With this year's election hype focused on the economy and health care, it seems the impact of No Child Left Behind on working-class families has been overshadowed by other issues. Not for me.
Reauthorization of NCLB was expected to go to a congressional vote but has been postponed until after the presidential election. As the mother of three children in public schools, I would like to see this bungled attempt at education reform left behind.
Somehow our public education system has interpreted this law to mean that today's young children will write like accomplished authors, conduct experiments according to strict scientific methodology and zip through algebra and geometry without learning basic math. All at the same tender age when their not-so-distant forebears were trapping bugs in jars, writing fanciful stories, and savoring the aroma of teacher-prepared mimeograph practice sheets for plain old ordinary arithmetic.
In the 1980s, a national report on U.S. education sounded the alarm that "Johnny can't read," echoing a report from three decades earlier. I was as appalled as anyone.
But make no mistake. NCLB goes far beyond requiring the schools to teach reading (which they still don't do very well). My youngest child was required to read "fluently" — with no pauses to decipher unfamiliar words — in his first nine weeks of first grade. His reading material included discussions of the political and social structure of a Hawaiian township, complete with multisyllabic words and Hawaiian names. His teacher recommended retention. I fought it, and he got summer school instead (along with hordes of other disillusioned young scholars).
The irony of NCLB is that those kids who can't keep up — whose parents can't afford expensive tutors or give up their jobs to provide oodles of one-on-one assistance — are in more danger than ever of getting left behind as educators insist they must do away with so-called "social promotion."
Since that disastrous first-grade year, I have been called to at least one conference annually letting me know that my child is failing to be more than he can be. Educators deliver this news with straight faces, despite the fact that they have failed to teach phonics, addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, or cursive writing. (Such lessons may seem simple, but they help develop essential concentration and memory skills.)
My youngest studies as instructed, makes steady progress and rarely misses class. Yet he scores poorly in the never-ending stream of assessments. The school system's answer? A notation of "below grade level" on the report card and the threat of retention. My son would be entitled to a government-subsidized tutor, I was told, only after he fails a grade.
I can trace the madness to my oldest child's fourth-grade year, 2000-01, when NCLB was on the road to approval. Requirements for promotion included her ability to fill out a job application. She was 9. Ridiculous, yes, but relatively harmless.
My second child entered kindergarten that year. Homework consisted of cut-and-paste exercises and measuring household items. Using scissors would help my child develop fine motor skills for writing, I was told, and measuring things would foster an appreciation for real-life math applications. My pleas for the child to bring home writing practice and simple math worksheets fell on deaf ears. To this day, her handwriting is illegible, and she doesn't like math any better because she knows how to measure a doorknob.
Since then, it has been one fad or alleged silver bullet after another, as educators experiment with shortcuts and ways to get parents "involved," which is code for making them pseudo-teachers. Never mind that parents work long hours and have no spare time to do the government's job.
In Hillsborough County, since 2003-04, parents of children as young as 8 have been coerced into coaching strictly structured science experiments that belong in the higher grades. At my child's elementary school, participation is mandatory by third grade. Weary parents joke wryly about staying up until midnight working on display boards and graphs, trying to wrestle their offspring's childish curiosity into something that resembles an MIT-caliber experiment.
The government's Web site www.ed.gov/nclb claims the act holds schools accountable. All I see is the pressure that has fallen on children and their parents. Without the recognition that there are no one-size-fits-all teaching methods and the funding for a true education fix, NCLB is detrimental to my family. It undermines childhood pleasures and threatens to destroy my son's self-esteem. I want it to go away.
Susan Green lives in Hillsborough County.