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Reflections On "No Child Left Behind"

Scot Cunningham, 2005

“Rather than encouraging holistic, progressive, or other alternative programs (public or private) that are WORKING for ALL children in their schools, NCLB and any federal legislation that mandates standardization by grade-level testing implicitly DISCOURAGES the continuation of programs that focus on the particulars of children's needs.” Robin Ann Martin, PHD on “No Child Left Behind.”

During the early eighties when I began to teach English as a career, education was rife with change. Mantra one day became dogma the next. New buzzwords came into play quicker than notes blasted from a rusted trumpet found at a yard sale: whole language, holistic grading, writing process, learning styles, etc. And just about everybody with an edD had a workshop or a writing program that would provide a remedy for just about any situation encountered in the classroom. And as much as I had a tendency to accept some of the “newer” ideas being bandied about—especially those that were presented in the education courses I had to take at the University of Maine to obtain teacher certification—I felt uneasiness with trying to implement them in the classroom. When you have students who have limited knowledge and experience with a new subject, you have to have input and intake from the teacher. To think that a student is going to be able to make discoveries with a text--or in creating text--without the teacher providing some kind of framework is at best naïve.

Too often in teaching, we make the mistake of seeing students as objects rather than individuals. It is almost as if we do this to hide behind a veil of timidity. What’s worse, though, is how we sometimes rationalize our failure to establish trust and rapport with our students. Today’s teaching environment certainly isn’t very friendly, nor is it very conducive to learning. Students do need help initially with defining goals that they can achieve on their own. But if students are to achieve mastery of a subject, than instruction has to be tailored to meet their specific needs, especially in regard to having a sense of competence and relatedness to others.

I think what troubles me, then, with any teaching system or style—whether it be teacher-directed or student-centered—is the unbearable superficiality that evolves whenever a teacher or curriculum committee subscribes to a particular method, or set of beliefs, and tries to put it into practice without fully understanding the theory behind it, or when evidence to the contrary suggests something entirely different. As John Gatto puts it in Dumbing Us Down, “Experts in education have never been right; their ‘solutions’ are expensive and self-serving and always involve centralization” (1992, p. 34).

Now that the federal government has mandated that no child should be left behind, the struggle today continues and seems even more acute now than it was when I started out in teaching. In Maine, for example, the big buzz word for the last couple of years has been “reform,” especially in regard to the new state standards that are covered under the umbrella of the Maine Learning Results, a behemoth document which mandates what students are supposed to learn and know by the time they graduate high school. All curricula for all subjects taught from kindergarten through 12th grade have to be in alignment with the new standards. It would seem Pavlov’s dogs are baying at the door, which I think is ironic considering that the very remedy that educationalists are trying to cure us of is what led us to our malady to begin with, and that is the sickening mediocrity that behaviorist, objectivist philosophy has inflicted us with. But there is hope. The ideas developed during the seventies and eighties in regard to student-centered teaching based on constructivist philosophy continues to evolve and is referred more commonly today as “project-based, authentic learning.” Again, the distinguishing difference is that the emphasis is on “process,” not “product” (von Glaserfeld, 1996).

Teaching is not just a quest. It is a process of becoming and being. It is a testament of what it means to be human. But above all else, it is an expression of love. To effectively teach, you quite literally have to stand before your students as one who has gone before. To teach requires and demands a high level of commitment and responsibility to your students. By teaching, we are guiding our students by showing them the path that will lead them toward becoming self-actualized adults who can participate effectively and responsibly in society. It does not matter necessarily that students may be planning to go on to college or enter the world of work. What does matter is whether they can participate effectively and contribute meaningfully in a society of shared but diverse ideas and standards. Will students who graduate high school have learned to connect with others? Will they have the necessary skills to write and communicate effectively? Will they be able to define and complete tasks? Will they be able to work with others in developing a project to its completion? Will they be able to propose and contribute new ideas? Will they be able to conduct research and analyze information? Will they be IT literate? Read any job description, and you will see that today’s employers not only require new employees have these skills, they demand it.

1. Robin, Ann Martin. Paths of Learning. 2004.
2. Gatto, John. (1992) Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
3. von Glasersfeld, E. (1987). “Learning as a constructive activity.” In C. Janvier, Problems of representation in the teaching and learning of mathematics, (pp.3-17). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
4. von Glasersfeld, E. 1996. "Introduction: Aspects of Constructivism." In Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives,and Practice, (pp. 3-7). C. Fosnot, Editor. New York: Teachers College Press.