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NCLB: 'Too Destructive To Salvage'

by Alfie Kohn

It's time to say in a national newspaper what millions of teachers, students and parents already know: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is an appalling and unredeemable experiment that has done incalculable damage to our schools — particularly those serving poor, minority and limited-English-proficiency students.

It's a stretch even to call the law "well-intentioned" given that its creators, including the Bush administration and the right-wing Heritage Foundation, want to privatize public education. Hence NCLB's merciless testing, absurd timetables and reliance on threats.

Let's be clear: This law has nothing to do with improving learning. At best, it's about raising scores on multiple-choice exams. This law is not about discovering which schools need help; we already know. This law is not about narrowing the achievement gap; its main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. Thus, even if the scores do rise, it's at the expense of a quality education. Affluent schools are better able to maintain good teaching — and retain good teachers — despite NCLB, so the gap widens.

Sure, it's senseless for Washington to impose requirements without adequate funding. But more money to implement a bad law isn't the answer.

Indeed, according to a recent 50-state survey by Teachers Network, a non-profit education organization, exactly 3% of teachers think NCLB helps them to teach more effectively. No wonder 129 education and civil rights organizations have endorsed a letter to Congress deploring the law's overemphasis on standardized testing and punitive sanctions. No wonder 30,000 people (so far) have signed a petition at educatorroundtable.org calling the law "too destructive to salvage."

NCLB didn't invent the scourge of high-stakes testing, nor is it responsible for the egregious disparity between the education received by America's haves and have-nots. But by intensifying the former, it exacerbates the latter.

This law cannot be fixed by sanding its rough edges. It must be replaced with a policy that honors local autonomy, employs better assessments, addresses the root causes of inequity and supports a rich curriculum. The question isn't how to save NCLB; it's how to save our schools — and kids — from NCLB.

Education writer Alfie Kohn's 11 books include The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth.

© 2007 USA Today

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