The blind spot in No Child Left Behind

Although I’ve experienced the impact of No Child Left Behind on my students’ approach to learning, I haven’t spent any time writing about it because the criticisms leveled against it are widely known even to the general public and I didn’t want to rehearse tired catch-phrases like “teaching to the test.” But a recent Op-Ed piece by Professor Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske (yes, that Fiske) caught my eye because it brought pressure to bear on one aspect of NCLB that often goes unspoken: its particular burden on impoverished students.

Supporters of act will undoubtedly raise the fact that NCLB was devised specifically to ensure that schools did not ignore their most disadvantaged students. But Ladd and Fiske address this irony and spell out the paradox for readers:

No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

They attribute this blind spot to our tremendous faith in education as the great equalizer in American society and also a well-intentioned concern that lowering standards for certain student populations would create a self-fulfilling prophecy (and smack of prejudice).

In this light, the recent reforms to NCLB relaxing standards do nothing to directly ameliorate poverty and its material effects on the educational performance of students (and they certainly don’t give us any more reason to respect public schools). I am most familiar with the challenges that foster youth face, but I imagine that many of their problems can be extended to poor children who do not get nutritious breakfasts before going to school or do not have access to private tutoring or test prep programs to keep up with their peers. Although the authors criticize the impulse to hold all students against the same yardstick regardless of economic background, they never explicitly propose that we should selectively lower our standards. Instead, they advocate for more social support and services for lower-income students, and also urge lawmakers to tackle the correlation between poverty and income head-on rather than putting all the pressure on schools, and especially teachers, to raise student performance by a herculean effort.

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