The darkest Irony: Calling the law “No Child Left Behind”

“Katherine” is a 16 year old current student of mine. She was born in Russia to a prositute. She spent her early childhood in a Russian orphange. She and her brother were adopted by Americans. Her adopted, American father died. Her adopted mother fell into a pit of alchohol addiction. Her adopted Aunt has taken her in. As I write these words, a meeting is occuring. Most likely it will end with “Katherine” being removed from her home and placed in the foster care system.
“Dwayne” is this incredibly soft-spoken boy. He was 16 when he was in my class. His arms are covered in scrars. The voices he hears told him to douse his arms in gasoline and light them on fire… so he did.
“Ella’s” dad offerered Ella’s body to his dealer in exchange for drugs. She was a student, too.
“Robbie” sat in my class, slowly failing. The gangs were slowly moving in, taking over his life. He seemed powerless to get out… but I wish you could hear the vehemence with which he warned his classmates from his lifestyle.
I am a Special Education Teacher. I work with Emotionally Disturbed Adolescents. I love what I do, it is such a privilige to get to work with these kids who have taught me so much. I start with these little snap shots not because I want to show off at how deep I am. I start off with them because I want to put a human face on the topic I want to write about today: the state of education.

“No Child Left Behind” is the name for the law which establishes the guidelines for schools to recieve federal funding. A cornerstone is standardized testing.
My issue is not with accountabality. I will stand by my work. I want to be assessed and monitored. But I want it to be fair: for me, and for my students.
This is a critique most specifically of the state of Massachusetts. Things aren’t much different in many other states, though.
MCAS is the name of the Massachusetts test. It is a requirement for graduation. It is also how the schools are monitored. The goal is to have all students pass. Any school which does not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward this goal is subjected to a variety of sanctions. The end of this road is having the state take over the school.
This happened in Springfield. The state runs some of Springfield’s schools. Here’s the dirty little secret: The Massachusetts Department of Education hasn’t improved the situation. The people interpreting these mandates, enforcing them, they can’t make it work either. The emporer is naked!
The situation is grossly unfair. It sets an identical goal for suburban schools, urban schools, and rural schools. The end goal is to have all students passing, everywhere.
A noble goal. A ridiculous goal.
If the urban schools were enpowered to actually achieve this goal, then I would be the first to lead the parade. But there is a problem, dozens of problems. Urban schools can not compete with suburban schools. And yet they are told that they must.
The first layer in this onion is simply a financial one. Much of a school’s budget are tied to city assetts. Property taxes are therefore directly tied into how much money schools have to work with. Urban schools begin with much less money than suburban schools based on this fact alone.
Parental education is the next layer in this onion. Suburban parents, statistically speaking, end up with higher education than the urban counterparts. Parental education correlates strongly with how succesful children are in their own educations. There are a variety of reasons for this: one is that educated parents by their very existence convey the importance of an education.
Socio-economics is the next layer. Stimulation outside of school is an additional predictor of success. Kids who have adults to talk to them at home do better in school. As do kids who go to musuems. As do kids with two parents.
It is easy to turn this into a blame-game. That’s not what I’m interested in. I have students who show up to school hungry. I have students who show up to school with tremendous blisters from ill-fitting shoes. I think when you’re not living this reality, when you’re not working with these kids, it’s easy to say “They should just try harder.” “The parents should be held accountable” “The dads ought to be tracked down.”
All these things are true. All these things should be happening. But they aren’t. And they don’t change the reality:
Urban schools have far greater challenges and significantly fewer resources.

Some people note that “No Child Left Behind” and Federal Special Education Funding disproprotionately fund urban schools. That’s absolutely true… and not enough.
Niether “No Child Left Behind” or “IDEA” (Special Ed. requirements) have EVER been fully funded. The requirements have cost more to implement than the schools have recieved every single year. Every single year the Federal Government has failed to live up to it’s commitment to fund these mandates.

And when the funding does arive, it comes with strings. Schools which fail to meet AYP are hit with requirements that have mininmal research justification. I worked for Academy Middle School (in Fitchburg) when it was on the verge of being taken over by the state.
The school was required to have English and Math coaches. A nice idea. A new idea. Who knows if it works?
Meanwhile, My Special Education English class was LARGER than the general Education class. (I had 20 students, all on IEPs, with no paraprofessional support.) There is significant research to indicate that enrichment activities, music and art, for example, lead to better English and math scores. There is further research correlating class size with achievement. But schools which are required to hire math and English coaches end up having to scrimp on these.
Finally, the very construction of standardized tests is problematic. Potential questions are generated evey year. These potential questions are given to students but not used in calculating students individual scores.
Those questions which have the quality of “spread” are the ones that are kept and used the next year on the portions of the test which do count. Spread means that a decent percentage of students got the question right, and a decent percentage got the question wrong.
The problem is that the easiest way to generate spread is to do so along socio-economic lines. In short, questions are choosen on the fact that many students have demonstrated that they’ve gotten them wrong. The most likely to get them wrong are the urban students.

We are creating a whole underclass, a whole class of kids who will have no options, no hope, no reason to buy into the system. The title “No Child Left Behind” is a hoax. It really is simply a way to leave millions behind under the mask of high standards. It’s a bait and switch: the reality is that we’re not willing to fix these problems. We’re not willing to spread the accountabality out, and recognize that in some way millions of us should be held accountable.

I’d love to live in a world where all kids have a shot at passing the MCAS. But I don’t. And acting like everybody does is the worst kind of blaming the victim.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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