With reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act high on the agenda as Congress returns from its recess, lawmakers must confront the fact that the law is causing many concerned parents to abandon public schools that are not failing.
These parents are fleeing public schools not only because, as documented by a recent University of Chicago study, the act pushes teachers to ignore high-ability students through its exclusive focus on bringing students to minimum proficiency. Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.
I can relate to this because I was on the other side of it. My parents started teaching me to read at age 3, and I’ve always excelled at reading and math. After two weeks of first grade, my teacher clearly saw that I was well beyond my classmates in reading and other skills, and sent me to the principal’s office, where I was tested and moved to second grade. In third grade I was lucky again, to have a teacher who recognized that the class’s reading list was useless for me. She gave me alternative reading material, and while the rest of the class was reading The Hardy Boys, I read stuff like Ivanhoe. And I loved it.
I had similar experiences in later grades with math and science — history, not so much, for me. I thrived in that environment, and I’m not sure what would have happened had I, in my core subjects, been stuck doing what the other kids were, and being bored with it.
No Child is particularly destructive to bright young math students. Faced with a mandate to bring every last student to proficiency, schools emphasize incessant drilling of rudimentary facts and teach that there is one “right” way to solve even higher-order problems. Yet one of the clearest markers of a nimble math mind is the ability to see novel approaches and shortcuts to attacking such problems. This creativity is what makes math interesting and fun for those students. Schools should encourage this higher-order thinking, but high-ability students are instead admonished for solving problems the wrong way, despite getting the right answers. Frustrated, and bored by simplistic drills, many come to hate math.The story goes that the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss was given a routine exercise of adding the numbers from 1 to 100, and devised a clever way to do it in seconds — Gauss is credited with inventing the formula, n * (n+1) / 2. It’s probably an apocryphal story, but it still points out the importance of letting students use their imagination.
From the beginning, it seemed clear that NCLB would likely squelch the encouragement of that imagination, at least some of the time. Even so, it’s disturbing to me to see that not only have we lost encouragement, but we’re getting active discouragement.
The insidious part is that there’s nothing in NCLB per se that sets teachers against innovation. It’s that with resources drawn elsewhere, and without the extra funding needed to cover the extra work, something has to give. It’s very sad to see that what gives... is often the cultivation of our brightest students.