Given that the Australian government is pushing its schools agenda hard, despite the fact it does not actually run any schools, and given that it and its advisers look to George Bush’s America for inspiration, it is interesting to scan the pages of Education Week over there. James Crawford’s June 5, 2007 article A Diminished Vision of Civil Rights caught my attention.
At the core of today’s debates over school accountability lies a contentious question: Does the federal No Child Left Behind Act represent a historic advance for civil rights, or a giant step backward for the children it purports to help?
This argument has divided the civil rights community itself, along with its traditional allies in Congress. One side supports stern measures designed to force educators to pay attention to long-neglected students and enable all children to reach “proficiency” in key subjects. The other side argues that the law’s tools of choice—high-stakes testing, unrealistic achievement targets, and punitive sanctions—have not only proved ineffective in holding schools accountable, they also are pushing “left behind” groups even further behind.
Disagreement is especially acute among advocates for English-language learners, known in the shorthand of K-12 education as “ELLs.” …
… high-stakes decisions about the education of these students are being made on the basis of data generally acknowledged to be inaccurate. Schools with an ELL “subgroup” are being labeled and punished for failure—not because of the quality of instruction they provide, but because existing tests are unable to measure what ELLs have learned.
… Critics of NCLB-style accountability—who now include a substantial majority of educators working with English-language learners—cannot see how such a blunt instrument could produce academic benefits. More importantly, they point to the law’s harmful impact on minority students generally and on ELLs in particular. The perverse effects are well-documented: excessive class time devoted to test preparation, a curriculum narrowed to the two tested subjects, neglect of critical thinking in favor of basic skills, pressure to reduce or eliminate native-language instruction, demoralization of teachers whose students fall short of unrealistic cut scores, demoralization of children who are forced to take tests they can’t understand, and, perhaps worst of all, practices that encourage low-scoring students to drop out before test day.
No one questions that, because of the No Child Left Behind law, English-language learners are receiving more “attention” than ever before. But, as many educational researchers and practitioners can testify, results in the classroom have been far more negative than positive…
… despite its stated goals, the No Child Left Behind law represents a diminished vision of civil rights. Educational equity is reduced to equalizing test scores. The effect has been to impoverish the educational experience of minority students—that is, to reinforce the two-tier system of public schools that civil rights advocates once challenged.
English-language learners, for example, are being fed a steady diet of test-prep, worksheets, and other “skill building” exercises from a menu mostly reduced to reading and math. Their language-learning needs are increasingly neglected by the marginalization of bilingual and even English-as-a-second-language instruction to make time for English language arts items likely to be on the test. Meanwhile, more-advantaged students are studying music, art, foreign languages, physical education, science, history, and civics, getting to read literature rather than endure phonics drills, and participating in field trips, plays, chess clubs, and debate tournaments—all “frills” that are routinely denied to children whose test scores have become life-or-death matters for educators’ careers.
Ironically, in numerous ways, No Child Left Behind is increasing the achievement gap, if academic achievement is understood as getting an all-round education and, with it, an equal chance to succeed in life. True civil rights advocates cannot and must not ignore the reality behind the rhetoric.
See? We can learn from the American experience after all. Let’s hope in this respect at least that we do!
James Crawford may be found on the Institute for Language and Education Policy.