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Empowerment or Punishment?

What is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and why are people so worked up about it? Many of us have heard of its emphasis on standardized test scores, but few people have publicly offered a thoughtful or detailed critique.

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Some basic elements of the No Child Left Behind Act
(Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001)

taken from the publication Education Week:

• all public k-12 schoolchildren must achieve “proficient” level on state standardized tests by 2013-2014
• toward this, all schools must demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress(AYP) for their state or face sanctions from the federal Department of Education up to & including losing Title 1 funding(federal aid for schools in impoverished areas) and/or having the school taken over by private management.
• Schools must implement state standardized tests for grades 3-8 in math and reading by 2005-2006 school year, with science testing added by 2007-2008.
• Districts must provide states with “report cards” evaluating school performance, and states must provide the DOE with “report cards” on district-wide performance.
• Teachers must meet new federal qualification requirements beginning in 2005-2006.

To an audience of schoolchildren, President Bush said in January that the new law will “empower your teachers and your principals to achieve the objective we all want,” but many educators see NCLB as punishment rather than empowerment. The school-reform advocacy group Rethinking Schools has come out against NCLB, arguing that it is under-funded and therefore is like “telling children to run a marathon on a gravel path, but some will run barefoot while others will wear $100 running shoes. It’s not hard to guess who will come in first.” Some states, such as Hawaii and Utah, have already introduced (but not passed) statewide legislation that would forfeit federal education funding rather than submit to NCLB’s requirements.

To celebrate Congressional passage of NCLB, the Department of Education constructed outside its main doors a replica façade of a classic frontier schoolhouse. The fake schoolhouse is clearly meant to inspire nostalgia for the good old days of education, when teachers cared about each individual student, knew their parents, and stuck to the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic.

Public school education in America today looks much more varied and segmented than the old one-room schoolhouse did. The diversity of approaches to teaching, large class sizes, and variety of subject areas can be both good and bad for learning, and many educators welcome the stated NCLB vision of a level playing field for all children. As the law’s new testing requirements begin to take effect, however, some teachers and school administrators are questioning the appropriateness of a return to “the basic three” subject areas.

What does all this mean for teachers of art in the public schools? Will states and school districts be willing and/or able to maintain a commitment to art education for all children in the face of escalating testing requirements in the other subject areas? Will art teachers coming out of SAIC be up to the inevitable challenges of teaching art in the current political climate?

Therese Quinn, Assistant Professor of Art Education at SAIC and director of the (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education) BFAAE program, anticipates that art teachers will feel NCLB’s impact in two major ways. First, she says that additional credentialing requirements for teachers, which will be put in place in schools over the next three years, may make it extremely difficult for professional artists to teach in the public schools. While these art teachers often hold MFA degrees and have years of teaching experience, Quinn says, they may not be considered qualified to teach under the new rules. “The yardstick that No Child Left Behind uses to determine who is highly qualified,” she says, “is a faulty yardstick.”

Quinn believes NCLB is also harmful for teachers and students because its emphasis on tests means that teachers will be forced to use the same material in each school, whereas the best teaching practices are usually tailored for each community’s different needs. “It undermines the concept of teachers as professionals,” she said, meaning that, like other professionals (such as health professionals, for example), teachers and their supervisors ought to have the ability to determine how best to do their jobs. By imposing standardized tests as the only measure of success, says Quinn, NCLB takes away teachers’ authority to select the content of lesson material.

In Chicago, Quinn highlighted that NCLB is the last thing the public school system needs. “It’s a system that already has a lot of problems, and NCLB is going to exacerbate those problems,” she says. “One thing I’ve seen is that a shockingly large number of art teachers who are certified are working with no budget,” and have to pay for materials out of their own pockets.

Although The No Child Left Behind Act names art as a core academic subject, the law makes no additional money available to help art teachers do their jobs. “It’s not offering any solution to the problem of funding for the arts,” Quinn said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Great, finally the Bush Administration is saying the arts are a core academic subject,’ but it’s false because if you don’t have any resources to support the arts, then it doesn’t support the arts no matter what the law says.”

When asked how regular people ought to respond to the No Child Left Behind measures, Quinn had a few specific suggestions. “Teachers and families need to resist these measures as they are coming down the pike.” She cited an example of a group of Chicago schoolteachers who refused to administer a new standardized test to high schoolers which would have prevented some kids from graduating. Although some teachers were punished for their public resistance, the following year the city quietly pulled the test from the schools. According to Quinn, this demonstrates that resistance to unreasonable new requirements can be effective.

Quinn also suggested that activists who are involved in protesting government action in areas such as globalization, the war on terrorism and the environment “need to look at education and think about how it is connected to some of these other issues.” She recommends that everyone “go and visit a couple of Chicago Public Schools. Pick one on the West Side, such as Lawndale, and one magnet school,” and see how under-resourced the non-magnet schools are. “Kids are just as wonderful in both kinds of schools,” she said, but the differences in funding between the two are resulting in a poorer education for the mainstream students.

The jury is still out on whether NCLB will have long-term benefits for public education. But for art teachers, the new requirements and punitive measures in the act may prove more costly than helpful.

For the U.S. Department of Education’s take on NCLB, visit the Department of Education website .

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