No Child Left Behind?

President Bush signed The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as a reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The key aspects of this legislation are its attempt to install greater accountability, flexibility, and local control as well as expanding parental options and applying proven teaching methods and programs.

What The Numbers Say

No specific teaching methods are mandated, but the law does require that the methods chosen have a proven track record of success. While the program is not perfect and has its problems, it at least attempts to reform a public education system whose problems are greater than those of the legislation. The inspiring motto of the Act, that no child should be left behind by education, begs the question: Are our children being left behind by public education and, if so, why?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics Assessment of Educational Progress, known as The Nation's Report Card, 36% of 4th graders cannot read at a basic level. This statistic is further broken down as 25% of White students, 56% of Latino students, and 60% of African-American students.

While 20% of 12th graders could not read at a basic level in 1992, that figure is now 25%, so we are only getting worse. The numbers are similar for math skills.

When a system is increasingly unable to develop basic reading, writing, and math skills in its students, it is safe to say that it has major problems and is failing.

Since being able to read, write, and do basic math is fundamental to keeping up in our technological world, any child who reaches the fourth grade deficient in these skills is already being left behind. If this deficiency continues through to secondary school, it is obvious that the system teaching that child is not doing its job. These grim numbers represent a crime against our children, and we will find many fingerprints at the scene of this crime.

Mug Shots of the Culprits

If our children were being left behind by public education through the deeds and philosophy of one group, that alone would be tragic. Unfortunately, we find a crowd of culprits in this crime. Let us suppose that we have a child working with an adult on a math problem. To illustrate the damage that each of these responsible groups inflicts on our children lets consider a number of possible scenarios regarding this situation.

A. The adult teacher ignores proven ways of solving the problem, stubbornly and selfishly opting to do things his way in spite of the fact that it is not helpful to the child.

B. The adult conceals his difficulty in solving the problem by redefining what the best way to solve the problem is or even what the correct answer is.

C. The adult's real agenda is not teaching math; rather he views it as means of social engineering and so he tells his pupil that there is no real right answer and gathers a group of kids together to solve the problem by “talking things over.”

D. The adult teacher is really interested in helping the child learn, but the child curses at the teacher or refuses to work on the problem. The adult tolerates this behavior, either because he sees it as a form of self-expression or because the he is afraid of getting sued or fired if he tries to curb the conduct.

E. The adult gives only cursory attention to the child and uses the teaching time and setting for making phone calls supporting a political candidate or fighting for abortion or gay rights rather than actually concentrating on how to help the child solve the math problem

F. The adult has never learned himself how to solve the problem or is too lazy to put forth the effort to give instruction so that the child is either no helped or is lead astray.

G. The child's parent enters the room, ignores or rationalizes the child's misconduct, and curses at or argues with the teacher. The parent then rushes the child home to watch TV or leaves the child home alone to pursue his or her own “love life” or to work for luxury possessions. Later, the parent blames the teacher for the child's ignorance.

Scenario F represents a small but significant minority of teachers: the incompetent, lazy teachers who have figured out how to manipulate, survive, and even flourish in a dysfunctional system. These people are no less guilty of leaving our children behind than the other groups. I must quickly add however, that I have found that the vast majority of teachers are hard-working professionals who sincerely care about their students. Thrown into disorder, disrespect, and dysfunction, these outstanding people still find a way to teach those kids who want to learn. Second only to good students as victims of this system, they nevertheless take practically all of the blame and abuse from unruly students, rationalizing parents, a cowardly system, and an ignorant, sensationalizing media. For every incompetent, abusive teacher, there are many outstanding, dedicated educators, yet one would never know it from the visual and print media. If our children are being left behind, most of our teachers are not to blame, for they are victims of the dysfunctional system and they are the dartboard for blame deflected from all the other culprits of this terrible crime.

Scenario G represents the parents. Behind nearly every outstanding student are dedicated, hard-working parents. However, behind every unruly, lazy student one invariably finds parents who at least have given up or even do not care. I have seen parents more concerned with cable or satellite dish bills or buying a new car than making sure their kids go to school with adequate supplies. I have seen parents who will not let their child go to summer school because to do so would ruin the family's summer vacation. I have seen parents whose first instinct is to blame the teacher, the system, or everyone else for problems whose root is in the home. A child cannot learn the value of education, respect, or human decency in a home environment where these are not fostered. Many parents use the public education system as a government day care system to keep their kids for half the day. The parents who are most vocal and critical are often precisely those who are most delinquent in setting a good example of responsibility, respect, and hard work. Politicians and education officials are afraid to hold parents responsible for their own children's conduct for fear of losing their jobs. Parents need to be reminded that effective education of their children begins with them.

We are living in a society whose pervasive spirit resists accepting responsibility, shrugs off morality, and winks at the immature response to the difficulties of life. With plenty of assistance from the popular media, we are breeding an army of selfish, disrespectful, arrogant, misguided youth. Authority is mocked, decency is ignored, and the easy way out is glorified. It is both an economic fact and an observation of human nature that whatever is subsidized by society will increase. In the American public classroom it is laziness, immorality, and disrespect that are subsidized. Conversely, what society least wants to subsidize is spirituality, religion, and God. All of the culprits to the crime of leaving our children behind in the classroom have one thing in common: they all put their own interests before those of the children. Only when we stop using children as political and social pawns and sincerely try to educate them will this crime be stopped.

It is time to leave behind our selfish agendas and put the children first.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years of teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development.

The Public Indictment

Each of the above scenarios illustrates a culprit in the crime of leaving students educationally behind.

Scenario A is The Public School Establishment, which stubbornly sticks to its own vision and biases regarding education while ignoring proven methods for helping kids stay on track. In June of this year The National Institute for Early Education Research released a study showing that phonics is essential to becoming a good reader. This finding was just the latest in a long series of similar results by other studies. Despite this finding, the public school establishment has repeatedly opposed or dragged its feet in implementing phonics-based programs or other proven methods simply because they disagree with or dislike features of the programs or feel that the programs run counter to their best interests. The problem here is that the establishment is trying to discover and institute what “feels right” to them rather than actually focus on discovering and applying what is right for the students. They come to the table with a pre-set agenda or fixed ideas, and then they reject or oppose anything which does not fit their biased view.

Scenarios B and C reflect the strategy of The Educational Theorists, who, in order to conceal public education's abysmal inability to teach reading, have redefined literacy as being able to interact with peers about personal interpretations of the text, rather than seeking to understand the text itself. Under this standard, “accountable talk” by students is superior to “chalk n' talk” by teachers. A similar approach is used in math favoring more subjective, interpersonal, interpretational, and situational measures of performance over rigid, fixed, factual, didactic, absolute measures. It turns “it depends” and “what I get out of this” into the holy grails of learning, and thus diffuses accountability and conceals shortcomings — which is the idea.

While it is true that many students' learning can be greatly enhanced by group discussion and team interaction, such peer education must be supported by a solid foundation of core, basic knowledge, discipline, and focused learning. It does little good to throw five students into a group to solve a problem none of them has a clue about how to solve, or which only one can solve. This fascination with group education can be helpful in an already outstanding educational setting, but in a dysfunctional one, the idealism is belied by the reality of students goofing around or discussing the latest CD. This approach betrays those students who need more than a pat on the back or a group of classmates to figure things out.

Scenario D is what happens when Pop Psychologists and Lawyers are injected into the classroom. I worked in a New York City secondary school where rudeness, disorder, misconduct, lack of discipline, and disrespect ruled the day. Cursing, kicking, pushing, running, and screaming were everyday realities. Many students treated teachers with little, if any, respect. In three years I was cursed at enough to last a lifetime. A very nice and gentle math teacher got a broken nose from a student anybody could see was trouble waiting to happen, but nothing was done to prevent what eventually happened. If a student threatened you, you were told to “win the student over.” The system is designed to ignore student misconduct and shift blame and responsibility on the teacher. When fire alarms were pulled by unruly students, we were instructed to “ignore the fire bell.” Teachers spend as much time surviving as they do teaching, hoping that they can put in their time and retire before a student or parent manipulating the system sues them. Unruly students never suffer true consequences for their actions, but good students always suffer the consequences of a school impotent to stamp out disorder, disrespect, and dysfunction. Between “giving students their emotional space,” “understanding where unruly students were coming from,” and avoiding lawsuits for looking at students the wrong way, teachers have their hands full. I used to joke that if a student threw a book at a teacher and the teacher ducked, the student's parents might sue the teacher for harming the student's self-esteem and confidence in his throwing abilities. Sadly, my joke is not far from the ridiculous tightrope teachers must walk to the neglect of education.

Scenario E represents the Teachers' Unions such as The National Education Association and The United Federation of Teachers, who spend more time raising income, influence, and political clout and smashing opponents than dealing with education. Most people think that teachers unions fight for students and teachers, but this is not really accurate. What these groups fight for is their own self-interest, political and social agendas, and political clout. By increasing the number and salaries of teachers, these unions increase their dues and therefore income. By increasing their income, the NEA and the UFT increase their political and social muscle and influence. Politicians seeking the support of these groups will promise to support or oppose any issue dictated by the unions. An example of this is school vouchers, which could help many poor families have greater educational choice for their kids. Unions detest vouchers or any other proposal that threatens their hold on public education; they punish and reward politicians accordingly. The possible benefit to students has no weight compared to the perceived threat to union pockets.

Both the NEA and the UFT ignore the pleas of those members who wish to stick to education instead of working on such “educational issues” as abortion and gay rights. A year ago, Landmark Legal Foundation President Mark Levin testified before Congress that the NEA uses its dues for political and not educational programs and to expand its monopoly over public education. Mr. Levin and others have also testified that the NEA uses its dues to support policies and programs it favors and crush those policies and programs it disfavors, regardless of their educational value to children. These unions are also not alien to hypocrisy. While both the NEA and the UFT routinely claim that their efforts are aimed at reducing class size, their benefits and policies have actually kept class size constant despite an increase in the number of teachers by increasing teacher sabbaticals and non-teaching positions. While the UFT has criticized the salaries of educational executives and accused New York City's educational establishment of racism, its higher-level people all make six figure salaries and are mostly white.

All of these facts point to a simple, logical observation. The NEA and UFT are out to help themselves first, teachers second, and students third. Just as a real estate agent claims to be looking out for the seller and buyer's interests, but is just looking for a quick, profitable sale regardless of those interests, so too the teachers unions are out for money, power, and influence on their pet (mostly non-educational) issues while claiming to be looking out for teachers and students.

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