As a psychologist, I always have been concerned about the educational systems in the communities in which I have lived. Once I became a mother, my concern heightened, particularly as my own children started to attend school. Clearly, I am not alone. Education in our country has been a topic of interest to everyone, particularly amidst the concerns that the United States is falling considerably behind in certain academic areas such as mathematics and science (World Powers Leaving US Behind in Math, Science-Obama, 2010). Unfortunately, such issues are occurring during a time when the economy also is affecting our schools. In today’s world, it is not an uncommon occurrence for schools to not have sufficient financial resources to provide all the materials and services that are needed by their students (Eastin, 2008).
To try and counteract some of these difficulties, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed by our legislature and signed into law. Some educators consider NCLB to be the “most sweeping education reform since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” of 1965 (Roberts & Killingsworth, 2010, p. 17). In fact, NCLB was meant to foster stronger accountability for educational results, to provide an emphasis on research-based teaching methods, to provide implementation of increased time for core subject areas (as defined by the legislature), and to promote explicit instruction from teachers with enhanced qualifications (Casbergue & Bedford, 2010). In addition, NCLB was meant to foster increased flexibility and local control while expanding the options that were available to parents for their children (Roberts & Killingsworth, 2010). Although these facets of NCLB may sound relatively positive, many researchers are starting to suggest that both positive and negative outcomes for our children have resulted from this legislation (Casbergue & Bedford, 2010).
As parents, negative outcomes definitely should give us pause. As someone who has worked in different school settings and who now teaches college-age students as part of my career, I can definitely say that I see some of these effects. As an example, at this time in our country, teachers now are being held more accountable in many states for the academic outcomes that their students are demonstrating. Certainly, all parents would like their children to have the best teachers who can foster the most positive outcomes. Nonetheless, such concerns with accountability are having other effects as well. For example, Colorado recently passed a law that ties teachers’ evaluations to the progress of their students on achievement tests (Krigman, 2010). Such laws, in conjunction with the emphasis on accountability in NCLB, have implications for how teachers may interact with and teach our children. For example, when I worked in different school settings, I sometimes saw teachers ‘teaching to the test’. In other words, rather than teachers providing instruction or academic experiences in how children might solve problems or apply certain academic skills to real life circumstances, teachers would spend the majority of their instruction time on the kinds of rote tasks that students were likely to encounter on their achievement tests. Most likely, such a strategy was used in an effort to improve students’ test performance.
Current research is starting to suggest that this approach to teaching may have real consequences for our children, particularly for academic skills that may serve as the foundation for all other academic activities. For example, Hoffman’s (2010) examination of Early Reading First, a program that was fostered by NCLB and designed to encourage preschoolers’ early literacy, suggests that children who participated in this program tended to experience positive outcomes in their alphabet knowledge and their print awareness, both of which are considered constrained skills (i.e., once a child learns these skills, there is no further learning that is necessary). In contrast, participation in Early Reading First did not foster significant improvements in children’s oral language development (i.e., children’s continued acquisition and usage of new vocabulary words), an unconstrained skill (i.e., a skill that can continue to develop throughout a child’s life; Hoffman, 2010). Although such a finding may have been the result of measurement issues (e.g., it is difficult to measure unconstrained skills adequately), Roberts and Killingsworth (2010) also suggested that NCLB may have implications for educators’ and students’ reading of ‘real’ books. Based on a content analysis completed by these researchers, the NCLB document only references constructs related to the ‘real’ reading of ‘real’ books 13 times (in 567 pages). In other words, books were relegated to a less important position than the acquisition of constrained skills via software and workbooks (e.g., Lehr, 2010; Roberts & Killingsworth, 2010).
Now, clearly, our discussion here has mainly included examples relevant to reading. But, I think that the point underlying these examples should be considered carefully by parents across multiple academic domains. What are our children really learning in our current educational systems? Are they being taught to acquire certain types of content so that they can successfully take tests and insure that their schools receive adequate funding for the next year and their teachers can keep their jobs? Or, are they being taught to appreciate the acquisition of academic knowledge so that they can solve the problems of the future? I know which conclusion I lean toward each time a college student approaches me for help on an examination and then they simply ask me what questions will be on the exam. What do you think?
Casbergue, R. M., & Bedford, A. W. (2010). Some legacies of No Child Left Behind. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Early Adolescence, 87, 5-7.
Eastin, D. (2008). Political report card. Miller-McCune, June-July, 20-25.
Hoffman, J. L. (2010). Looking back and looking forward: Lessons learned from early reading first. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Early Adolescence, 87, 8-16.
Krigman, E. (2010, May 23). Colorado education law may mark a national shift. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/23/nation/la-na-colorado-20100523.
Lehr, S. S. (2010). Literacy, literature, and censorship. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Early Adolescence, 87, 25-34.
Roberts, S. K., & Killingsworth, E. K. (2010). The literacy legacy of books that were left behind. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Early Adolescence, 87, 17-24.
World Powers Leaving US Behind in Math, Science (2010, January 7). Retrieved from http://mb.com.ph/articles/237320/world-powers-leaving-us-behind-math-science-obama.