President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act was widely hailed as a bipartisan cure for the problems of American education. That no longer rings true; the law has been in force for some time and plenty of children are being left behind every day at schools from all over the land.The law’s goals include tracking student performance, increasing teacher accountability and improving standards for education — all generally commendable goals, but the law has mostly failed to achieve them.These days, state after state is scrambling to get exemptions from the law. While some useful reforms were furthered, the law’s emphasis on rigid targets for standardized tests drove school districts all over the country into elaborate and educationally useless efforts to game the system. Schools jiggered opening days and test dates, hoping that by moving the tests later in the school year, and opening earlier in August, they could raise scores compared to students on the old schedule.But if gaming the system was the primary way many schools dealt with the law, others went straight to cheating. Superintendents, principals and teachers routinely committed deliberate and willful fraud to get scores that would bring money to their schools in violation of the clear provisions of the law. Another one of these scandals has erupted in Georgia. The New York Times reports:
Cheating by officials on 2009 state standardized tests was found in each of 11 schools investigated in Dougherty County, which includes the city of Albany about 200 miles south of Atlanta. The report described dozens of cases of adults giving students answers during tests or correcting their mistakes afterward. One fifth-grade teacher passed students who could not read, the report said, resulting in their not receiving extra help.The details of the report echoed results of similar investigations this year in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, underscoring a widespread debate about the reliance on high-stakes test results, which are used to evaluate students and teachers and to measure improvements required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The fact that NCLB triggered a national fraud epidemic leads to two conclusions. The first is that the law was pointing to some real problems. Schools are failing all over the country; teachers and principals are receiving salaries but aren’t succeeding at their jobs.The second is that the problem is bigger than the schools, much bigger. Bad schools aren’t simply a bad teacher or a bad principal problem. Children from homes where books and reading are important often come to the first grade or even kindergarten with reading skills. From other homes they come knowing very little they haven’t learned from TV.The school is the place where society’s expectations meet reality: a large chunk of the American population doesn’t have what it takes to function successfully in the contemporary world, and no school system, however lavishly funded and minutely supervised can fix a problem whose roots lie outside the school. NCLB was successful in highlighting the many, many failing schools, teachers, parents and children across the country, but the more clearly the highlight marked the system’s deficiencies, the more clearly it became apparent that NCLB is not a fix. NCLB at best is a diagnostic tool; its standards help us identify who is failing, but its provisions cannot make them succeed.The Via Meadia guess is that there is no such thing as a national solution for the problems of our schools. Money is not the problem. With the right kids and parents, a school straight out of Little House on the Prairie would get better results than the most expensive and elaborate program that all the educational foundations, peer-reviewed experts and congressional bill writers in this country can devise.With the wrong kids from the wrong homes, not all the consultants at the Ford Foundation or all the billions in the Gates Foundation can make schools work.We need to be a little bit more honest with ourselves. Schools didn’t cause America’s biggest social problems, and schools can’t cure them. A public school doesn’t take in sow’s ears and put out silk purses; a school inevitably reflects the strong and weak points of the society and culture around it.A neighborhood of weak families will rarely have strong schools. School reform is important and we have a long way to go, but until America finds ways to address its broken homes, we will not be able to fix our broken schools.