Several recent reports by educational organizations, groups, think tanks, etc. have been released recently either praising or condemning the No Child Left Behind Act.
Praise for NCLB
Many reports and educators praise NCLB for requiring more focus and accountability from students and schools. They feel this has inspired the schools and students to perform to a higher standard that had never before been required or expected. This is great for the schools in which it has worked. These schools have been those that have traditionally performed at lower levels than their counterparts, unfortunately usually housing disadvantaged and minority students. These students are suddenly being required to perform at or close to their grade level, and the expectations are creating great successes, much like they do in all the Hollywood versions of “To Sir, With Love.”
This is not a new concept, but now that it has been forced on schools and is actually being implemented, it’s yielding the results that all the inspiring stories said it would.
The Failings of NCLB
However, there is a large negative result to NCLB. In a recent story in TIME magazine (“How to Build a Student for the 21st Century,” Dec. 18, 2006), the authors cited the following crucial skills that must be learned to compete in the 21st century:
– Knowing more about the world – “Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS, talks about needing workers who are ‘global trade literate, sensitive to foreign cultures, conversant in different languages.’” Unlike what we were taught in school, the world did not begin revolving in 1492.
– Thinking outside the box – “Jobs in the new economy—the ones that won’t get outsourced or automated—‘put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos,’ says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.”
– Becoming smarter about new sources of information – “’It’s important that students know how to manage it, interpret it, validate it, and how to act on it,’ says Dell executive Karen Bruett.”
– Developing good people skills – “EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ for success in today’s workplace. ‘Most innovations today involve large teams of people,’ says former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. ‘We have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures.’”
NCLB forces teachers to teach to the tests that it requires be passed (and paid for) by the schools. For historically underperforming schools, this is a challenge that has inspired achievement. But for average and above-average schools and students, it’s a dumbing-down punishment. There is no time to begin exploring the above-mentioned skills—all time is spent preparing for the test. Curricula are rigidly constructed and adhered to based on NCLB.
I experienced this myself as a high schooler in preparation for the Advanced Placement U.S. History test. I spent two years, one as a junior in Honors U.S. History and another as a senior in A.P. U.S. History memorizing fact, names, places and dates to regurgitate onto the test. I passed the test, but as I have since learned about U.S. history, I find there is so much I missed as I was memorizing U.S. history.
The Competitive Advantage Slipping Away
NCLB will produce a whole bunch of basically competent people, some who wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to achieve it. But in the global marketplace, competence is becoming less and less rare. As India and China continue to produce more and more competent workers (remember, they only have to produce 1/3 the percentage that the U.S. produces to have the same number), millions of Americans will find their NCLB education is a commodity to be bought and sold based only on price—and the Americans will always lose a price war.
In business, a “competitive advantage” is something a company has that no other company can reproduce easily or quickly. The American competitive advantage historically has been that our employees have simply been more productive. Our strong economy and uncommon wealth gave us the opportunity for decades to develop new technologies faster and better than anyone else. But the rest of the world is catching up, and fast. They are not only catching up in technology, but in competence, and the price factor gives them a huge advantage on the world market.
The result of the current bearing will be millions of Americans who have three options: 1) increase their skills beyond what NCLB left them with (not easy with the Bush administration cutting funding for adult education by 70+%); 2) compete on wages with Chinese and Indian workers; or 3) be content with Great Depression-era unemployment numbers. None of these is acceptable.
What to Do About It
Talking about education reform on a national level is a moot issue. The federal government doesn’t have the knowledge, wherewithal, or desire to tailor education to the extent it needs to happen to provide for individual students. Ideally, each student would receive a specialized education, even in the lowest performing schools, to enable him/her to reach his/her highest potential. Like most other federal education policy, NCLB is a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet to kill a spider.
But, since the desire of the federal government to appear to be doing something about education will not go away, the beginning of a revision of NCLB is: the federal (unfunded) testing should be at the beginning of the schoolyear to find out who needs the rigidity and focus of NCLB. Those who score low should be placed in NCLB-like programs to push them toward competence. Those who score at or above a level of competence should be allowed to expand their minds in the ways listed above.
If NCLB is not jettisoned or drastically overhauled, the U.S. workforce in 20 years will look like all the others around the world, only more expensive. The competitive advantage inside the U.S. will go to home- and private-schooled children who were allowed the time and environment to expand their minds, but they may not have the workforce to support their aspirations and ideas. And within 50 years the middle class will vanish.