NCLB Says Failure Is Not an Option...but It Should Be
A district administrator recently visited a high school to elucidate some of the fine points of No Child Left Behind legislation. "Failure is not an option," she declared, meaning that students are no longer allowed to fail. Although it seems that she could not have meant that literally, she did not qualify the statement in any way. She did not go on to say "unless a student absolutely refuses to do work." If your forehead is crinkled in disbelief, please read on.
Previously, I was inclined to defend No Child Left Behind. I assumed that the legislation was resented by teachers and other liberal interests because it insinuated a back-to-basics type of focus in schools, using the stick of withholding federal funds if schools do not make the grade on standardized tests. If these people hate the law, I thought, perhaps it is not so bad.
Indeed, liberal critics of NCLB often bemoan the standardized testing which it mandates. High-stakes testing is a common grievance amongst the more touchy-feely teachers who would prefer to be doing god-knows-what in the classroom instead of sticking to the three Rs. "It makes us teach to the tests," they complain, in whiny and shrill tones. E.D. Hirsch put it best: if a test assesses basic skills such as reading and writing, perhaps "teaching to the test" is not a bad thing. This is the logic which inspired my admittedly ill-informed support of the law.
Conservatives also loathe NCLB, viewing it as a federal power-grab, not to mention expensive. Both sides of the political spectrum attack the legislation for entirely different reasons. Only George W. Bush could initiate something so universally despised.
Recently, President Obama has issued wavers for some of the punitive measures that NCLB imposes on states which do not meet "high standards." Obama correctly pointed out that the application of these punitive measures makes little sense because states are free to determine themselves what exactly these "high standards" are, and they are free to set the bar as low as necessary so that they can "succeed." These waivers, though, do nothing to correct what is most odious about NCLB.
While the testing aspect of NCLB has gotten the most attention, the law has also imposed different burdens on schools. The paradigm which informs the legislation is that if students fail, it is generally the teacher's fault.
Liberals, for lack of a better word, will excuse bad behavior in wider society. They will attribute such behavior to elements such as poverty and racism instead of focusing on individual responsibility. Under NCLB, liberals have applied this same perverse ethic, ironically done under the guise of what is perceived as a get-tough conservative education law.
If a student happens to be failing a class, the onus is now on teachers to "differentiate their instruction" for him. In other words, now that the student has refused to do his work like everyone else, he has the option of completing work which is shortened and made easier. Yet there is no asterisk next to the student's grade explaining that he played by different rules from those governing other students. If the student continues to fail, the teacher must ask himself, "What am I still doing wrong, and how can I change?" The student need not have such self-reflective ruminations.
Because of the amount of time required on constant documentation and consultation for failures, NCLB forces teachers to focus on the worst students; but it makes no provision for average students, let alone for the gifted. And of course, a teacher's time is a zero-sum game.
There are meetings for "at risk" students, who have no discernible disability besides laziness and insolence, in which a dozen people may be in the room. In such a meeting, teachers, parents, administrators, counselors, and whoever else might like to attend on behalf of the precious student put their heads together to brainstorm ways to drag the troubled youth across the finish line of graduation.
The administrator referred to above seemed to believe that she was onto a profound moral principle embodied in the mantra "failure is not an option." In her mind, perhaps, students will be ready for success now that their schools have refused to let them not succeed. But what does this really teach students?
They will learn to believe that they cannot fail regardless of how atrociously they do their jobs -- because they will always have a team of adults, and a spineless bureaucracy, to hold their hand all the way. Just as they may consider suing their high schools for not letting them graduate, so too may they consider suing their future employer should said employers fire them for poor performance.
The frightening question is this: does this pampering ill-prepare students for the real world, or will the real world start to resemble the status quo of American schools?
Malcolm Unwell is an educator and adjunct professor of English and history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.