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Photo: NYT
Photo: NYT

America’s lost years

14 years of No Child Left Behind Act in the US have had deleterious impactsthose of cheating, teaching-to-the-test, narrowing of curriculum and neediest children being thrown out

For the past 14 years, beginning 2002, the approach of the federal government in the US to school education has been remarkably consistent. This is unlike almost any other matter; the Obama administration has differed from the Bush administration on almost everything. The centrepiece of this consistent approach to education has been the law enacted in 2002, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

NCLB aimed to improve the academic achievement of school students in the US by 2014 to a level at or above what would be marked proficient (as decided by the state) for their grade. The essence of NCLB was the idea that standardized test-driven accountability of educators will improve education. The method was to have standardized tests administered to students across the country regularly. The schools were to demonstrate improvement in these test results; failure to do so would lead to penalties of increasing severity, including firing the teachers and closure of schools. Federal funding was tied to participation in the programme, so all schools were almost forced to participate. The impact of NCLB was to be assessed through an independent national assessment of student learning, conducted by the National Centre for Education Statistics, through its rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), done regularly since 1969.

Now the 2015 NAEP results are also available, the scorecard that the NCLB had itself set up tells a story of complete ineffectiveness. Comparing student learning during the NCLB period, with the previous 10 years (and more), the rate of gain in math has declined and on reading remained flat. Gaps between relevant categories, such as blacks, children with disabilities and whites have remained more or less the same. Given the richness of the data, one can look at any number of comparisons, but the one-word summary of the NCLB scorecard is “stagnation".

This stagnation after 14 years of NCLB is reflected in other independent measures of student learning also. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores across the US have declined during 2006-15. On the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, the one on which countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea routinely top the tables, US scores have declined or stagnated in the 2002 to 2012 period (last available), and its relative position on the tables has declined.

This miserable quagmire of results led to the only thing possible. In the incredibly fractious world of American politics, all sides found the rare common cause, and quietly buried NCLB in December 2015. Its successor is called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In its approach it has no new imagination, but it substantially dilutes the punitive aspect of the NCLB. The lack of fanfare around ESSA is perhaps in part because drawing attention to NCLB is in the interests of no one from the world of policymakers (and so-called education reformers).

The stagnation story is perhaps the more benign impact of NCLB. The 14 years of NCLB have had far more deleterious impacts. They have led to widespread cheating, teaching-to-the-test, narrowing of the curriculum, heartless cases of the neediest children being thrown out of schools and more. Hundreds of schools have been closed, thousands of teachers fired, a culture of fear and disengagement has spread. It will take some time before the depth of the impact of NCLB on US schooling can be assessed.

The majority from within education had warned and then protested against the deeply flawed assumptions of NCLB even as it was being designed, and then continued to protest as its methods unfolded. The ‘Texas Miracle’, wherein similar policies were claimed to have transformed school education during George W. Bush’s terms as governor of the state, were discovered to be based on shallow and flawed data, part of which was apparently just cooked up. But the fixation of the policy and reformer crowd with an over-simplistic test-based accountability model drove an inexorable initial momentum for NCLB.

While educators and people from within education were not listened to, the coup de grâce to any hopes of change was when Obama made the stunning (within education) decision to make Arne Duncan his secretary of education, over Linda Darling-Hammond, a much respected educator, and who was his education policy adviser throughout his campaign.

In the best-case scenario, the US can count this period as the lost decade and a half in education. The good in education during this period has been outside and in spite of NCLB. In the worst case, if the withering away of the educational culture is as serious as some claim, it may be a Greek tragedy.

The lessons from this disheartening episode in education history are quite clear. First, testing and more testing doesn’t improve education, it narrows and hollows it out. Second, education is a complex social-human process where industrial, mechanical models such as test-based accountability are ineffective and worse—they have deeply damaging effects. Third, the educator’s voice should have primacy while determining education policy.

Nothing new here, but it’s tragic that millions of children and teachers have to go through a horror to merely underline well-understood principles. And for India, we must learn from this history, else we will be condemned to repeat it.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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