My problem with No Child Left Behind has always had a lot to do with the limited perspective that the policy-makers seemed to have has in designing it. I would never doubt the motivations of those behind the policy – but their judgment of what would be effective in this country’s public schools was short-sighted. The way that the sweeping change has played out has been largely destructive, taking resources away from struggling schools rather than infusing with them with that which would be necessary for them to be a success. There was a blindness about the extreme circumstances that paralyze schools in some communities which are not equipped to deal with the plethora of problems that pass through their door each day – problems that don’t exist in the schools in wealthy communities that most policy-makers live in and send their children to.
No Child Left Behind is simply out of touch with the complexities of inner-city schools. In its proposal to shut down failing schools, it didn’t take into account the fact that when shutting those schools down, and redistributing the students to other schools in the area, there will be inevitable problems with neighborhood rivalries, and gangs. The resulting increase in school violence, and drop in scores, shouldn’t remotely surprising. If teachers are spending their days acting as police, not much teaching is getting done, and if students feelings of safety in a school disappear, the learning environment is severely compromised. Creating a safe learning environment is one of the most important things a teacher can do – one in which a student feels free to express themselves, safe to be wrong, and unafraid of repercussions for their views that come out in class. This is a challenging job in any environment – but it is nearly impossible when there are threats to the physical safety of your students.
No Child Left Behind gives parents the option to take their kids out of failing schools – which seems well-intentioned, because students should be able to attend quality schools, and their future shouldn’t be compromised by the districting of their neighborhood. However, by allowing this, you are again essentially taking resources away from the schools that need them most. The students with parents who take that initiative, who know about their options, are already at an advantage to the thousands of students whose parents don’t have the time, the education, or the awareness that is required to take advantage of such an option. As such, the kids who were already probably going to be okay end up out of the failing schools, and the ditch that that school is in has just gotten much deeper, and the steep, uphill climb out of it nearly impossible to achieve.
The list goes on, problems that my own observations and experiences have shown me make the Bush education policy not only ineffective, but seriously detrimental to the public school system in America. But again, my problem has never been that there are evil people behind the plan, or that they don’t care about improving education – rather that they are simply out of touch.
I wanted to teach so that when I went to make policy I would have further developed this perspective. If the problem that the people in power had was that they didn’t understand what it was like to be in the classroom, I wanted to understand. Before making impact on a macro level, you have to understand the micro-level.
I still do fundamentally believe that. But now, I sometimes find myself thinking how good it is that the people who are making decisions are out of the classroom. It’s like the debate over whether or not it is good to have a president who has a child serving in the war. Generally, it is thought that it is a good thing because it ensures that the person who is making a decision to enter a war in which lives will be lost, values those lives to begin with. But the alternative perspective says that when you are making decisions about policy, you need to be a bit more objective than that. At this moment, I know that it would be bad for me to be the one making decisions – and though the other teachers in my school knows these kids as if they are their own, and really fully understand the system, and the way that any change in policy will affect the kids on a day-to-day basis, I wouldn’t want them making policy decisions either. When you are in it – it is so emotional – and in yourself you find extreme feelings that you didn’t know existed – both of empathy and compassion and patience, and of anger and frustration and exhaustion. In any situation in which the feelings are so high, there’s nothing objective about a decision. A student is driving you crazier than you thought you could be driven, to the point where you hear their voice in your sleep, and the sight of their face can make your blood pressure rise and your back tense up - and you forget about the other stuff – the reason’s behind their behavior, the chance that you meant to give them, the investment you thought you would be able to make.
You can’t be coming from a place of such extremes when you are making sweeping changes. Which is why, while I think that having served, or having had a child serve in the army, may be an asset to a president – if you are still in it, it’s probably dangerous to be in the position to make decisions like that. Surgeons can’t operate on their own children, presidents shouldn’t be able to decide whether or not to send their child into battle, and though I do think that teaching will ultimately provide me with the perspective needed to make effective policy decisions, teachers shouldn’t be deciding the country’s policy that governs their students.