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Fixing 'No Child Left Behind' requires 'flexibility'

Washington, D.C., March 16, 2007 – The message from public education advocates to Washington lawmakers is clear: Fix No Child Left Behind.

Advocates gathered here earlier this month (March 9) for an event sponsored by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) Committee on Public Education and Literacy in conjunction with the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days, March 9-12.  Speakers urged participants to address the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act's shortcomings and work to change the act before it is reauthorized this year.

The act was passed in 2001, and is the prevailing legislation related to primary and secondary schools in the United States.

The NCC event featured speakers, including educators and education advocates – some of whom were also parents – working to repair this piece of education legislation, which sets standardized testing as the measure of schools' success. The event's 94 participants included members of local churches, grassroots advocates, parents, teachers and others from the faith community.

The plight of American public schools under NCLB, the omnibus federal law is, "indifference, isolation, and invisibility."  So said the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, president of the North American region of the World Council of Churches.

"In the days of Ruby Bridges, those who supported school integration were in the streets.  Those who opposed school integration were in the streets.  Today, no one is in the streets," said the Rev. Jackson.  "Schools labeled failing, face closure.  No one in the streets...Good teachers burning out, buying supplies out of their own pockets.  No one in the streets," she told nearly 100 attendees at the event. 

"To get past the indifference, get past the isolation, get past the invisibility, we've got to wake up and dream...of new coalitions dedicated to taking back our public schools," said the Rev. Jackson.  "We've got to wake up and dream of schools where children of all races and all incomes go to school together and thrive...where testing is but one way of measuring achievement."

Justice in education

Jan Resseger, representative of the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries and the NCC committee's chair, acknowledged that NCLB "has helped clarify the magnitude of achievement gaps and proclaimed the lofty goal that our nation will quickly and finally close those gaps."  But she challenged that, "the law's implementation has not lived up to its goal of rectifying injustice."

In a formal statement on NCLB, "Ten Moral Concerns in the Implementaton of the No Child Left Behind Act," the NCC's education committee explains its interest in this federal law: "Christian faith speaks to public morality and demands, as a matter of justice and compassion, that we be concerned about public schools."

Molly Hunter, managing director of the National Access Network at Teachers College, Columbia University, condemned NCLB's effects of blaming schools, when so many educational challenges grow from society's unwillingness to face up to its obligations to poor children as well as to the schools that serve them.

"Children who suffer the ravages of poverty can best contend with the demands of school by having benefit of health care, stable housing, and safety that enable them to give their school work the attention it deserves," said Hunter.  "When our schools do not receive funding adequate to meet what NCLB requires of them, we label them as 'failing' and demand more."

Testing or Learning

Monty Neill, director of FairTest and convener of 106 national organizations who have signed the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB (a group that includes the NCC and several of its member communions), condemned what he called the real effects of NCLB--reducing schooling to "test preparation, particularly for low-income and minority group students."  NCLB "degrades the quality of education offered to the most needy and vulnerable students in the nation," Neill said.

"In theory, NCLB has some admirable goals, namely raising the achievement of all students; making schools accountable for the progress of every student; providing every child with a qualified teacher; and requiring states to develop parental involvement policies and plans," said Monique Dixon, senior attorney at the Advancement Project, of the paradox NCLB presents.  "In practice, however, NCLB’s emphasis on high-stakes testing has caused schools to narrow their curricula.  Some schools are pushing low-achieving students out of school.  Sanctions imposed on schools that do not make adequate yearly progress apply only to schools receiving Title I funding," Dixon said.

On the front lines

Members of a follow-up panel shared their experiences as educators working inside schools under NCLB.  Thirty-year educator  and Chicago principal, Anita Harmon described her 70-hour-workweek to support teachers succeeding thus far in maintaining Adequate Yearly Progress in her elementary school that is majority poor and that experiences high student mobility. 

Sol Cotto, an administrator in the School District of Philadelphia, shared the changes she believes will be necessary for schools to support rather than undermine English Language Learners.  Public school teacher, Daryl Gates recounted challenges for his special education students in a Shreveport, La. middle school. 

And Heather Dawn Thompson, from the National Congress of American Indians decried NCLB's narrowing of the curriculum to teaching to the tests in basic reading and math, at a time when her people fear they are losing hard won classes in American Indian languages and cultures. "We remember the forced assimilation of the boarding schools," Thompson told the panel.

Changes needed

George Wood, director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, in his keynote address offered the three most important principles he feels need to be addressed in the NCLB reauthorization.

First, "America operates one of the most inequitable educational systems among industrialized nations...Any federal legislation must address this debt and insure that every child has access to equitable school resources, facilities, and quality teachers." 

Second, "our current reliance upon high-stakes standardized testing is designed not to educate, but to punish...Legislation should provide for a richer, more sophisticated view of what our children are learning." 

And third, "the appropriate federal role is to insure equity, not to run local schools.  Reauthorization should insure that those closest to children, their parents and teachers, have the most to say about life in the classroom."

All members of the Committee on Public Education and Literacy led sessions at the event including representatives of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches USA; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; The Episcopal Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Presbyterian Church, USA; Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.; United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society; United Methodist Church, Women's Division; and United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

Contributing to this story was Barbara Wheeler, executive secretary for communications with the Women's Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, New York, N.Y.

NCC Public Education contact:  Jan Resseger, 216.736.3711,
NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252,


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