55 Years in School: The Unrealistic Expectations of NCLB

Carl Bosch asks who exactly thought No Child Left Behind was a good idea.

Nationwide Testing Rant #1
10,104 days down – 71 left

We’re involved in our annual two week statewide assessment / chess match called Mastery Testing. Every state has a similar program. Each day from 9:00 until 10:15 the school descends into a Matrix-like slow motion and silence. Practice lockdowns display more energy and monks would envy our level of monastic quiet.

We’ve been involved in this type of testing for a couple decades now. The original concept was to identify students who fell into the remedial range in the main subject areas, reading and math. There were supportive additional programs that were designed to aid those students for the students the testing identified. Some years ago the testing changed and was flipped upside down to begin reporting how many students met the goal in those areas. The new version of the test had the same basic information but used a very different method of reporting and way of taking stock. The students are separated into strata by the test: Advanced, Goal, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic.

In 2002, the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) federal law came into effect. Pay careful attention to some of NCLB’s core beliefs:

  • All students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.
  • By 2013-2014, all students will be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.
  • All students will graduate from high school.

Really!?  I’m not saying that these aren’t great goals but where is the realistic understanding of education in America?  We can set those beliefs up as wishes or dreams, perhaps? Sure, okay. Let’s aspire to these hopes and challenges, but making them the honest to god goals?  Were right thinking adults actually believing this is possible?  Why didn’t we also say that every single student would also be able to jog an eight minute mile, would always be respectful of their classmates, and would consistently choose to eat a healthy nutritious lunch?  No rational adult would espouse these goals because they’re impossible! Be honest—and here’s where I’m probably going to get into trouble.

If we place a severely overweight young person in Phys. Ed class, certainly the exercise is good for him or her, but they are not going to run an eight minute mile, and maybe never will. The boy with a seventy-eight I.Q. who’s placed in a mainstream, mixed level Science class will benefit from individualized instruction and being with his peers, but he will always struggle with the curriculum. Always. If I put a group of thirteen year olds together at a party, a lunch table, or hanging around downtown, to think that they’re going to be respectful and positive all the time is just simply naïve, if not downright crazy.

NCLB might just as well have announced that in a decade we were going to guarantee that all students would be taller, have better eyesight, and have no childhood illnesses. It’s just beyond reason. Let’s not forget that when trying to teach children there are other factors that come into play such as: family dynamics, culture, nutrition, income, genetics, birth order, personal interests, parenting skills, pre-school experience, health, and motivation, just to name the most prominent. No scientist would begin an experiment with all these variables. Let’s face it; we’re all different, very different.

I’m all for equal freedom, equal rights, and equal opportunity, but can all students learn at the same level?  I want to hope and believe they should have the chance. Can they all reach Advanced or Goal, meaning mastery?  I have my doubts.

Photo credit: Flickr / Håkan Dahlström

About Carl Bosch

Carl Bosch has appeared in publications as varied as the New York Times and Cricket magazine. His books for children have sold over 60,000 copies. An educator for 38 years (soon coming to an end) he's now working on storytelling through MouseMuse Productions and performing marriage ceremonies as a Justice of the Peace.


  1. There’s nothing wrong with having standards. The problem comes in when you don’t provide resources to meet those standards. There’s also the problem of having standards that are impossible to meet. It’s one thing to say our goal should be to have all students… In theory, that’s fine. In practice, it doesn’t happen. For example, the goal of the census is to count every single person living in a particular country. Do you think they get every single person living in a particular country? And when they don’t, do you characterize the census takers as incompetent failures or lazy? Teachers get that label. How about getting every eligible voter to vote? We have record turn-outs in some cases, but a sizeable percentage of people still don’t vote. And these are relatively simple tasks. We can’t get every eligible adult to vote but you expect 100% of children to do the work necessary to be on grade level? Educating a child is a complex process involving many variables. It’s one thing to say we are going to take children wherever they are and take them to where they need to be in ways that are developmentally appropriate. It’s a completely different thing to say all the kids who can’t even recognize the letters of the alphabet should be reading and comprehending Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lawrence and Baldwin by the end of the school year. Furthermore, if they aren’t—as measured by a standardized test— then you must not be doing your job and you should be fired. The problem, as I see it, is we have politicians and pundits who have never set foot in a public school setting policies that sound good to many people who don’t think about it or don’t have to deal with it. They set these policies and expect the schools to accomplish the objectives by magic. I’ve seen students go from absolutely terrible to below average in the course of a year. That’s definitely progress. In some cases, it’s damn near a miracle if you believe in such things, but the policy would still label them and that school as a failure. The goal should be to provide every single child with as many opportunities for a quality education as possible. Equality of opportunity, not outcome.

  2. “All students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.
    By 2013-2014, all students will be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.”

    If you can’t reach these goals for some students then you should just stop educating them NOW. Is education a religion? I mean I think most of the commenters on here and the article writer are “pro-education”. They would support more funding and more dollars for education. But for what? What is the point if you can’t even teach children to read. You might as well kick those children out. I am kind of amazed here. Liberals are incredibly pro-education but they don’t believe in any standards whatsoever. And the question then is…WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT. Why waste the time of these kids in school. WTF are you doing exactly? I mean wholly shit do you even care what they do while they are in school. Or is the point that they should be in school for the sake of being in school. Why are they there? What are you trying to do exactly? I just don’t get it.

    If this is the attitude of educators then I say shut the schools down NOW. Immediately. Why waste the time of the kids and the teachers of nothing is done in schools. Just end it NOW.

  3. Anthony Zarat says:

    ” * All students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.
    * By 2013-2014, all students will be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.
    * All students will graduate from high school.

    Really!? I’m not saying that these aren’t great goals …”

    These are terrible goals. Here is goal number 1:

    >>> No student will have the problem solving skill and creativity that they were BORN WITH beaten out of them by a bass-ackwards system that values the ability to regurgitate the thinking of others more highly than the ability to think for oneself <<<

  4. Soullite says:

    Who thought it was a good idea? Politicians from both parties looking for an easy way to throw kids under the bus and funnel money to their campaign contributors.

    Plus a whole lot of ‘wonks’ with no actual experience in the subject they claim to be experts at. For instance, Ezra Klein (a Poli-sci graduate who can’t decide if he’s an expert on healthcare or education), Matt Yglesias (a philosophy major born to wealthy parents), Michelle Rhee (a con artist with no teaching experience), Arne Duncan (a political operative with no teaching experience, George W. Bush (a man who I doubt could pass a middle-school exit exam) and Ted Kennedy (who had about as much experience with public schools as the pope has with flavored condoms).

    Truly, how could such wise and world-weary men ever make such a mistake?

  5. I hope we can finally put a stop to these massive government bills filled with unrealistic goals and no way to pay for them. The moment any bill refers to “all” you might as well start preparing for the time when that goal is not met. One of the problems I see in education is that the leaders and so called reformers have little or no experience actually teaching in a public school classroom. I’m not saying you need to have some experience teaching in a public school to be a leader in public school education, but……have some damn experience teaching in a public school before you call yourself an expert or leader:o) I’ve only taught in a public school for 3 years and I have more experience than Canada, Rhee and Duncan combined. It’s insulting that these people are considered educational leaders. I did Jury Duty last year. Does that make me qualified to be Attorney General? :o)

  6. David in SLC says:

    NCLB was nothing more than the fulfillment of a talking point for the Bush administration delivered in the “all or nothing” rhetoric for which he and those around him became known.

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