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Five Problems with No Child Left Behind

by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff

If Congress would do what we did at a recent brain and learning conference in Boston - ask 50 teachers from 25 states if the No Child Left Behind Act is working - it would not reauthorize the act in its current form.

More than two-thirds of those 50 teachers, with an average of 23 years experience among them teaching in rural and urban communities and in rich and poor schools, said the legislation has only acted to hinder educational achievement. "Children are not being supported to advance," said one, "they're being dragged along or held back."

What is the problem? Actually, there are five.

Decades of research at Temple University and elsewhere on successful education and child-development suggest five fundamental principles that define good education. No Child Left Behind runs counter to all of them.

First, education should adopt a holistic view of the child, fostering cognitive, socio-emotional and physical development and recognizing that children have feelings, beliefs and social skills that affect their learning.

Second, education must be responsive to differences in learning style and capacity.

Third, education should promote a mastery of content that children can use in new contexts or in discovering new knowledge with their peers.

Rote memorization does not facilitate application to new situations.

Fourth, children learn best in a nurturing environment where they feel accepted, open to new experiences without fear of negative consequences, and admired for their talent, success, and perseverance. While adults may be able to function in situations where they are not comfortable, children shut down in such environments.

Fifth, an education system should groom a love of learning and create life-long learners.

In short, educational practices should produce adaptive, innovative, and creative thinkers who can go beyond what they have learned in school to move our rapidly changing society forward. At the Boston conference, we asked 50 teachers if the educational practices resulting from No Child Left Behind met this objective.

Nearly a third mentioned at least one positive effect of the act, including the new national focus on education and the call for accountability. Eight percent suggested the policy was generally positive. But 92 percent mentioned at least one negative impact of the law and 69 percent said it has only hindered general educational goals.

Why?

The curriculum is too narrow, focusing on math and reading while moving away from the education of the whole child. Art, music, and creativity are being driven out of education for testing and test preparation time.

Compliance with the act encourages teaching and assessment practices that are insensitive to individual differences. Teaching is aimed at minimum standards to ensure passing scores and special-needs children are abandoned lest they reduce overall results.

The act's emphasis on standardized assessments promotes memorization instead of mastery learning. Teachers cannot foster adaptive skills that can be widely applied by their students when getting the one right answer by the one standard route is overvalued. One teacher commented simply: "Children's brains are not being engaged."

Paradoxically, thanks to No Child Left Behind, education is no longer a nurturing environment where children's needs are primary. Children are overly stressed during testing time and our assessments focus on negative feedback. Children do not learn best in a pressure-cooker atmosphere or when their shortcomings, rather than their strengths, are emphasized.

The resulting didactic and scripted teaching styles do not encourage children to discover and ask questions, and they do not foster a love of learning.

This legislation is trampling the fundamental principles that underlie good education. Congress needs to understand that feeding children a cookie-cutter education that emphasizes getting right answers without acquiring understanding cannot possibly create flexible thinkers who become life-long learners. Nor will it cultivate the productive, free-thinking, creative individuals necessary for America's advancement in the global world.

If you don't believe us, ask a teacher.

Professors Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) and Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware) are co-authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards. Kelly Fisher, a graduate student at Temple, also contributed to this column.

© 2007 The Providence Journal

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