No Illusion Left Behind
September 21, 2003
By Jerry Parks
Sunday, Page B07
It's scary when you feel like you're the only sane person around.
I'm a recently retired Iowa elementary school principal, and I can't figure out
why educators all over the United States aren't screaming and yelling about the
federal No Child Left Behind law.
It's hard to tell whether this law is more a product of arrogance or ignorance,
but either way it's shaping up to be a spectacular train wreck of a collision
between bureaucracy and reality.
The main thrust of the bill is that it requires all schoolchildren to be
"proficient" in reading, math and science by the year 2014. Hard to argue with
that, until you learn that proficiency has been arbitrarily defined as the
current 40th percentile of the nation.
In other words, in 2014 every child will score better than 40 percent of the
nation today, or roughly 19 million children. We will be essentially trying to
get every child in the nation to be "above average," and should probably change
our name to something like the United States of Lake Wobegon.
But it gets worse. The law specifically requires that children with serious
learning problems (our current special ed population) must also meet this
standard. In my medium-sized school district of about 4,800 students, last
year's testing found 100 percent of special-ed fourth-graders to be below
"proficiency." Surprise? Apparently it is to the Department of Education.
These children currently receive targeted instruction and a specialized
curriculum and are often in classes of as few as eight students. They need these
intensive services, but even with this extra help they will probably remain well
behind the average student.
A second group of targeted students is made up of immigrant children who are
just learning English. Is there some educational strategy I've missed that can
turn a non-English-speaking third-grader into an average fourth-grade reader in
one year? Who writes this stuff?
All schools are supposed to make steady progress toward the outrageous 100
percent success level, and schools that don't keep up face tough penalties.
State departments of education have recently released the lists of those who
didn't make it this year. In my neighboring state of Illinois, 627 schools were
labeled as failing, and estimates are that number will double.
In Iowa, a preliminary estimate found that up to half our schools could make the
failing list, though the final tally for this year was much less. How could half
the public schools be failing in a state that has the second highest ACT college
testing scores in the nation?
It's obvious to me that when 2014 rolls around and everyone has to hit the 100
percent standard, almost every school in the country will be labeled a "failing
school." Is it possible this bill is an elaborate setup, designed by those
hoping to usher in an era of vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to
I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that the draconian
provisions of No Child Left Behind will generate increasing amounts of fear,
anger and unjust blame as one year's unrealistic goals give way to the next.
The writer spent 32 years as a teacher and administrator in elementary and