PEEK

American Education: "No Child Left Behind?"

Heather Gehlert: Try "No Child Has a Chance" ...
Imagine you're a teacher. It's 2 p.m. on a Friday, and in spite of the weekend calling, your teenage students are behaving like adults -- stifling their restlessness and giving you their full attention.

This is your last English class of the day, and you want to discuss an excerpt from The Great Gatsby.

"OK everyone, open your books and turn to page 19."

You call on Jarod, your front-row overachiever, and ask him to begin reading.

"I can't," he says, looking bewildered.

"What?"

"I can't," Jarod says again. "I don't have a page 19."

"Why don't you have a page 19?" you ask.

"My book starts on page 24."

Jarod holds up his copy and, sure enough, the first two dozen pages are missing.

Concerned about the material you have yet to cover, you tell him to listen as Leslie, the girl to his left, reads aloud.

"But my book is falling apart," Leslie says. She holds the book up and a chunk from the middle falls out.

"Mine too," says Nadia. "Mind too," says Amy.

The books are so old they're rotting. As it is, you only have 20 books for the 35 students in your class, and making copies is out of the question because you used up your 3,000-page-per-year copying budget in October. The first 600 copies went toward your four-page syllabus, and last month you shelled out $200 of your own dollars for copies, but you can't keep that up on a teacher's salary.

You shake your head and try to hide your frustration from your students. They have so many other problems, which you know from reading their weekly journal assignments. Javion is working two after-school jobs to help his single mom, Elise is hoping her older brother will get out of prison this year, and Claudia watches her father beat her mother almost every night, wondering when she will be next.

At least this bunch is better behaved than the last. This class doesn't have rival gang members in it. This class doesn't make you fear for your own safety.

Welcome to urban high schools.

I admit it, I'm not a teacher, but I have many friends and family members who are educators, and I live in Oakland -- home to arguably one of the most problem-ridden urban school districts in the nation. It's a school district that was taken over by the state of California in 2003 after it went bankrupt, a district where just two months ago an elementary school child found a dead body in the schoolyard, a district where many Bay Area upper class residents probably would not dare send their children.

Even though I’m not an educator, someone has to bring attention to this because it doesn't seem to be on many legislators' radars even though the No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization next year. This legislation had bipartisan support when President Bush signed it into law in 2002, but five years later, it's becoming more and more clear that NCLB hasn't delivered what it promised. NCLB is an example of what happens when legislators make education policy decisions based on recommendations from advisers who must be out of touch with real classroom experiences: We get great goals but lack the resources to make them happen.

NCLB oversimplifies education, ignoring the socio-economic realities that influence education quality. And, it imposes benchmarks that are supposed to hold schools and teachers accountable for student performance without offering any real support to help make it happen. This piece of legislation seems to suggest that all students, even those who just moved to the United States or don't even know English, should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be performing proficiently within just a couple of years.