DEAN’S PERSPECTIVES ON EDUCATION
This Time, Let’s Truly Leave No Child Behind
It is summer and faculty are heading for vacations with novels they have saved for beach reading. But most educators—teachers, researchers, policy makers—are also keeping an eye on Washington DC. While health care seems to dominate the news out of the nation’s capital, education watchers are trying to read the signs of change and speculating about what is ahead for the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB was the major education reform of the Bush administration. An accountability system based on standardized testing to improve math and reading skills, it focused the attention of the country on the worrisome achievement gap between white students and students of color, the national scandal of high school drop out rates, and the huge challenges faced by English language learners. The Act was intended to give our schools historic education reform based on stronger accountability, more freedom for states and communities, research-based education methods, and more choices for parents.
Everyone expects NCLB will be reauthorized, but how will it be changed under the Obama administration?
We have an opportunity to refocus the goals of NCLB and draw out some aspects of it that were ignored by the Bush administration. Implementation of NCLB was heavily influenced by the 1998 William Sanders research, which indicated that, “The single biggest factor affecting academic growth of any population of youngsters is the effectiveness of the individual classroom teacher. The answer to why children learn well or not isn’t race, it isn’t poverty, it isn’t even per-pupil expenditure at the elementary level. It’s teachers, teachers, teachers.”
No one doubts the importance of high-quality teachers. However, complex behaviors like academic achievement and student development are not the result of any single factor. Ample evidence indicates that environmental factors powerfully impact the academic and social development of children. Authors of the reformulated NCLB should address the reality that poverty may well cancel out the best teaching; if we do not remove the barriers to learning created by poverty, children handicapped by it will continue to fail.
But we will also fail our children and youth if we do not give them deep and rich experiences with the arts. In our highly technocratic society, we must pay deliberate attention to aesthetic development. Music and art engage the hearts and minds of children, youth and adults. They develop new lenses for viewing and understanding the world. Through art, music, theater, and dance, children and youth learn to make sense of their emotions, their political stances, their environments, their relationships, their fears, their dreams. They also can come to understand other peoples, learn tolerance, appreciate similarities and differences, and thereby learn to live and work in a global society.
However, principals under pressure to remove the achievement gap and meet standards of Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB have diverted arts education money to tutoring, teaching materials and programs in reading and mathematics. The budget crisis is further causing many to cancel music and art classes in order to provide more time for coaching in reading and mathematics, areas being tested under NCLB. While wealthier families are able to transfer to schools that continue to offer arts programs, the poor urban schools, arguably most in need of these programs, are least likely to have them. In this arts-rich city of New York, this is a tragedy. The solution is not to take time away from instruction in the basic skills, but rather to create curricula in which the arts are infused rather than added. To develop this rich curriculum requires that art and music educators work “elbow to elbow” with the best artists engaged in their creative disciplines.
I hope that revisions of NCLB will include incentives for communities to collaborate in providing the arts: dancing, visual arts, theater, and music, to all our children so that we indeed leave no child behind. #
Mary Brabeck, Ph.D., is Dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University.