2006-04-13 / This Week's Attitude

School Reform Plan Leaves Some Subjects Behind

This Week's Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman


The catchphrase "no child left behind" was a centerpiece of George W. Bush's first presidential campaign and subsequently provided the title for his ambitious education-reform bill soon after he took the oath of office in 2001.

Supporters of the program are fervent in their belief that the only approach to improve education is to impose higher standards for all students through increased testing and tougher accountability for schools.

However, maintaining the promise he had in mind and attaining the program's objectives have, so far, been another Bush Administration quandary. Congress set aside a paltry $400 million (equivalent to a few days spending on the war in Iraq) to help states develop and administer the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) program for children in grades 3-8, as schools across the nation have concentrated on improving standardized tests scores in reading and math.

Critics protested from the start that despite the program's strategy, the amount budgeted fell far short of what would be needed. Some veteran educators predicted NCLB would "do more to undermine American education that to improve it."

After its first two years, opponents labeled it a failure, claiming it is based on false assumptions and, therefore, offers false remedies.

The enduring results of NCLB won't be evaluated until after Bush has departed the White House, but preliminary Department of Education figures indicated that for the 2004-05 school year more than a fourth of the nation's schools failed to meet the program's requirements. A DOE spokesman downplayed the report stating, "This isn't a trend indicator in proficiency."

Nevertheless, what is generally overlooked when discussing and analyzing the potential benefits of NCLB is that in order for schools to qualify for federal education funds, they tend to neglect subjects other than the three Rs (only reading and math, in this instance, because until you can read you can't write), though the legislation's standards mandate arts as part of the curriculum.

While the adage all work and no play make Jack a dull boy (and to be politically correct, let's not forget Jill being a dull girl) is more applicable to the work ethic, in this instance it means schools where future funding is an essential plan, students are not exposed to a variety of knowledge that should be part of a complete education. In college it's covered under a liberal arts curriculum, but that common knowledge is also important in elementary school.

Furthermore, while other "non-core" subjects - science, history, etc. - are subjected to secondary status for most pupils, they are wholly omitted when it comes to trying to elevate low-proficiency students. And let's not forget music and art are deemed expendable or superfluous when there's a financial crunch.

The National Education Association (NEA) has criticized the NCLBA's mandates that underfund schools because of the law's undue emphasis on reading and math forcing financially strained school districts to foot the bill for non-core subjects, which often results in eliminating them.

I doubt you'd find few highly-qualified educators who acknowledge that getting rid of subjects other than readin' and 'rithmetic is a wise move because it leaves students ill prepared with less than a comprehensive education. Besides, studying other subjects always entails using materials, which supplements the learning-to-read process.

Consequently, while the president's education reform was intended to leave no child behind, it has left some school districts targeting specific areas in order to qualify for federal funds that leaves some students ill prepared as they move on to higher education.

Like so many Bush administration policies, this, too, has failed to live up to expectations and is preventing much needed progress to improve the nation's lagging public educational system.

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