Politics & Law

No Child Left Behind’s effect on literacy

P. David Pearson

While it is customary to give three cheers to something that we want to celebrate or commemorate, when I think about the legacy of the last decade of literacy instruction in America’s schools, I can only manage two cheers for No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind, the controversial reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act adopted under President George W. Bush, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has set an agenda for education built on the premise that setting high standards and then measuring students’ progress against these standards is the best way to improve academic performance. Now in March, with National Literacy Month upon us, there is no better time to evaluate this legislation and no better way to evaluate it than by examining its impact on literacy, the cornerstone of education.

Literacy is the key to communicating with others and understanding the world around us. It’s what allows us to develop knowledge in other subjects, even ones we don’t commonly associate with reading and writing, such as history, science and math. Literacy skills are what we use to develop, communicate and assess the ideas that shape how the world works and how our lives are lived.

My first cheer for No Child Left Behind is for persuading educators and the nation as a whole to examine progress separately for each and every subgroup of students who attend our schools. No Child Left Behind forced us to more closely examine student performance results and hold schools accountable for the progress of each group, including those traditionally not well served: minorities, English learners, students with learning disabilities and students who live in poverty. As a result, the overall average performance of privileged majority students no longer masks the low achievement of these subgroups.

My second cheer is for reminding us that certain skills — like knowing letter names and sounds, building a strong vocabulary and understanding the meaning of the words on a page — are foundational to more advanced skills like reading and writing critically and in a compelling way. It is these more advanced skills that are being championed by our newest education initiative, the Common Core State Standards.

As much as there is to celebrate in these “two” cheers, it is in achieving the higher goals that No Child Left Behind comes up short. While No Child Left Behind has done a credible job of helping educators make sure that all students have basic literacy skills, it hasn’t given us the type of thoughtful and critical readers and writers we need. Thoughtful readers (of all ages) are people who ask for evidence when they read something that doesn’t add up and who can formulate and articulate arguments based on facts, sound reason and logic.  These goals have always been important but have become even more so now that so much of our information comes from the digital world.

We must develop thoughtful, critical readers and writers if we want to make a meaningful difference in the performance of our students, both in the classroom and in the global workforce. This focus makes for more informed and effective students, parents, workers and citizens the type of people with the power — and knowledge — to change the world for the better. These are what the United States — or any nation — needs to be successful in the long term. Just think of all of the landmark achievements that would not have been possible without these advanced literacy skills — from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

It is this fundamental flaw of No Child Left Behind that has helped us discover what we need to do over the next decade: transform the literacy curriculum in our schools to be what we always wanted in the first place — the way we help students become engaged and powerful readers, writers and thinkers. I challenge all of us to use this occasion to take up the cause that would allow us to offer this third cheer. We must demand that policymakers at the state and national levels continually provide evidence that they are trying to help our children and our nation succeed in the best and most important way possible — by helping all of us become literate in every sense of the word.

Cross-posted from the Washington Post column “The Answer Sheet.”

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Comment to "No Child Left Behind’s effect on literacy":
    • Daniel Brownstein

      The imperative to train thoughtful and critical readers is extremely compelling, and a litmus test of the sort of teaching that we want in the classroom. How this can be translated into an assessment test is a bit of a problem, because we need to make sure that this enters classroom practice.

      I am all for the benefits of literacy and critical reading, but just as writing is hard to teach, save by practice, critical reading begins from regular practice — as well as analytic tools. I hope that the core standards will introduce a generation of new textbooks and learning practices.

      But I would also say we need more attention to sustained reading at all levels, and investment not only in assessment but in training our teachers to expose students to reading, critical analysis, and appreciation of how to effectively structure and present one’s argument. The core standards promise a very important shift in how students can identify, restate, and appreciate what is at stake in a written argument.

      I hope that this works to create generations of better readers, and migrates into the classroom. The amount of moneys spent on the new assessment practices of testing will be misplaced, however, without investing in the infrastructure of classroom pedagogy, and the culture of teaching.

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