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Federalized education: Are children still being left behind?

By Natalia Castro

I have not lived a year of school in memory without standardized testing, nor have I experienced a strong individualized curriculum. A vast majority of students 20-years old and younger feel the same way, because we are the first generation to live completely under federal education governed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was signed into law in Jan. 2002.

NCLB set up a system wherein, contingent on receiving federal funds, schools had to use test based accountability with the goal of ensuring students and teachers meet basic proficiency standards, judged based on Adequate Yearly Progress reports. This introduced new rhetorical guidelines for public education with the use of vague, politicized terms such as “high quality teaching”, “standards of learning”, and “high stakes testing”. These vague terms are backed by threats of the loss of funds when schools are seen as underperforming; placing extreme responsibility on teachers and state government, while giving extreme authority to the federal government.

In order to be waived from compliance, states had to meet near impossible standards, such as, compiling data from students tests throughout the school and using scores to generate evaluations on teachers, a task which would cost states as much as 2 billion dollars annually.

A Nov. 2011 Los Angeles Times report detailing the prerequisites to be waived from NCLB explains, for most states waiving NCLB is necessary to prevent schools from failure due to an inability to comply; however, with even stricter laws in place for receiving a waiver, this becomes a grueling action as well. 42 states risked their financial security in order to receive waivers away from the bill, making it one of the largest bills to opt out of the modern era.

NCLB did not just force states into submission using federal funds as leverage, but placed unrealistic expectations that set a clear precedent for federal overreach into education. By placing so much pressure on testing to receive the funds, schools are told to aim for 100 percent pass rates, an impossible standard.

In an attempt to avoid a rejection of future funds due to failure status, schools focus too much on the “middle performers” or students with the most promising test scores, just shy of passing. A 2006 analysis from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development entitled “Does No Child Left Behind Require that No Child Can Get Ahead?” explains that no programs are put in place to ensure that gifted students are adequately advanced as well; by only allowing for focus on the middle range of students, low performing students are prevented from having an opportunity and high performers have their growth stifled.

The neglect of both schools’ brightest students and most attention seeking students directly correlates with school failure, as they are unable to meet the standards NCLB enforces. A Review of Higher Education and Self-Learning study from Sept. 2014 explained, in 2013, only 35 percent of eighth grade students met proficiency levels in math and reading, this is a consistent trend, as two-thirds of schools continue to fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards under the law.

The message has been consistently clear, when the federal government steps into the territory of local and state governments, it does so with the altruistic goal of assisting all, but reality demands only few benefit, while the rest continue to be shuffled along.

In Chapter 9 of the 2014 research book “Handbook of Education Politics and Policy,” Kenneth Wong explains how the federal government has generated a resource gap which debilitated states and neglected those in need. Wong writes, “The lack of full federal funding to be able to meet mandated standards can be a source of intergovernmental contention. The federal government, for example, promised to provide 40 percent of funds for special education, but in reality, its funding seldom went over 25 percent of the program cost. Local and state agencies were then unable to change any practices to meet federal focus.”

This dichotomy has continued into educational legislation of today, where Common Core State Standards has been seen an extension to NCLB, still reinforcing federal control. Even now with the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, on the ground change will not be common, because the state government is still required to meet standards approved by the federal government in order to receive funding. State governments are not empowered but rather provided a false sense of liberation, wherein states are invited to promulgate their own standards only to have them revised by the federal government.

In reality, the act still provides all funding power to the federal government and fails to address the role of local governments creating their own curricula. It just continues the No Child Left Behind regime.

Upon attending a school board meeting in my own district, a teacher representative spoke on behalf of local teachers. The constant theme of each critique made by teachers was a lack of resources and a lack of action by the board itself, I thought surely this would inspire the board to act to reprioritize resources, but the result was quite different. When action steps were announced at the end of the meeting they related to policies such as individual student disciplines and extending lunch periods by seven minutes, another spectator explained to me that each week the teacher representative speaks in the same manner and each week gets ignored, not because the school board isn’t interested in assisting but there’s simply no action that can be taken on this level.

The federal, top-down system paralyzes school boards and deprives teachers of an adequate support system, and this is clear in school district after school district, who are bound to follow the federal rules just to have the funds to function.

No Child Left Behind was formulated with the goal of making the United States more competitive internationally by raising our educational standing.  But 14 years later the results have not matched the rhetoric. The National Center for Education Statistics Program for International Student Assessment shows that consistently in 2003, 2009, and 2012 the U.S. ranked equal or lower than average scores in math, reading, science and computer based assessments; while nations like China and Singapore ranked as many as 50 points above the average.

No Child Left behind failed the country internationally, continues to fail states due to a precedent of federal overreach, and for students who have known nothing but the standardized system, it has certainly failed us as well. It’s time to put local school boards back in charge of their schools.

Natalia Castro is a contributing editor at Americans of Limited Government.