Praise for NCLB?

I spent the past few days involved in the selection process for a Regional Principal of the Year here in North Carolina.  It was an interesting process where I heard time and again about the challenges facing school leaders.  One of the most oft-cited challenges:  Meeting the noble–but seemingly impossible–demands set by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation

Has there ever been any single piece of legislation that has sparked so much educational controversy?  Passionate supporters and opponents wrap emotion around an issue of incredible importance.  Discord often prevails–and it is that discord that I most fear.  Without reasoned debate, we cannot possibly do what’s in the best interest of our children.

That’s why this piece written in support of No Child Left Behind by Dayle Timmons–a special education teacher in Duvall County, Florida–was so interesting to me.  If anyone had a reason to stand opposed to NCLB, it would be a special education teacher, right?  After all, under NCLB, all children–regardless of learning disability or native language–must be on grade level.  Time and again, schools are labeled failures because of the struggles of exceptional children–who many would argue deserve an exception. 

Timmons, however, applauds the high standards set by NCLB.  "The system was obviously broken," she writes, "but there was no uprising among parents or teachers. I often wondered, why not? Finally, finally some brave souls stood up and said, "We’re not going to take it anymore. We will not stand for mediocrity and students graduating who cannot read. We will make education our number one priority and we will hold states and schools and teachers accountable."

I have a bit of a different take on NCLB.  Instead of pride, I feel an almost overwhelming sense of shame when looking at this defining piece of legislation.  In it, I see the failure of our profession to do what should have been a moral responsibility.  We willingly overlooked–at levels from the classroom to the statehouse–students who were struggling.  Dropouts were someone else’s concern.  Achievement gaps were explained away.  Students of poverty became forgotten children.

And in those decisions, educators became failures. 

Do I bristle at the rigid structures that NCLB bring to my classroom?  Absolutely.  My instruction is often driven by programs and products rather than by expertise and experience.  Do I cringe at the constant criticism leveled at schools?  Absolutely–and I wonder if negative labels only serve to tear down communities already buckling under the unfair burdens of poverty and chase away exhausted educators beaten down by years of abuse.  Limited resources, unfair expectations, failed support systems, and an overemphasis on testing as a measure of achievement are the all-too-obvious weaknesses of NCLB. 

But do I blame policymakers?

Nope. 

I hold my profession–and myself–accountable for failing to accept responsibility for the success of every child from the beginning. 

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