George Bush in front of a blackboard that reads 'No Child Left Behind'

How can state and federal educational mandates damage the system they’re trying to help? By ignoring deep social divisions in the system, constraining good teachers and adopting a "one-size-fits-average" premise.

As America’s public education system founders in the wake of its past success, concerned citizens often turn their attention to Washington and their state capitols for solutions. Nevertheless, many of the country's teachers aren’t buying into the policies instituted at the highest levels. Actually, it may be worse than that. To hear some teachers tell the story, federal and state mandates and achievement tests are creating a discouraging environment for teachers and contributing to the shortage of people entering the profession. 

Jay Tweet, a U.S. History and Geography teacher in Alpine, a small community east of San Diego, thinks that recent federal policies are actually hurting the profession of teaching. “When you have a national policy that says 'everyone must achieve this bar', the test is no longer a useful tool but something that is held over your head,” he says. “It detracts from what you're doing because you constantly feel pressure to meet this outside standard which might well be unrealistic or doesn't even seem very applicable.”

Tweet offers Colorado and Illinois as examples. Both states use the ACT test, which is a “norm-referenced test.” This means that “every year the test is made easier or harder by the company that creates the ACT,” according to Tweet, “so that colleges will know when a student gets a certain score how they did relative to their peers and not on some absolute scale of knowledge or intelligence or anything like that.”

This problem comes out of the fact that the ACT was originally meant to compare students to their peers in order for colleges and employers to find the best candidates in the field. Thus, Tweet argues, “if everyone starts doing better on the ACT test, they make it harder. So the problem is you have these federally mandated targets that every school is supposed to get to a certain point but as schools start doing better they make the test harder, so in a way it becomes theoretically impossible to achieve what No Child Left Behind has asked of schools.”

Indeed, the efficacy of No Child Left Behind has been difficult to measure. Test scores in several states have risen marginally, but these were on the rise before NCLB was instituted. Additionally, average nationwide SAT scores fell just this summer to their lowest levels since 1999, a fact that some point to as an obvious failure of the national standards-based policy. “Given that over the past six years we've been having to deal with NCLB, which has really shifted the focus over to test-taking schools, it doesn't seem like it's working, does it?” says Phil Beaumont, principle of an elementary school in California. “It's pretty easy to shift numbers around and make data look more favorable or less favorable,” he adds.

Aside from tests, federal mandates on skill levels that all students must attain might be artificially constraining teachers. “We have this federal law that says by a certain year 'every kid will be reading at grade level,'” Tweet explains. “But it seems like there's no thought as to what it means to 'read at grade level.' I mean, this isn't something that came down on high and there's, you know, two tablets in the mountains that says 'an 8th grader should be able to read this and a 10th grader should be able to read this'.”

Tweet's comment points to the significance of saying a student “reads at grade level” when “grade level” is merely determined by what the average student in any grade is capable of. Thus, as with any average, there will be students above and below the bar.

“If grade level is set by what the average kid can do then there must be some above and some below, but the federal law has no room for that. It says, ‘By X year every kid has to be at this level.’ So, as a teacher you feel like the system is set up to make you fail. That's a really depressing thought.”

Furthermore, deep social divisions may also be setting up our nation's kids for failure. Andy Smith, who teaches in one of the most affluent districts in California, Del Mar, sees these divisions daily. “I teach primarily upper-class, white kids who get every advantage possible,” says Smith. “If you give a kid every advantage possible, they are going to be successful. Not only that, but they have every resource possible so that if they do stumble, they are lifted up to that level that we espouse for all kids, to be at the height of their potential. By contrast, if you go to an average school, where the families are working several jobs without the help of nannies or life coaches or whatever, and these people are struggling with just the necessities of life, if you ask them to measure head to head with the kids in my district without giving them the same resources, you are setting them up for failure.”

Being set up for failure is a common theme among teachers in this discussion. Most agree that state and federal targets are useful, but they seem to find the constraints too arbitrary, too artificial, and too aggressively enforced. At the very least, it might be useful for policymakers to consider the motivations of teachers in crafting national policies because without having teachers on board these policies will never take off.