No Child Left Behind? More Like No Child Left Untested.


Professor Warren Blumenfeld on why we must reform education in the United States.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this year compared 34 of the wealthiest nations’ overall educational rankings, and it placed the United States 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. These rankings are even lower than similar OCED comparisons just three years ago.

As concerning as these findings appear, I find even more troubling are the ways U.S. educators, through national policies, determine student educational outcomes based on our ineffective, counterproductive, and motivation-killing obsession with standardized high stakes testing – policies often not employed, at least not to the same degree, in many of the other countries around the globe, including many of those ranked higher than the U.S.

I would ask, then:

What effects has our age of “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and “Common Core Curriculum,” an age of standardization, increased and rapid corporatization, privatization, globalization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors had on learning?

I have never forgotten one essential point my Educational Psychology professor related to my class back at San José State University when I was working toward my Secondary Education Teacher’s Certification. His point crystallized for me the intent of true and meaningful learning. My professor explained that the term “education” derives from two Latin roots: “e,” meaning “out of” or “from,” and “ducere,” meaning “to lead” or “to draw.”

“Education,” he said, “is the process of drawing knowledge out of the student or leading the student toward knowledge, rather than putting or depositing information into what some educator’s perceive as the student’s waiting and docile mind” — what I later learned from what the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Reglus Neves Freire termed as “the banking system of education.”

I believe that for genuine learning to occur, for it to be transformational, it must be student centered — grounded on the shared experiences of the learners — and composed of at least two essential elements or domains: the “affective” (feelings) and the “cognitive” (informational). I design and implement my classes on a dialogic approach within a social justice framework in which students and educators cooperate in the process, whereby all are simultaneously the teacher and the learner. Educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this process as Obuchenie.

Standardized curriculum and testing were initially intended to gauge students’ progress, but have, unfortunately, metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government. The new Common Core Standards curriculum policies, rather than improving the educational outcomes of our students, have the potential of merely reinforcing and extending the failed so-called “neoliberal” policies of the past as evidenced by “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”

The educational buzz word (or, rather, buzz acronym) is now STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). Actually, since the time of Sputnik forward, we hear from the White House, to the school house, to the houses of industry that for us to achieve and maintain personal and national security, we must emphasize and rigorously promote STEM education in our schools and jobs in our economy.

As we understand in plant biology that stems cannot take root and grow unless planted in a fertile nutrient-abundant soil, likewise I submit that STEM fields cannot take root and grow within our society unless planted in an enriched foundation of the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and all in the context and development of creativity and critical thinking skills.

According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business. In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools arrange individuals to fill certain roles or positions in commerce, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.

I recently asked the students in my Educational Psychology class to answer the following question by raising their hand: “How many of you have a parent or guardian who wakes up in the morning thinking to themselves, ‘I have a great job I love, and I’m looking forward to going to work?” Of the approximately 100 students in class that day, exactly seven raised their hands.

I usually still answer that question in the affirmative. I cannot think of any other profession where one reads and discusses ideas with others and (sort of) gets paid for it. I love the opportunities for learning and engagement that I have as a professor. However, I see how “education” as currently constituted contradicts its own initial methodologies and purposes by focusing primarily on testing and on grades in the service of the educational consumer landing a job, which ultimately benefits the corporate sector.

Of course, gaining the knowledge and skills to land a good job is important and valuable for the individual and for our society. However, somewhere along the way, we have diminished in many of our students the joy of learning for learning sake, the ability to think creatively and critically, and to learn for the sake of understanding themselves and the world around them.

Where has the love of learning for the sake of learning gone in many of our students? Oh, we see a brilliant flame of learning in young people, but typically by the age of seven, or eight, or nine, we notice that in many youth, this once dazzling blaze seems to wane. By middle and then senior high, the fire often flickers. Often when students enter university, for some, time has since past for us to assist them in rekindling any remaining embers. For others, though, I believe it is never too late to reignite that spark that can ultimately shine brightly once again.

I submit that we need to emphasize pedagogical paradigms other than the standardized testing currently holding the attention of our policy makers, but certainly not that of our students. We need to assist students in maintaining and enhancing their readiness for learning rather than merely their readiness for testing. We must emphasize collectivism over simple individualism, collaboration over separatism, cooperation over competition, intrinsic incentives over behavioral rewards and punishments, pedagogical practices meaningful for education and learning rather than education situated on gold stars, tokens, pretty stickers, grades, and test scores.

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–Photo: Photomatt28/Flickr

About Warren Blumenfeld

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor ofReadings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).


  1. Imagine sitting on an exam table. The physician walks in, takes a seat and stares at you. “Warren, I want you to take this high blood pressure pill, it will do you good.”
    Enter prior knowledge.
    The doc has done this a long time, his last 17 patients who had the look and age of you had HBP, so must you. Your prior knowledge is activated by knowing your father had HBP and so does your neighbor Bob.
    Is prior knowledge the universal cure? Or would you rather the doctor physically test your blood pressure?
    I have heard this argument of prior knowledge, student centered and peer learning before.
    Didn’t it come to be this way when businesses demanded that employees know how to collaborate and play ideas off each other, so that this group of human capital be capable of generating one idea that they would all share credit in. How nice it must be to play football on a manicured field where everyone wears the same uniform, knows all the plays and each player is credited with one player’s touchdown.
    I have children with disabilities, one in particular is significantly LD. I have advocated in over 700 IEP meetings, have taught parents how to game the system and embarrassed a fair amount of educators.
    Special Education students are forgotten in the reformist ideal of constructivism or pedagogical ideologies. This population is subjected to hundreds of tests, yet the data junkies and teachers ignore these results and insist that a child who scores at a fourth grade level be taught the same 9th grade math class. I have seen it deployed in countless grades, schools and across all level of disability.
    Critical thinking, executive function and creativity needs to take place at the head of the classroom, where a teacher needs to recognize that not one curriculum fits all, not every child is accepted within a peer group and the tried and true lesson plan is good enough.
    Teachers are famous for pointing out that attitudes towards learning start at home, but every study ever done reflects that SE parents volunteer more, attend more meetings and are at the forefront of their child’s educational planning. The barrier to educational progress comes from the adults across the table. The ones who refuse to stray from the norm, the ones who insist that the disabled child overcome their disability and activate their own learning and fall in line.
    I need my son tested routinely, so I can have evidence of the establishment not doing their job and take them to task. Everyone if afraid of the Common Core, why? Scared to find out that little Johnny can’t handle the workload and his feelings may get damaged. Is it really better for Johnny to share in a group grade, when 2 kids did all the work?
    Has the culture of student centered learning cured the epidemic need of remedial math classes in college? Perhaps teacher colleges shouldn’t let everyone and anyone sign up, raise that bar.
    All this fear and anxiety is coming from parents and educators, afraid they have to work harder, play less soccer after school, pay for tutoring. SO what? The results we have today were forged long ago with cheap curriculums and the lure of taking the task of teaching away from the teacher and placing the child in charge. Now suddenly the seeds planted long ago bear bitter fruit.
    Shouldn’t we want to stop giving out trophies to every kid who shows up. The kid whose parent makes them practice shouldn’t share the stage with the kid whose parent didn’t.
    I learned to play poker for money at my father’s knee, I was never given a break because of my age and I didn’t share the pot when someone else won. Most importantly, I learned that the dealer wasn’t to blame for the cards I got. You play the cards that life gives you, weather you win or lose is how you play them and in knowing the game.
    Some say I got dealt a bad hand, the kids in my son’s K class 13yrs ago are medicated, in day programs and can’t be left alone. My son isn’t on meds, does laundry and can shop with a list and debit card, can shave and can be left alone. He needs hand over hand instruction, my son isn’t cattle.
    Tell me how over 75 educators over 13 years never saw that and how one HS educated mom took him further than the professionals ever could.
    It’s time to get back to basics and play in the dirt before you play on the turf.

  2. Aren’t educational outcomes mostly dependant on the equality of educational opportunity and delivery? The countries that are most equal overall or where educational opportunity is very equally provided do the best: Finland, Norway, Korea, Japan, Singapore etc. Countries of middling equality such as the other English-speaking nations like the UK, Canada, Australia tend to be next and then more unequal countries like the U.S come next. It seems more important than the detail of the education systems. That seems to be a bit of the problem for the U.S to me (I’m Australian btw) where competition and self-sufficiency and not too much of a safety net are part of the wider culture. Australia, like the other English-speaking countries probably lies somewhere between Northern Europe and the U.S in terms of public acceptance of government intervention and welfare to address inequality. As economies develop and wealth grows, inequality in the US and countries like my own will increase and without intervention the result might be continued falling education standards.

    • @Matt Grant Norway’s education isn’t good, either.

      30th in Maths, 6 places above the US, which isn’t much.

      31st in Science, 3 places below the US.

      22nd in reading, 2 places above the US.

      Sweden is even worse than the US and Norway, despite being almost as egalitarian as the latter and far more than the former. Also Australia’s education is alright. Better than the UK’s, US and Norway’s at least. Also, I’d argue the UK is just as bad as the US, but we scored a bit higher.

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