No Child Left Behind: Not Too Late to Fix

Earlier this month, the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB) marked its 10th anniversary -- a milestone so inglorious a national journalist quipped that "no one feels like going to its party."

Only, for those of us who work around students each day, NCLB's shortcomings are no laughing matter. Especially for educators like me who work in inner-cities where dropout rates are high and the challenges to reach individual students are greater.

The NCLB law is broken and needs to be fixed quickly -- before the U.S. educational system declines even further.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees, saying in Time recently, "I actually think the law has become an impediment to progress."

Not to say that NLCB hasn't resulted in some positive developments. Student test scores have improved each year since NCLB took effect. The percentage of classes taught by a highly qualified teacher has risen.

As importantly, regular testing has helped schools identify individual students in need of additional supports to reach grade level proficiency. And thousands of eligible students have received supplemental educational services.

Things aren't dire. But, as Secretary Duncan suggests, they are not perfect, either.

Two questions must be asked. How did things get this bad? And how can we make them right?

From my standpoint, the biggest change we can make to NLCB is to allow teachers to do what they are trained to do: teach.

NLCB lost its way because of an overreliance on standardized test milestones. Teachers became obsessed with teaching "to the test" -- creating a culture of conservative behavior in classrooms. The environment created fear that engendered defensive teaching, and kept them from reaching students with challenges.

The quality of teaching -- real teaching by impassioned bright teachers -- suffered. The real losers are students, who were failing to receive personally relevant and well-rounded lessons.

Here are some recommendations and solutions for our kids.

It is time to deemphasize the role of standardized test scores in NCLB. By imposing standards on students' minds we are, in effect, depriving them of their fundamental intellectual freedom by applying one standard set of knowledge. Standardized tests oversimplify knowledge and do not test the higher-order thinking skills that are critical to develop.

Meanwhile, state standards are externally imposed on local teachers -- even though it is grossly unfair to measure the progress of a poor urban student against students from more affluent backgrounds. One-size-fits-all standards either reduce instruction to the lowest common denominator or condemn low-ability students to frequent failure.

I recommend that we develop classroom-level diagnostic tests for evaluation aligned with state-level standardized tests.

Include classroom teachers and cognitive-developmental and social psychologists in state assessment panels to achieve meaningful alignment of content standards and classroom curriculum.

In addition, we can offer computerized adaptive testing that allows students of diverse ability levels to meet learning goals that are tailored to their current ability level. Meanwhile, we can conduct research in accountability with value-added methodology to measure residual gain or loss between a student's achievement score and his or her projected score. This way, we can better isolate school and teacher effects on learning.

Finally, we need to do a better job at training teachers -- especially in the inner-city, where dealing with poverty issues plays such a major role.

At my school, the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, N.J., we have created a culture of success based on a teacher's performance that is focused on the expectation that every student -- no matter how poor -- deserves to work toward a college admission and a successful career.

Accountability and reciprocity matters too.

Make educators accountable -- just not exclusively to test scores. If you create a winning environment, the best teachers will rise to the occasion. Paying teachers for performance and not longevity is the only way schools can gauge success, innovation in the classroom and engagement with students.

The federal government also has to step up its involvement in NLCB. Right now, there are different sets of rules for states. Creating an even playing field across states will elevate U.S. education and position our children to compete internationally.

Sea change needs to come from the top. President Obama and Secretary Duncan need to lead and model the charge.

The time is now to impose federal standards -- preferably benchmarks that consider an individual student's ability level, socioeconomic status and native language. You can't treat each student the same. But you can't have 50 sets of rules for 50 different states and expect the result to be positive.

Until then, No Child Left Behind will, in effect, continue to leave children behind -- something that no one wants to see happen.