By: Jackson Garner
How do we bring poorer, under-achieving minority students to the same academic level of their wealthier, higher-achieving white classmates? Essentially, how can we as a country eliminate the achievement gap? Not until 2001 did t
he federal government try to address this educational elephant in the room with a vengeance. Many books have been published on the subject, like The Black-White Test Score Gap and The Learning Gap, in an attempt to find the root of the problem. The truth is there is no singular root. The roots of the problem run deep into not only our educational system (issues over funding, class size, centralized vs. decentralized system), but also into the home (parents’ level of education, income).
While Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society tried to address the funding problem, it did not address the problem of actual educational standards and needs of the American student. No Child Left Behind was crafted, essentially, as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed during Johnson’s presidency, but attacked the problem of how we can close the gap within the classroom. Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001, No Child Left Behind clearly states its goals of “closing the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students” and “meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools.” This admirable feat was supposed to be accomplished through increased standardized testing to measure “proficiency” and more funding for schools with high levels of poverty.
According to this bill, the most efficient way to measure proficiency is through standardized testing which accounts for the inundation of tests forced upon American public school children within the past ten years. But, what is proficient? There are fifty different interpretations. Each state sets its own version of what is proficient, with drastically different benchmarks for different states. There are serious ramifications if a school does not meet these benchmarks, ranging from being labeled as not making “Adequate Yearly Progress” to being taken over by the state. If a school is to be labeled a “failing” school for not making appropriate scores, why wouldn’t states lower the threshold for being “proficient?” It improves the state’s ranking on the education list and makes them seem like they are doing everything right. By lowering standards, states are actually hurting minority and low income students far greater than any other group. A report conducted by the Center on Education Policy has found that districts with high poverty are cutting out things that are not being measured by these tests, like history, health, and some of the sciences. Essentially, they are only teaching subjects like reading and mathematics that will be on a multiple choice test that is taken once a year. This might make them proficient for a state test, but does it make them proficient for a job? And if the state says they are proficient, under what standards: below average ones or challenging ones? These tests force students to become robots, not thinkers.
Another aim of NCLB was to allocate more money to high poverty districts so their resources could keep up with wealthier districts. Simply put, this has not been the case. While all the causes of this failure could provide a PhD candidate their dissertation, one of the principal reasons is the faulty funding mechanism. The funding is under the auspices of Title I (which has been around since the 1960s) and is distributed by basic and concentration grants, among other formulas. These grants rely heavily on percent changes from year to year of low income students. The number of low income students is reported by—you guessed it—the individual states themselves. Another report done by the Center on Education Policy shows that the top 10 cities that lost the most funding in 2009 included Chicago, Oakland, and Baltimore. These are districts that have historically suffered from high poverty. Another interesting statistic was provided by the United States Department of Education in their report titled National Assessment of Title I: Final Report (page 6). Published in 2007, it showed only a 2% increase in Title I funds to the highest poverty districts after NCLB was enacted. The students who need the money the most are not actually receiving it.
According to NCLB, every single child—white or black, high or low income—is supposed to be reading at their grade level by 2014. The bill is slated for reauthorization in 2014, and both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney support the general premise of the bill. While they both want to restructure it to a degree, they have been vague about what corrections they would actually make. Education has taken a back seat to the more salient issues like the economy and jobs during the campaign, and rightfully so. However, education is the catalyst for a more successful and efficient economy by producing a better workforce. No matter who is sitting in the Oval Office on January 20, 2013, they don’t need to sign a reauthorized NCLB unless it addresses the problems of fifty different standards and allocating more funding to the poorest districts.