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Law of Unintended Consequences

Marian Wright Edelman – President, Children’s Defense Fund Posted: February 11, 2011 09:23 AM

The federal government should be the engine of equality, not the locomotive of inequality. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress has the opportunity to fundamentally transform American education and set it on the path towards equality and excellence for all children.

When ESEA was last reauthorized by Congress in 2002 with overwhelming bipartisan support, the Bush administration called the new law the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB)—a play on the Children Defense Fund’s trademarked mission statement to “Leave No Child Behind.”

To many, the rhetoric of the new law’s title promised to match the reality: it aimed at measuring the progress of every child, in every school, every year; data would be broken down to identify racial/ethnic and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Schools, districts, and states would document and track the academic performance of all groups of students including students with disabilities who were not counted at all for so long. Every child was to be held to high standards and supported. Surely, no child would be left behind.

But it soon became clear that NCLB’s titular promise was merely a rhetorical fig leaf covering up new ways for our nation’s schools to leave millions of children behind. NCLB’s narrow focus on “high stakes” testing and its overreliance on sanctions that punish struggling schools encouraged states to lower standards, districts to narrow the curriculum, schools to push at-risk children out of school by suspending or expelling them prior to test day, and teachers to teach to the test. No child — regardless of background — benefits from mindless test preparation day in and day out at the hands of often overwhelmed, underprepared, and poorly supported teachers.

Under NCLB, most children in America have been left behind.

U.S. students, who once led the world in academic achievement, are behind their counterparts in other countries, performing in the “average” or “below average” range on the most recent (2010) Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA ). The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are equally discouraging: more than 60 percent of students in grades four, eight, and 12 are unable to perform at grade level. More than 25 percent of all high school students drop out or do not graduate on time. For minority students the results are far worse: 80 percent in grades four, eight, and 12 cannot perform at grade level, and more than 40 percent later drop out or do not graduate on time. Many students who do graduate lack the skills necessary for college or entry-level jobs in civilian and military life.

Our country is falling behind in the globalized, competitive economy as well. Citing our comparatively poor graduation rates and weak academic performance, Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond predicts that America’s workforce will not qualify for many U.S. jobs in the very near future. In The Flat World of Education (2010), she writes: “If these trends continue, by 2012, America will have 7 million jobs in science and technology fields, ‘green’ industries, and other fields that cannot be filled by U.S. workers who have been adequately educated for them.”

If NCLB is not changed and changed soon, the outlook for America and America’s children is grim indeed.

Fortunately, we do not need to “wait for Superman” to turn American education around and provide all America’s children a high quality education. The 112th Congress can and must save the day by enacting a bipartisan reauthorized ESEA that strengthens the law’s focus on accountability and does away with its disabling sanctions, replacing them with incentives for states and districts to dramatically improve student learning.

The administration’s Blueprint for Education Reform provides a framework for a reauthorized ESEA that does just that, and the Children’s Defense Fund urges Congress to use the Blueprint as a starting point.

To ensure that the new law truly leaves no child behind, Congress will need to go beyond the Blueprint and include provisions for education excellence for our most vulnerable children: children in concentrated poverty, children in need of full-day kindergarten, children at risk of dropping out or being pushed out of school, children in juvenile detention, and children in foster care. These children are most at risk of dropping out of school and into the cradle-to-prison pipeline which leads to dead-end lives, costing their families and communities heartache and costing the nation billions of dollars.

NCLB was enacted with overwhelming support, and its framers dreamed of a law that would give every child an even start with a good education as a foundation. But the law’s unintended consequences have undermined our children’s learning and America’s standing in the world. Now, in 2011, it is time to turn American education around and make the dream a reality. Join us in urging Congress to act now to reauthorize ESEA in a way that truly leaves no child in America behind.

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