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No child left behind, or leave no child behind - a big difference

Published in ChicagoNow, October 23, 2013

Most of this post was printed in the Cherry Preschool newsletter in January of 2006, but it seems even more important today than it was then. At the time, I was concerned about how many children were being left behind, despite the 2002 law that declared “no child left behind.” In an earlier post, I wrote about the insanity of thinking good teaching could be measured by their students’ standardized test scores. I plan to address other methods of evaluating teachers as well as the misuse of standardized testing in all aspects of our educational policy in 2013. But before I move forward, I thought it might be useful to look back …

In her book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, Vivian Paley laments the sacrifice of play in the lives of young children, particularly in kindergarten, because the prevailing belief is that all time should be devoted to “real learning” and meeting standards. This fall, two Cherry Preschool families shared their sad stories of how kindergarten began for their children. In both cases, their children “failed” a test administered the first week of their school lives and were recommended for remedial reading help. In one case, that help was offered after school, as if a 6 ½ hour day packed with “learning” were not enough for a five year old! Neither child needed anything more than allowing him the time to become comfortable enough in the classroom to demonstrate his competency.

Ms. Paley believes the loss of time for fantasy play in academic kindergartens is even worse for “children labeled at risk, who often had less opportunity for play and talk at home…we removed the element – time – that enabled play to be effective, then blamed the children when their play skills did not meet our expectations.” She feels that if we think too much television makes children restless and distracted, it makes little sense to compound the problem with academics introduced at such an early age, which also make children restless and fatigued. Sadly, she notes,

“We no longer wonder Who are you? but instead decide quickly What can we do to fix you?"

When Congress passed President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act on January 8, 2002, its primary focus was on accountability (testing), choice for parents to leave failing schools, and learning to read as soon as possible (generally interpreted as by the end of kindergarten). During the past four years, the list of schools failing to meet standards has grown, but there is no reliable proof that we have stopped leaving children behind.

In fact, if we contrast the President’s act with the ACT TO LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND proposed by the Children’s Defense Fund and introduced in Congress in May of 2001, we will see that the following measures that were proposed might have been of much greater help to children and their families:

  • Health care for all uninsured children

  • Head Start for all eligible preschoolers

  • Child care for all eligible children

  • After school youth development programs

  • Tax relief for low-wage working families

  • Nutrition and housing assistance for low-income children

  • Protection of children from abuse and neglect

  • Finding permanent families for vulnerable children and youth Protection of children from gun violence

  • Working to lift all children out of poverty

  • Prevention and intervention to prevent juvenile delinquency

  • Building supportive communities for children and their families

Since none of these measures were part of the No Child Left Behind Act and states are too strapped for funds to support these goals, what we have been left with is a type of educational reform that is easily misinterpreted in its implementation for our youngest learners. Other than testing and retesting and teaching to the standards on the tests, there has not been much discussion of how to reach the lofty goal of bringing every child along in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of over 20 books, is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standardized testing. During the past twenty years, he and colleagues at Project Zero have been working on the design of performance-based assessments and the use of multiple intelligences to achieve more personalized curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Gardner sums up this dilemma well when he says,

“At a time when policymakers are attempting to convert the preschool years into basic training for school, master teacher Vivian Paley reminds us that fantasy play is the essential, irreplaceable curriculum of the first years of life. Instead of No Child Left Behind, we stand at risk of establishing a culture where the heart of childhood is left out.”

Perhaps we would do well to put more faith in educators than politicians in our quest to prevent children from being left behind.

I feel so sad that, in the 7 years since I wrote this, years in which four of my seven grandchildren have entered public school, formal schooling has become, well — so formal. Even in the early grades, learning has become regimented, rote, and developmentally inappropriate. And we are leaving more and more children behind.


by Laurie Levy
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