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Resource Questions Candidates About No Child Left Behind

Add one to the list of moral values at stake in the next federal election: where does your candidate stand on reauthorization of No Child Left Behind?

“As we seek to participate in expanding the reach of God’s love and justice, we can ill afford to ignore the role education plays in shaping individuals, and by extension, community life,” said Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, a member of the National Council of Churches Public Education and Literacy Committee.

“In our society, where public schools are the primary avenue through which most children are educated, we must therefore attend to the content and quality of the education these schools provide,” said Ramsey-Lucas, who works in resource development with National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. “In so doing, justice demands we pursue a system of education in which all children have the opportunity to learn and grow, and to realize their God-given potential.”

The NCC has long criticized the No Child Left Behind Act signed into law in 2002 to reform America’s public schools, warning that it in fact does leave behind too many children of color and the poor.

The law has expired. President Bush has said the law is working and ought to be reauthorized. The National Education Association supports the law’s high standards and accountability for the learning of children but says it should be fundamentally overhauled.

The NCC’s Committee on Public Education and Literacy recently updated an advocacy resource titled “Questions on the No Child Left Behind Act for Candidates in the 2008 Federal Elections.” It is posted, along with a companion piece, “Ten Moral Concerns in the No Child Left Behind Act,” in PDF format on EthicsDaily.com’s Christians & Public Education resource page.

“As a person of faith, I do not view children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in God’s image, to be nurtured and educated,” begins the overall question for federal politicians. “What will you do to help change the focus of federal policy to emphasize our civic obligation to enrich our children’s lives through education?”

Specific questions for candidates for president or Congress include:

1. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to bring all students to a level of proficiency by 2014. Many people believe this utopian goal is unattainable. What is a more realistic way to articulate high expectations and what will you do to maintain support for public education?

2. The No Child Left Behind Act tests children each year and has measured the average achievement of each subgroup of children against set score thresholds. Do you support the use of additional measures and what is your view of growth models for tracking student achievement?

3. The No Child Left Behind Act blames demographic groups of children who have failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” blames their teachers and punishes their schools through sanctions. The law has increased incentives for schools to focus on children whose scores are very near the test score thresholds and to “push out” adolescents who are unlikely to pass tests. How can “blaming” be reduced and incentives be developed for schools to support learning among very vulnerable children?

4. What changes can be made in testing special education students to ensure assessments are consistent with what each child has been taught and that each child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) Team has a role in these decisions?

5. Currently the No Child Left Behind Act requires testing in English before students have had the opportunity to learn English. What would be a more reasonable strategy?

6. Many people agree on the stated goals of the No Child Left Behind Act–to proclaim that every child can learn, to challenge every child to dream of a bright future, and to prepare all children to contribute to society. Many also realize that public school teachers and schools alone cannot overcome all of the challenges posed by poverty and by racial and class discrimination. What do you think should be changed in the law to strengthen the capacity of public schools and what other supports must society provide for children in poverty?

7. Studies demonstrate that the pressure of standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind Act has narrowed the curriculum in many places. What should a school curriculum cover? Which skills are important for public schools to develop–academic, physical, civic or ethical? Why?

8. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Title I funds, formerly earmarked for academic support for children in poverty, must now be set aside for transportation to move children to another school, for privatized supplementary tutoring and for major interventions like converting schools into charter schools or turning them over to private management firms. First, how do you think Title I funds should be used? Second, when private tutoring firms, charter schools and private management firms are receiving federal dollars, should the school itself, the school district, the state or the federal government be required to regulate these outside services?

9. In many places, the rankings assigned by the No Child Left Behind Act to schools and school districts are published in the press, supposedly to help the public compare the quality of services. First, do you believe standardized test score rankings are an accurate indicator of school district quality? Second, do you worry that publishing such rankings exacerbates racial and economic segregation across city and suburban districts in metropolitan areas?

10. How can federal education funding be reformed to improve achievement in public schools? What should be the federal government’s role in funding the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act? What do you think of requiring the federal government to undertake a cost study as part of the reauthorization?

Moral concerns about the current law include that impossibly high standards undermine support for public schooling; it fails to celebrate individual accomplishment; it shames demographic subgroups as “a failing group of children” who are blamed with an entire school fails; it blames schools and teachers for many challenges beyond their control; it’s emphasis on basic school diminishes attention to humanities, social studies and the arts; it operates through sanctions, removing federal funding of already overstressed schools; it exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas; and it makes demands on state and school districts without fully funding those mandates.

Ramsey-Lucas said he hopes the resources “will further Baptist engagement in the public discourse over how to improve NCLB in particular and public education in general.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.