Why 'No Child' Was Needed

By Karin Chenoweth
Saturday, October 13, 2007

A very odd notion is circulating these days that the No Child Left Behind law has forced schools to become boring, dull places where children do endless worksheets and are discouraged from thinking for themselves. This argument holds that under "No Child," students are forced to simply regurgitate what teachers tell them, which -- because of flawed standardized tests -- is often confusing and sometimes demonstrably false. Get rid of the tests, or at least pay less attention to their results, critics say, and schools can return to their pre-NCLB excellence.

Particularly with Congress considering reauthorization of the law, versions of this argument are heard almost any time No Child Left Behind is discussed. I find it very puzzling.

I keep wondering: Don't the people making this and similar arguments know that long before No Child Left Behind, far too many classrooms were boring, dull places where children were forced to do endless worksheets, discouraged from independent thinking and subjected to teachers providing confusing and sometimes demonstrably false information?

For example, my eighth-grade history teacher in suburban New Jersey taught that the American system of slavery was fair not only to the slaveholders but also to the slaves. He did not present his assessment as opinion but fact, and (hard as it is to believe today) was backed up by the textbook we studied. At least he tried to teach us something. My eighth-grade science teacher told our class point-blank, "You aren't going to college anyway, so it doesn't matter what I do." He didn't teach much of anything, and his class was a zoo, teetering on dangerous. My elementary school teachers had been able to control their classrooms, but they didn't teach a whole lot of history, science, art or music. In introducing a unit on batteries, for instance, my fifth-grade teacher said: "I don't like science either, but we are supposed to cover this." She never bothered finding out whether we learned anything about batteries -- tedious "covering" was enough.

Educators often complain that every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he's an expert because he went to school, so I try not to draw too many conclusions from my personal experiences. But they are consistent with every serious history of education I have read, and they are hardly unusual. Most baby boomers I have talked with consider themselves lucky if they had one or two really good teachers in their school careers -- which means they sat through a lot of not-so-good instruction.

Fast-forward to my children's educational experience in Montgomery County. Now in college, my daughters went to public school before No Child Left Behind was passed and as it was taking effect. Though in many ways they had an education superior to mine, they both had their share of tedious, confusing and demonstrably false instruction.

In fact, once they entered middle school, I noticed that if there was no outside assessment, it was a tossup whether the teachers taught much of anything at all. Sixth-grade English was pretty much a waste for my older daughter, in part because her teacher spent inordinate amounts of class time updating her computerized inventory of Beanie Babies.

Ninth-grade science was the same, with the teacher handing out worksheets and then answering e-mail and playing computer games. In honors chemistry, the teacher endlessly shared his low opinion of the principal, students and their parents. He didn't bother to teach much chemistry.

Those teachers were able to get away with such low levels of instruction because no outside assessment held them responsible for whether their students learned anything.

My younger daughter, more than her sister, benefited from two trends now sweeping the country: accountability and rigorous curriculum. Because her high school adopted the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which has assessments scored by professionals outside the school she attended, my younger daughter enjoyed both a high-level curriculum and teachers who were not afraid of being held accountable.

Every child deserves that. The International Baccalaureate curriculum may be a bit of overkill, but a deep, rich curriculum that aims at helping children become educated citizens should be available to every child.

If teachers have little incentive to teach anything that is not on the state tests, we should fix that. Teachers need to be supported by good standards and curriculum, high-quality materials, orderly learning environments, and rigorous assessments. They certainly shouldn't be focused only on teaching what is tested by what are mostly low-level state assessments.

But people should keep in mind that if there are no tests, some teachers have little incentive to teach anything at all.

Karin Chenoweth is the author of "It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools." She wrote the Homeroom column for The Post from 1999 to 2004.

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