Burning Bush's Legacy: How Barack Obama is Finally Dismantling No Child Left Behind

Barack Obama has zero f*cks left.

And it's amazing to watch.  

Nearly a year of being given up for dead politically thanks to Democratic candidates running away from the president's legacy, Barack Obama has used the "lame duck" portion of his final term in office to completely and obliterate everything the Republican Party stands for.  He has been a man on a mission and that mission has been to ignore the Second Consecutive Least Productive Congress In History.  Obama has used his presidential powers and influence (which Republicans seem to think mean his dictatorial powers rather than his Constitutional powers bestowed upon him for winning the general election twice) to continue the progress his administration has made and to leave the country in good hands for the Democratic president our country will elect in 2016. 

Vetoing Keystone pipeline?  Check.  A second challenge upheld to the Affordable Care Act? Check.  Refusing to defend DOMA which helped to contribute to nation-wide marriage equality?  Check.  A diplomatic agreement with Iran?  Check.  The Transpacific Partnership trade agreement despite opposition from his own party?  Check.  An executive order protecting up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation?  Check.  Reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba?  Check. An overtime rule that gives 5 million working Americans a pay raise?  Check.  Vetoing the National Defense Authorization Act because it doesn't allow him to close Guantanamo?  Check.  An approval rating over 50%?  Check.

And now add to the list an arrow to the heart of President Bush's disastrous No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Speaking today, President Obama called for a cap on standardized testing, one of the hallmarks of the law.  In a posted message to Facebook, the President said, "Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble.  So we're going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure that we're not obsessing about testing."  Obama and outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are planning to meet with teachers and school officials on Monday to brainstorm ways to reduce testing time.  This meeting comes on the heels of a report released on Saturday by the Council of Great City Schools, which determined that 20 to 25 hours per year were dedicated to mandated state testing with countless hours throughout the school year being used as test preparation for those mandated exams.  President Obama cannot force tests or districts to limit testing but he does intend to pursue ways to make it easier for states to satisfy these federal testing mandates and he also has urged the use of factors beyond state-mandated tests to assess student performance. 

What prompted this new initiative is unknown, but it follows Obama's lame duck pattern to the T.  Obama is slowly and methodically dismantling the hallmarks of the Bush administration brick by brick.  We've seen the Obama Doctrine of diplomacy not bombs.  We've seen recognition of inherent systemic injustice through both the President's acknowledgement of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement as well as his push for criminal justice reform.  We've seen recognition of marriage equality and a push for equal pay for women.  We've seen actual attempts to enact much-needed immigration reform on a broken system while Republicans in Congress have sat on a bipartisan bill and not even allowed it to get to the floor for a vote. Now, with this latest push, we've seen President Obama began to unravel the Bush education bill that set our children back a generation.  

And that is not hyperbole.  History will show No Child Left Behind as a massive policy failure, landing in a solid second position behind the Iraq War.  The fact that we now over-test our students is only scratching the surface as to how terrible No Child Left Behind has been for our country.  It failed on all fronts from teachers to students to administrations.  Start with the teachers:  We now know that 50% of teachers leave within 5 years.  These teachers are young and idealistic and entered the profession as a way to make a difference in the lives of young men and women.  What they got instead was being told to teach to the test and then receiving consequences if those test scores were not up to par.  When a law that was designed to test student learning actually tests teachers instead, that law has gone horribly wrong.  Especially when those tests are a better indicator of a student's socioeconomic status rather than the content he or she has learned from their class.  

Now let's look at the students and more specifically what students had to give up in order to receive proper test preparation.  Since its inception, No Child Left Behind has seen a large percentage of students who have lost their recess, their one chance to unwind during long and tedious days of test preparation.  Students lost elementary school art classes at a time when young artists are first becoming curious about the world.  Students lost physical education classes, even though for many students daily P.E. is the only opportunity they have to exercise during the day.  Students lost music classes, even though music has been shown to enhance brain activity, especially at an early age.  All of these classes were ultimately sacrificed to pave the way for a pristine focus on English and mathematics, the two main areas of state-mandated testing from grades 3-8.

Lastly, let's look at how No Child Left Behind has impacted administrations.  School administrators were forced to change their focus from best-practices to test preparation.  They had to make sure their new teachers were NCLB compliant.  They had to make sure plenty of time was devoted to test preparation, sometimes devoting an entire month of instruction to a single day test.  Administrations had to do this for fear of school closings.  Sure, certain schools were in the heart of an area of extreme poverty but these schools were expected to pass the same state-mandated tests are their more affluent neighbors.  If they didn't pass, they were put on a school improvement plan where the county board of education would send in people with no teaching experience to work with the staff.  If the school still didn't improve its test scores then it could either be merged with another failing school (because one failing school looks better for a district than two) or it could be closed, causing irreparable harm to a community. 

Sure, we may have lost half the teachers, tons of enrichment opportunities, and a few high-poverty schools themselves but what did we gain?  The answer:  Nothing.  As a whole, No Child Left Behind made little to no difference on nationwide test scores.  The average SAT score hasn't changed.  The American ranking in international testing in the areas of math and English hasn't changed.  When President Bush asked his now infamous question, "Is our children learning?" we, as a nation, did not have an answer.  Fifteen years later, we do have an answer.  No, our children are not learning and No Child Left Behind made the problem even worse.

Yet thanks to President Obama, for the first time in 15 years there is hope.  There is hope because Obama once again is able to see the forest through the trees as opposed to the previous administration.  It also helps that he is the parent of two school-aged girls and has seen the state of our schools firsthand.  Obama can see that what we are doing isn't working. Of course, it doesn't help that we force out some of our best and brightest like Ahmad Mohammed  because of racist school officials and police departments, but those students who remain here they aren't getting the kind of education they deserve.  Although this latest action by President Obama is only a small step in the overall clusterf*ck that is No Child Left Behind, it is without question a positive one and one that gets to the heart of the crux that is terrible education policy that has dictated our country' education for the past 15 years.  It won't fix our broken education system overnight, but at the very least it has opened the door to conversation and actually included those most affected by the law in that very discussion.  For the first time in 15 years, we are now including those are directly affected by the law in the law-making process.

Barack Obama, unlike George W. Bush, actually learned this lesson. 



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