In May of last year the US House of Representatives began hearings on the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by George Bush on January 8, 2002, and now up for reauthorization. The law has many opponents, both on the right and the left. The central question that the Representatives must confront is still before us, no less today than 5 years ago. The question, how can the Federal government best support the efforts by the States to make all children, poor and wealthy, black and white, immigrant and native, proficient in both reading and math in a reasonable length of time.
No Child Left Behind is the Federal government’s attenpt to do so. I believe it was an honest attempt to resolve the problem of the achievement gap. The gap is there and doesn’t sit well with those of us who still believe in equality of opportunity if not of results. At the present time poor children living in poor neighborhoods attend schools where the majority of the students are like themselves, poor, and as a result their learning opportunities are severely curtailed. And so far, anyway, the achievement of these children lags well behind that of their middle class peers living and attending school in the more affluent suburbs.
We have tried forever to fix the problem of achievement gaps by improving the teaching as well as the conditions of learning within our schools, and so far all our attempts have been without measurable success. Nor so far has the No Child Left Behind Act been anymore successful in raising the achievement of underachieving poor children.
Many have written about the problem. It’s real. It’s real in spite of those who see both diagnosis and remedy, in this case NCLB, a conspiracy to undermine if not destroy the public schools.
Joseph P. Viteritti in chapter 14 of his book, Making Good Citizens, has this to say about the problem:
“Even though the black-white test-score gap that had reached its peak in 1971 seemed to be narrowing in the 1980s, the gulf remained dangerously wide at the end of the twentieth century. When Steven and Abigail Thernstrom completed their cyclopedic study in 1997 reconsidering the racial dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal* had brought to the attention of the nation fifty-odd years earlier their report on education was especially discouraging. They found that the average black twelfth-grader in the United States reads with the same proficiency as the average white eighth-grader. A study released a year later by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that the educational status of Hispanic Americans was even worse: the high school dropout rate among Hispanics was twice that of blacks and more than three times that of whites.”
For many years both David Berliner at Arizona State University and Richard Kahlenberg, a senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, have been addressing the problem. During the past year they have both weighed in with their own diagnoses and remedies about how we might best solve the problem of large numbers of poor children not progressing satisfactorily in our public schools, schools that still serve over 90% of all our children.
Here’s what David Berliner says, his solution being to renew the unfinished war on poverty:
“Our analysis is about the role of poverty in school reform. Data from a number of sources are used to make five points. First, that poverty in the United States is greater and of longer duration than in other rich nations. Second, that poverty, particularly among urban minorities, is associated with academic performance that is well below international means on a number of different international assessments. Scores of poor students are also considerably below the scores achieved by white middle-class American students. Third, that poverty restricts the expression of genetic talent at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Among the lowest social classes environmental factors, particularly family and neighborhood influences, not genetics, is strongly associated with academic performance. Among middle-class students it is genetic factors, not family and neighborhood factors, that most influences academic performance. Fourth, compared to middle-class children, severe medical problems affect impoverished youth. This limits their school achievement as well as their life chances. Data on the negative effect of impoverished neighborhoods on the youth who reside there is also presented. Fifth, and of greatest interest, is that small reductions in family poverty lead to increases in positive school behavior and better academic performance. It is argued that poverty places severe limits on what can be accomplished through school reform efforts, particularly those associated with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The data presented in this study suggest that the most powerful policy for improving our nations’ school achievement is a reduction in family and youth poverty.”
and, then Richard Kahlenberg, whose solution is to allow poor kids to attend schools outside of their own district:
“At the end of the day, separate but equal schools for rich and poor have never worked well. If the twin goals of the No Child Left Behind Act are to be taken seriously—to raise overall achievement and narrow the achievement gaps between groups—the law should be amended to encourage what research has long found to be the single most promising step for raising the achievement of low-income students: allowing them to attend high-quality, middle-class public schools. The theoretical and philosophical underpinnings for this policy are already in place under the federal law. Now it is time to move from theory to practice."
So as of this time we have three tentative solutions to the problem of the achievement gap:
The No Child Left Behind Law, that would make the schools accountable for failure, requiring those schools designated as failing to initiate certain prescribed procedures intended to raise their students’ achievement up to the proficient level.
David Berliner’s war on poverty, which would provide considerable additional funding to address the full gamut of the needs of poor children, without as well as within school, for only when the conditions of their lives improve will they begin to work well and succeed in school.
And finally, Richard Kahlenberg’s plan that would permit poor inner city school children to enroll in more affluent middle class mostly suburban schools. And also, as the inner city schools improved, would his plan allow middle class suburban kids to enroll in what would become sought after inner city magnet schools.
As of this time we have invested, probably insufficiently, in just the first of the three solutions, simply because solutions two and three would demand more of us than we are ready and willing to give. David Berliner would have us give more of our tax dollars to the poorest school communities as well as the schools themselves. Richard Kahlenberg’s proposal would require that middle class families open their own schools and more important their own children’s lives to the lives of disadvantaged kids, most often minorities and immigrants, coming from impoverished inner city neighborhoods. Not much chance of either one happening on a wide scale, although there are a few school districts—Wake County, N.C., San
Francisco, and La Crosse, Wis., among them—that are consciously seeking to
integrate students by socioeconomic status.
I would say that we’re now at an impasse. We’re apparently not willing to do what we would have to do in order to solve our problem. Not an unusual situation for our country to be in. So we ask Shto delat, or What is to be done?
*("Gunnar Myrdal called it the “Great American Dilemma.” He described the dilemma as a moral one, manifested by the nation’s failure to reconcile the democratic “American creed” of liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity with what was referred to in 1944 as “the Negro problem.” Although the term is no longer in fashion, the problem is still very much with us. Racial inequality remains the most glaring blemish on the face of American democracy. At its core is an inequality in education defined by race, an inequality that persists in both opportunity and achievement. Not only is education the most crucial social variable for promoting meaningful citizenship in a modern age; all the others that matter—wealth, occupation, social standing, and skill—are to some degree a function of education." Cited by Joseph Viteritti in Making Good Citizens, Chapter 14)