Picking Up the Pieces of No Child Left Behind

The past decade has proven that teaching to the test doesn't work. Here's a look at what does. 

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Visit any school in any community in America, and educators will tell you that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) simply hasn't lived up to its goal of leveling the playing field for all children.

And it's not just teachers who believe this. There is widespread agreement that the landmark education legislation is simply not helping our children succeed in a 21st-century knowledge economy.

Even President Obama recognizes the problems with NCLB. In the absence of congressional reauthorization, he granted waivers to some states that will provide temporary flexibility and relief. But waivers remain an imperfect solution.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

NCLB's fixation on testing has sabotaged the law's noble intention. Schools have become focused on compliance rather than on innovation and achievement. We've become obsessed with hitting test-score targets and sanctioning schools and educators; instead, we should be focused on improving teaching and learning. We've narrowed the curriculum; instead we should be paving a path to critical thinking and problem solving -- the very kinds of knowledge and skills our children need to be well-educated and to compete in today's global economy.

An examination of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results by the Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein found that while disadvantaged students made significant progress in the last generation, their progress has actually stalled since NCLB and its test-based accountability measures were enacted 10 years ago.

No Child Left Behind's original goal of leveling the playing field for all students is still critical. We have an obligation to provide all children with the best public education possible. And the stakes have never been higher. According to a recent Stanford University study, the achievement gap between rich and low-income students has increased by 40 percent since the 1960s. It is now double the gap between blacks and whites. We have 3 million more children living in poverty than at the start of this recession. At the same time, we've cut more than 300,000 education jobs.

So where do we go from here?

I'm not here to say it's easy -- it isn't. This is complicated work, and there are no silver bullets or quick fixes.

Proper accountability is vital. But current accountability mechanisms for public schools don't gauge good teaching or deep acquisition of knowledge. For example, the Common Core State Standards, and the assessments being developed as part of their implementation, can help bridge that divide by focusing on deeper understanding of core content, which students then can apply broadly.

Nations that outperform the United States have gotten this balance right -- emphasizing teaching and learning as opposed to testing and blaming. In Singapore, for example, where I spent time with teachers and students earlier this year, schools are focused intently on growth and achievement. However, as I observed numerous diverse groups of children deeply engaged in learning, I saw nothing that could be construed as teaching to the test.

The good news is that we don't have to travel all the way to Singapore to find schools and districts getting it right. There are districts here in America that embrace shared responsibility and collaboration among teachers, administrators, parents, and the community. They've implemented evaluation methods premised on continuous improvement, not on testing targets. They've implemented ongoing professional development programs and built in time for teachers to plan, engage, and learn from one another. 

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Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. More

Randi Weingarten is president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, which represents teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; higher education faculty and staff; nurses and other healthcare professionals; local, state, and federal employees; and early childhood educators. She was elected in July 2008, following 11 years of service as an AFT vice president.

Weingarten served for 12 years as president of the United Federation of Teachers, representing approximately 200,000 nonsupervisory educators in the New York City public school system, as well as home child care providers and other workers in health, law, and education.

For 10 years, Weingarten chaired New York City’s Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella organization for the city’s 100-plus public sector unions, including those representing higher education and other public service employees. As chair of the MLC, she coordinated labor negotiations and bargaining for benefits on behalf of the MLC unions’ 365,000 members.

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