hughes is President, Meriden Board of Education; Dr. Mark D. Benigni is Meriden's Superintendent of Schools.

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