The Well-Meaning Beast

The Well-Meaning Beast

Over the course of the past three decades, there has been an often-debated, ongoing ideology that seeks to prescribe a uniform level of accountability in the American education system. This has led to numerous acts of legislation that has evolved into a medieval revolution in educational standardization. The relentless and forgivingly human need to see all forms of progress measured in numbers and statistics has developed a virtually impenetrable foundation, with its massive infrastructure spanning the social and political landscape. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a bureaucratic shortcut to address a problem in need of complex reforms on all levels of educational institution, demanding a massive re-appropriation of federal funding. The most common (and most widely agreed upon) concern with NCLB is the inefficient, fragmented way it has been implemented. The specifications of mandates handed down from the federal government to the individual states are often too vague to apply without a disproportionate amount of interpretation left up to unqualified state-level bureaucrats. “All states being required to submit plans that describe their achievement standards, aligned assessments, reporting procedures, and accountability systems.” (Gardener) It is the guiding principle behind this legislation that is so woefully misguided. And today one of the largest obstacles in overcoming the Nation’s educational crisis has become thissolution.

This giant snowball that has become NCLB, found its earliest ruminations in 1981, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education was tasked to review the “data and scholarly literature on the quality of learning and teaching in the Nation’s schools.” (Gardener) Their report was released in 1983, titled A Nation at Risk. The report’s “suggestions for improvement” centered around addressing areas of educational content, level of expectation, the amount of time dedicated to studies, and, of course, the  teachers themselves. The document seemed to possess the wherewithal to anticipate where the government could positively and productively affect change, and just as importantly, where it could not. Though the approach taken by proceeding administrations in the wake of A Nation at Risk did possess the ideals found in the report, it did not in practice.

This impassioned plea for bureaucratic reform illuminated the depth and dimension of America’s foundering education system. It was riddled with alarming statistics that confirmed and further defined the problem. For example: “International comparisons of student achievement reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times…Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.”(Gardener)

Perhaps even more politically resonating, the report described the plight of our military institutions, forced to implement numerous remedial education programs to re-teach recruits the most basic curriculums, losing more financial momentum every year. The writing was most certainly on the wall, and a relentless, bipartisan political movement was born, continuously fueled by the looming specter of an intellectually decaying society, becoming so severe and malignant it threatens our national security.

The Improving America’s Schools Act of I 994 reestablished legislation introduced first by Lyndon Johnson, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of I965 that channeled federal funding to schools with a high percentage of students below the poverty line. This policy, with the addition of the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, illustrated a new way of thinking, and a new way to focus federal education funding that included all schools, not only the disenfranchised. Both pieces of legislation were part of a natural political progression toward nation-wide uniform standardization, and No Child Left Behind was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2000. This new legislation would create a new “standard of learning” and use the threat to withhold federal funding as a method of enhanced coercion.

The deepest of the many flaws in this system is that it completely bypasses comprehension, and instead forces an emphasis on application. Students become the desired vending machines for the much-coveted answers; and a generation is sent into the world with no idea how to ask questions. Teachers are literally strong­armed into teaching toward a single test, rather than using their talents to be creative and individualized in their approaches to cultivate stronger thought processes. Even the most in-depth education analysis indicates younger students learn experientially, which illustrates why creative talent should one of the most valued traits in evaluating educators.

Another flaw has to do with a student’s test-taking ability. Kinesthetic learners and those with learning disabilities often struggle with test anxiety, and suffer from lower scores despite retaining the information, something that is ironically ignored by this legislation. The opposite is also true; students who are good test takers can get satisfactory credit when they have not truly comprehended the material.

Regulations were developed in 2002 to try to take into account the metaphysical, fleeting, and intangible nature of comprehension. Legislators loosened restrictions on curriculum, but still enforced the standardized test. If the destination at the end of every school year is the same, the learning process is every bit as suffocated as it was before, students are directed toward a single test that will decide their educational future, no matter how creative the curriculum, students are still expected to regurgitate answers for the sake of answers, and nothing else.

To supply federal funding without the proviso of standardized accountability would be an alternative that can generate better results by simply allowing substantial federal oversight to monitor how the money is distributed. New financial distribution committees could be created as a conduit between state and federal lawmakers to ensure responsible and practical application. This could be used in conjunction with Lyndon Johnson’s initiative to provide additional financial aid for under-funded schools. This would be the most beneficial way to encourage productive learning using some of the tools implemented in the past.

Real comprehension can never truly be measured; we can only instill faith and confidence in the talent of our educators, to see our youth to the other side. What is sad about this fact is that the only ones who seem to know this are the educators themselves. There is another, less-discussed obstacle that stands in the way of a more progressive approach to learning. Officials with a political stake in education (with no real educating experience) want numbers and percentages to fuel campaign advertisements and speeches.

The problem with even the few seemingly effective acts of legislation set forth in the previous century is that none of them address the change in infrastructure that is so sorely needed in a modem and enlightened society. It is vitally necessary with all the challenges we face in the twenty first centuries, to utilize all of our possible resources to fuel our education system. There a several untapped resources the government leaves in the hands of organized crime syndicates that could generate biblically astronomical revenue. The Government could shrink classes, institute permanent tutoring and mentoring programs, or provide more thorough evaluations of student comprehension by attracting more candidates to fill sorely needed teaching positions. The government could afford to pay two teachers to every class of four students. The United States could have a veritable new age of enlightenment, creating a learning society that is not only accustomed to once taboo-distractions, but a society with the tools to thirst for knowledge as no generation ever dared.

The legalization of perhaps just one of these extremely taboo industries – marijuana, narcotics, or prostitution – could transform our economic landscape. This is not the only way our government can seamlessly have the financial tools to empower our school system. Today, the government maintains publicly its commitment to church and state, yet it refuses to impose taxes on religious institutions. Unfortunately, the only practical way to implement these policies would likely have to involve succession.

The problem with a government mandate is that as soon as it enters the classroom and lays its hand on the fragile dynamic of the learning environment, it effectively poisons the well. No Child Left Behind is the most destructive piece of legislation with the most admirable of intentions; it’s like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Due to its bipartisan support, hopefully the future of our education system will not end up reminiscent of the dead mouse in Lenny’s pocket, or the young woman he suffocated in that barn.

Work Cited

United States. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: a Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.

– David J. Bausch, 1st Place in Essay