When chasing the American Dream, leave no child behind in the race to the top. The clichés say it all: American public schools are charged with an impossible task, and it’s being sold to the public in catchy sound bites. Look closer at the language, and you see the dilemma between the lines. If it is a race, then someone wins and someone loses, but if no child is left behind, then they all must be running together. How can that be?
Despite recently proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, there’s a paradox here that puts schools in a no-win position. If students are being pushed to achieve more and score higher, some inevitably will. Some children have all the tools they need to succeed – natural intelligence, early childhood learning opportunities, supportive parents, good health – but some will struggle. Just as in a foot race, if we tell all students to run their hardest, some will pull ahead of others. This does not mean that the students who fall behind are not running. But one child’s sprint may be another’s stroll, depending on leg length, muscle tone, and natural ability. And that cannot be changed by training or circumstances.
But our society tells us that success means doing better than others, so we will push our children, and our athletes, to win at all costs. And as the standards for school performance keep rising, what seemed like a great improvement a year ago is no longer enough, so we begin again, to eek out creative ways to raise a point here and a percent there. In athletic competitions, this leads to doping. Once the limits of physical ability have been tested, and every natural advantage maximized, what other choice is there? Quit trying? NCLB and state accountability measures don’t allow that, without significant financial and administrative punishments. When it comes to schools and scores, even those that rank in the upper echelons are continually required to achieve more. And that’s the Catch 22. The federal government mandates 10% increases each year in proficiency scores on statewide tests. Do the math – a 10% improvement on a score of 80 is larger than a 10% improvement on a score of 65, so with each success, the challenge to find room for growth increases as well. Thanks to President Obama, states can now apply for a waiver from the federal mandates. States that opt out must demonstrate their own accountability system and high standards, giving them flexibility without lowering the bar. But there are controversial strings attached as well, such as tying teacher evaluations to student performance. In addition, some states already have rigorous standards in place. In California, all schools are required to make at least one point of growth annually in their API scores, but individual school goals are set according to a complicated set of factors, and many schools face goals of 5 points or more in growth. That may not sound like much, but when a school is already scoring 929, such as Earl Warren Middle in Encinitas did in 2010, compared to statewide averages such as 778, it is like squeezing water from a baseball. Earl Warren’s API dropped to 924 this year. Still an enviable score, but there are probably a few administrators and teachers over there smacking their foreheads in frustration. Let’s say you were a baseball player batting .300 and your manager pushed you to do better. You’ve trained for years, practiced endlessly, risked injury, have the best coaches, use state of the art bats and balls… what next? Ask Barry Bonds.
Putting educators in an impossible position doesn’t help students or schools. Pushing all students, regardless, to score proficient or higher on annual bubble-in tests and pinning teachers’ careers to the results, or linking funding and self-governance to the outcome of such measures is not the solution. It makes people scared of unfair consequences and desperate to show success. What kind of results does that lead to?
Ask the Atlanta public schools.
For more information on California’s testing an accountability measures, and to find scores for specific schools and districts, visit: