In January of 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which set nation-wide goals for testing, test scores, and qualification levels for prospective teachers. Although I was too young to understand or care about the legislation at the time-I only noticed the new poster hanging on the wall near the office-these are the sort of ideals I can really get behind, since I believe effective, widespread education to be one of the most important initiatives for any and all levels of government to pursue. The general public seems to agree with me, as education is one of the United States’ few socialized systems-not even health care has anywhere near the same level of public funding.
However, the Act contains two fundamental problems, the first being the emphasis on proficiency rather than growth, and the second being the failure to provide for academically gifted (AG) students. As a participant in the AG program, I have suffered from both of these shortcomings. The system needs incentives to help students at all levels grow to reach their full potential.
While the goal of a publicly-funded school system is to bring the general populace up to a standard of knowledge, the purpose of education is to increase that knowledge. Schools located in high-income areas tend to have larger populations of higher-achieving students, but these students aren’t necessarily learning very much per year, while utterly fantastic schools in lower-performing areas go unrecognized even if their students are learning in leaps and bounds, because their test scores aren’t as high as the Act would like. Funding for reading assistance (“Title 1”) programs is only given to the schools that show adequate proficiency- the schools whose programs already work. In addition, this focus on performance rather than growth inevitably leads to teaching only what will be on the test rather than exploring the full richness of each topic, which leaves no room for curiosity.
The second problem is so deeply ingrained that even the name of the act is clearly focused on keeping the bottom students from being left behind instead of providing schools with incentives to help all students grow to their maximum potential. The AG teacher at my elementary school was relegated to teaching out of a closet due to the school’s focus on fulfilling their Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) minimum requirements in order to avoid losing funding.
Since a country’s children are its future, our education system must have significantly more ambitious goals than those outlined by this Act. Even as no child is left behind, our nation itself is falling further and further behind relative to other leading countries.
We must improve the system in the following ways. First, the AYP framework must be redefined around progress rather than pre-existing aptitude, and provide incentives to encourage AG students in the form of greater funding for advanced programs in schools with higher proficiency scores. This encourages AG students to maximize their potential while simultaneously ensuring that the funding being given to deserving schools is being used in a manner that befits the reason for which the money was initially given. Lower performing schools can surpass their AYP minimum goals if they are encouraged to focus on real learning and the growth of all of their students. Furthermore, the system must provide monetary incentives to allow the lower performing schools to attract more/better teachers. If every child is learning in leaps and bounds, we won’t have to worry about anyone getting left behind.