June 19, 2024

My Plan to Fix NCLB

Save a seat on the bus for me!

By: Gary Stager District Administration, Aug 2007

My lack of enthusiasm for all things NCLB is well documented. I oppose the avalanche of standardized testing, punitive sanctions, and privatized remedies for “failure,” the climate of fear pervasive in classrooms, homogenized curriculum and the mathematically impossible goal of all students being above the norm by 2014.

But this is no time for criticism. After all, this is the fifth anniversary of NCLB! (Nobody even sent me a card.) The president says that reauthorizing NCLB is one of his “top priorities,” and both Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Senator Edward Kennedy are putting aside their differences and the evidence of fraud in Reading First, one of NCLB’s greatest achievements, to “fix” and reauthorize the law. The National Education Association is fine with NCLB as long as the White House writes bigger checks.

The peer pressure is getting too much to bear. If all the cool kids are doing NCLB, who am I to argue? It is in this spirit of bipartisanship that I humbly offer my proposal for mending, not ending, the No Child Left Behind law.

The Problem with Tutoring

Under NCLB, underperforming schools must provide after-school tutoring. This school year 500,000 students are expected to receive free tutoring, a small percentage of those actually eligible. The cost estimates range from $500 million to $2.5 billion annually. The Chicago Public Schools are locked in battle with the federal government over the provision of tutoring services. CPS wants to pay public school teachers to provide the tutoring, while the Feds argue that these are the same people who didn’t teach the students in the first place. CPS makes the case that expert educators should be teaching kids, a belief shared by noted educator Jim Trelease.

NCLB requires that tutoring funds be spent using private companies that have no qualification requirements for tutors, despite stringent requirements that schools employ “qualified teachers.” There is virtually no oversight over how tutoring contracts are awarded or how the public’s money is spent.We could offer access to a proven learning environment.

Senator Hillary Clinton is only one critic of the tutoring scheme. She recently said, “This is Halliburton all over again. “Why would we outsource helping our kids to unaccountable private sector providers?” she said. “They don’t have to follow our civil rights laws, their employees don’t even have to be qualified, they aren’t required to coordinate with educators, and there’s a grand total of zero evidence that they’re doing any good.”

Recent studies from Chicago and Los Angeles found virtually no achievement gains despite expenditures of more than $50 and $56 million, respectively, on tutoring last year.

As I see it, funding-even profiteering- is not the main problem with tutoring. There is a logical fallacy that should prompt us to ask, “Does tutoring have any value, regardless of the provider?” The embrace of tutoring as a sound educational intervention is based on an assumption that kids will learn what we want them to if we just make them do more of it.

My Proposal

Federal tutoring funds should be available to send children to summer camp. Most poor students eligible for NCLB tutoring are, well, poor. Since we can’t buy them a new house or increase their family income we could offer access to a proven learning environment available to more affluent children for generations, namely, summer camp. Camp awakens the creative, artistic, and athletic potential in students. It allows them to be children, to commune with nature, to engage in a positive community and to develop sustained relationships with adults who love children enough to spend their summers working for peanuts.

Summer camp is research-based and has been scientifically proven over decades. Ask any member of the Business Roundtable or the president’s Cabinet. I bet most of them and their children attended camp. Since many camps are for-profit businesses, my plan satisfies the administration’s desire to engage the private sector.

Isn’t it time to end the soft bigotry of low expectations and give every child a chance at summer camp?

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate (www.districtadministration.com/pulse).