Public Comment

Commentary: Kill Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ Program

By Marvin Chachere
Tuesday August 21, 2007

Veteran California Congressman George Miller (Democrat, 7th district) told members of the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago that he will introduce a swatch of changes to Public Law 107-110, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, when it comes up for reauthorization this fall.  

The perversely labeled No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act was ceremoniously signed by Bush on January 8, 2002 in a bipartisan photo op in which two of his political enemies, Miller of the House and Kennedy of the Senate, wore smiles that marked them as the law’s proud co-parents. Sad to say, NCLB does for school children what the equally perversely dubbed Patriot Act does for adults; NCLB is as antithetical to learning as PA is to civil liberties. Flip a coin and decide which of the two most deserves killing. 

With four college degrees on my resume I am qualified to execute NCLB. I spent 35 years in education, all of them in the classroom, two in China, 17 simultaneously as administrator. I worked at six Bay Area public and private schools. My students ranged from eleven year olds to middle aged graduates and all ages in between.  

Alas, although qualified and willing I am not in a position to do the killing. I shall state what I’ve learned that proves why NCLB merits the death penalty.  

All the world’s a school and all the teachers in it merely players whose careers unfold through several stages. 

First we are excited and joyous at the prospect of getting paid to perform daily before a captured audience. Then comes the satisfaction and thrill of telling about and explaining things that students might not otherwise encounter. Fourth comes struggle, jousting with parents and coping with mandated non-scholastic intrusions. Excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction strengthens you and you arrive at the fortitude stage that lifts you to the level of confidence which lead, finally to the last stage of all, oblivion regarding anything that intrudes upon the relationship between you and your students.  

I am forever grateful that the curtain came down on my performances before the arrival of NCLB.  

This law sets up a process deemed appropriate to make each school accountable for what it exists to do. Based on specially designed averaging of its students’ test scores a school is assigned a rating and this rating, according to NCLB, indicates the academic proficiency of that school. This is like rating a hospital according to an amalgamated assessment of its patients’ health. [Well, not quite, because no one is mandated to spend five days a week in the hospital, as children are mandated to attend school, but you get the point.] 

NCLB further creates five proficiency categories: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic and Far Below Basic. The Department of Education then assigns each school to a category. Despite the obvious fact that “good” schools often turn out poor students and “poor” schools produce good students (ask any student), NCLB makes student proficiency the measure of school proficiency. The effect is logical sleight of hand, a misappropriation of predicates; equating the locus of an activity, the school, with the activity it exists to accomplish, proficiency in learning. 

This much has always been true. Schools exist to provide for the young a portion of mental development that parents, for various reasons, are incapable of giving. Districts manage schools wherein teachers strive to impart knowledge and facilitate learning.  

This much has always been true. Learning takes place in the mind which cannot be scrutinized for, by the nature of things, no one can know the mind of another. Schools, therefore, cannot themselves be held accountable for learning any more than hospitals can be held accountable for wellness.  

How about teachers? 

Congressman Miller wants to add “pay for performance” which balances the threat of proficiency standards with legally sanctioned bribery. Forget the contention that will be aroused by Miller’s revival of “merit pay”—good teachers paid more than their inferior colleagues—there is inherent error in transferring standards where output is palpable, as in manufacturing, to an enterprise in which there is no visible output. Such a transference carries the frustration of trying to put a round peg in a square hole—teachers are not factory workers.  

More importantly, however, people who have little or no classroom experience are often satisfied with the belief that teachers cause learning which is simply not true (ask any student). I facilitated learning much as I imagine doctors facilitate health. I helped students, encouraged them, made it easier perhaps, led them to “water,” as it were, but, if they had no thirst for it, I could not make them learn.  

Teaching and learning are, therefore, not cause-effect related. Just as with schools, “good” teachers help poor students, “poor” teachers help good students, and so forth. All students know these things but politicians, evidently, do not, which is all the more perplexing because they too were once students.  

In formulating NCLB lawmakers and educationists who advised them appear to invoke a tried and true business principle: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. But in order to apply this principle to education one must assume that a score on a standardized test, say in math, actually measures ability to do math. It does not.  

Although a high score may correlate with competence it does not guarantee it and inversely, a low score may not be an indication of incompetence.  

Congressman Miller along with most school managers are inclined to overlook the fact that testing takes place under specific time, place and personal conditions any one of which might render a student’s score inaccurate, transitory and/or irrelevant.  

The accountability mechanism of NCLB, admired by some and scorned by others, is applied annually. If a school persistently falls below acceptable proficiency standards it will eventually be shut down, thereby ejecting the baby with the wash. 

Finally, cynicism leads me to suspect that NCLB was intended to fail, not by Miller perhaps but by some of his Republican colleagues who voted with him. My suspicion arises from the fact that the Republican majority in Congress never sufficiently funded the law; the money allocated covered so small a portion of what the law required that it was, metaphorically, stillborn.  

This much has always been true. Students’ minds are not passive receptacles into which knowledge can be poured but they are at once the seat and the source of learning.  

Why mourn the execution of NCLB? 


“Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, remains alien to his true nature.” 

—K. W. F. von Humboldt, Education Minister, Prussia, 1809-10.  



Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.