NCLB; Broken Promises

Special education appeared to be an afterthought when No Child Left Behind was passed nearly 10 years ago. Now there is a a growing and vocal consensus that the legislation needs to be fixed... quickly.

In a recent episode of “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “What’s going on with No Child Left Behind?”  

“No Child Left Behind,” the secretary declared, “is broken.” 

His abrupt epitaph for the G.W. Bush-era legislation strikes one as a bit paradoxical given that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) remains the law of the land and continues to have a profound effect on America’s public schools.

The bipartisan Act of Congress was designed to improve student outcomes by establishing high academic standards and annual standardized assessments. High-stakes testing remains perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of NCLB. Assessments are now in the forefront of most educators’ minds: There are high-stakes tests and tests to prepare for high-stakes tests. In Pennsylvania this past March, 15 of the 25 days that schools were in session were reserved for the annual administration of Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessments.

NCLB is also known for some unachievable provisions, such as the requirement that 100 percent of students, including students with disabilities and disadvantaged students, reach the same state standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. The law has also become somewhat notorious for its use of punishment as a way to motivate school officials toward compliance. Today, many, including the Obama Administration, perceive the law as a “barrier” to educational reform, the very outcome its enactment was supposed to have achieved.

The interface of NCLB with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is awkward and clumsy. 

The two laws fundamentally oppose one another. NCLB calls for standardization and accountability to reach common goals by all children, even those with disabilities. IDEA calls for an emphasis on the individual child with modifications and accommodations to the general education curriculum as designed and agreed to by a team of parents and educators through the Individualized Education Program process (IEP).

To many special educators, it appeared that special education was simply an afterthought during the passage of NCLB. There was astonishment and, in some cases, mild outrage among special educators at some of NCLB’s newly enacted provisions. How, for example, could children and youth with disabilities achieve the same academic standards as children without disabilities, when by definition children with disabilities are “unable” to perform commensurate with children without disabilities? Is it even feasible or ethical to submit children with disabilities to standardized grade-level assessments when those children are clearly unable to participate meaningfully? Federal legislators quickly began scrambling to align the two important pieces of legislation when IDEA came up for reauthorization in 2004.  

—By Michael George, Director of the Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa. Excerpted from the 2012 issue of Theory to Practice