Holistic Education Column
Going Beyond "No Child Left Behind"
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally adopted in 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” It was intended to provide resources to improve education in poor communities, to equalize educational opportunities and (significantly though less obviously) to provide more skilled workers to the labor market.
The law needed to be reauthorized by Congress every five years, and as this has taken place periodically, ESEA has been considerably amended, reflecting the changing political realities of the last forty years. In 2002, the Bush administration persuaded Congress to infuse ESEA with the draconian standards-and-testing agenda of “No Child Left Behind.”
Although it still promised to “close the gap” between the privileged and the impoverished (and hence won broad political support), NCLB represented a massive consolidation of federal control over the content and process of public education, as well as a powerful endorsement of conservative educational ideology.
By dictating that schools must demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” as measured solely by standardized test scores, NCLB effectively saddled the schools with a pedagogy of “transmission”--the authoritative transfer of approved knowledge. This standardization of teaching and learning leaves virtually no room for practices that progressive and holistic educators believe are vital to authentic learning, such as emergent or individualized curriculum, critical inquiry, artistic expression, or time to reflect and relax. Standardization chokes off creativity, imagination, exploration, and teachers’ professional as well as intuitive judgment. Educators become technicians administering one-size-fits-all classroom scripts. In response, many of our most idealistic teachers are leaving the public schools.
ESEA/NCLB is due to be reauthorized again, and both supporters and opponents of the standardization agenda have mobilized to influence the nation’s lawmakers. The differences between them reflect radically different educational paradigms. On one side, political and corporate leaders, the media, major foundations, and most state education officials believe that schools need to “produce” workers who are prepared to compete in the global economy. They believe that there is a particular body of knowledge that all students need to learn, and that there is an orderly, even “scientific,” way to present this knowledge. They are concerned, to the point of obsession, with “accountability,” which is demonstrated through test scores.
Opponents of NCLB, on the other hand, believe that education for a democratic society must start with a basic respect for the diversity of young people’s learning styles, life goals, personalities, as well as family and community values; a democratic education must not aim to crank out any sort of standardized human being. In this view, NCLB is more accurately labeled “Childhood Left Behind,” because the natural ways in which young people experience the world and make sense of it—through free exploration, play, and self-motivated curiosity—are throttled by the consuming regimen of standardized curriculum and relentless testing.
The question is whether educational policy will continue to look backward to the assembly line model of the nineteenth century, or forward to the holistic, organic, personalized forms of social life that are evolving at this time. Sociologist William Spady, who has been involved in educational reform for decades, wrote a brilliant critique of NCLB in the widely-read publication Education Week ( Jan. 10, 2007 ). He pointed out that the dawning of the Information Age about 25 years ago challenged society to become “future-focused” or “stay the course and become obsolete.”
The business world, wrote Spady, has adapted new models, but schools fell into a “great regression” that “moved education policy and practice further and further away from the new research realities: what we know and continue to discover about learners, learning, brain development and functioning, human potential and motivation, our ever-changing world, and successful life performance.” Spady observed that educational pioneers such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner developed models that are relevant to the new cultural era—but that their work is largely ignored in official policy.
Educators are beginning to speak out against the “great regression” of NCLB and to promote a more democratic, holistic vision of teaching and learning. One of their most ambitious efforts is the recent founding of t he Educator Roundtable. On their website, educatorroundtable.org, they propose “15 steps toward an alternate educational universe and a healthier society.” These include a call for a “national dialogue on the purposes and aims of public schools in a democratic republic” and a recognition that since “there is no single best approach that fits every learning context, encourage local choice in deciding curriculums and instructional strategies that are grounded in best practices as defined by teachers, researchers, and the professional associations that represent various disciplines.”
The Educator Roundtable has drafted a petition that states, in part, “We, the educators, parents, and concerned citizens whose names appear below, reject the misnamed No Child Left Behind Act and call for legislators to vote against its reauthorization. We do so not because we resist accountability, but because the law's simplistic approach to education reform wastes student potential, undermines public education, and threatens the future of our democracy.”This is a significant and currently relevant issue that could seriously affect the shape of the emerging culture. Anyone concerned with promoting a more conscious lifestyle should understand the agenda of educational standardization and join with the educators who oppose it with a more holistic vision.