FIXING “NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND” -- Impossible, so Work around It to Help Poor Kids

Congress is rewriting the “No Child Left Behind” rules that local school districts must follow to gain the ten percent of their budgets they receive from the federal budget to help them instruct low-income and special education students.  Both political parties agree that “No Child” needs major changes, and are negotiating to find common ground.  Unfortunately, the starting point for negotiations is both sides’ continued agreement with the core concepts that have failed repeatedly to improve students’ skills and futures during the 11 years of “No Child” and about 20 years of “school reform” before that:

These concepts are disconnected from the reality of improving educational outcomes for students in high-poverty schools like the one I taught at recently.  Much of what might be useful to these students is prohibited by the disastrous school reform experiment. 

The real problem, simply and brutally put, is that a clear majority of poor children enter AND leave public school without the skills and home support system needed to become productive members of the working class, let alone the middle class, and have a rewarding life.  There are a couple of ways to side-step school reform that could have tremendous pay-off in terms of creating positive adult lives for these students:

Why School Reform Has Failed

Before I describe these two proposals in detail, let me explain just how and why the answer to this problem cannot be found in the current system.  Just in the month I’ve been working on this article I’ve collected a depressingly large number of news stories and opinion pieces about the result of the school reform experiment:

By “school reform” I mean the following list of great ideas that today’s political consensus says should improve the outcomes at America’s segregated schools for children of low-involvement, low-income guardians.  None of these, by the way, are used by private schools.

(An aside, about segregation: The Supreme Court was right in 1954 that separate is inherently unequal.  But segregation is what we must live with.  The urban schools are and will always be segregated, because poor guardians with initiative and perseverance and middle class parents, let alone upper class parents, make sure their kids go elsewhere – either by moving the family or by transferring to charter, private, or selective public schools.  In much of the small-town South there is a deeper form of segregation, with most white kids going to the largely-white academies that popped up after desegregation.  Same result, though: public schools with high percentages of low-income students.)

The school reform consensus ignores the reality of poverty, which is that the guardians who remain in the neighborhood schools largely lack the skills and perseverance to do all those middle class things that make schools work, like get the kids to school regularly, check on and help with homework and class assignments, discipline them if they mess up on academics or school culture, and seek out other schools if things are not going well at the home school.  School reform says the school is to blame, and uses these techniques to improve outcomes – and 30 years of trying shows they do not.  Here are the key elements of the school reform consensus:


My experiences have been at the pre-school level as a Home Start teacher with the rural poor for the Appalachian Regional Commission back in the 1970’s and at the high school level as a math teacher recently at an urban, a high-poverty school in Washington, DC, so I have broken my proposals into those two sections.


Poor families need an early-early childhood intervention program, like the home visit pilot program that was included in the Health Care reforms.  There is strong research about the negative impact of the early economic class language deficit on children’s development.  In lower-income homes babies have literally millions less words and demands for responses directed at them than in middle class and academic families.  This hampers brain development and school readiness.  (  As a former Head Start teacher in a Home visit program, I can vouch, anecdotally at least, for both the dramatic deficit and the likely success of home visits to jump-start the recovery. 

However, I am not talking about Head Start and modest Pre-kindergarten experiences here.  Having worked on the in-depth Longitudinal Early Childhood Consortium Study in graduate school at Cornell University, I can tell you that the significant gains later in life in achievement and social standing for participants in model pre-school programs we found are not replicated in the Head Start model.  I strongly support Head Start for its contributions to health and socialization, but subsequent studies have shown clearly that it comes too late, with too little immersion, and too little expertise to have the dramatic effects we found for the model early intervention programs.  

The model programs focused on infants and on helping parents learn how to stimulate them in conversation and with activities.  I would like to see the funds the President proposed recently for pre-kindergarten focused instead on Home Visit programs to be offered to all low-income parents-to-be.  There is a pilot program with professional staff in the Health Care Reform Act, but I think that volunteer programs, to be called Father to Father, and Mother to Mother, with middle-class parents visiting twice a week would be just as effective.  Or perhaps all these wonderful young people entering Teach for America could be encouraged to join a Mothers’ Corps or a Fathers’ Corp and make home visits instead of trying to learn how to run classrooms.  This is one endeavor in which enthusiasm and friendliness are more important than teaching skill and content knowledge.

None of these programs would cost much; there are no offices, centers, or special materials needed.  You just need one staffer or volunteer for each prospective parent.  The staff or volunteer would visit twice weekly for about two hours in the home of a parent of the same gender.  The visits would start during pregnancy, to talk about nutrition and health care during pregnancy and prepare them for their task of stimulating their child physically, intellectually, and emotionally after birth.  The visits would continue throughout the first two years of life, showing how to play, read, and talk to the infant.

Most parents, especially young parents, would agree to take part in the program, and would, in my experience, come to look forward to the visits and be eager to mimic the activities with their children they are shown by the visitor.  However, some of the most needy may choose not to take part, out of fear of getting any agency close to their business.  This is similar to the resistance in my high school to telling anybody anything about one’s family, because that might lead to trouble for the family.

High School

I visited an “application” public school recently.  I remarked to an administrator how surprised I was at the calm in the halls as a few hundred students -- all black and Hispanic, all from poor and working families -- waited for first period.  I told her that at my previous school, this wait in the halls would have been crazy and loud, with fights and screaming and cursing…but only for the mid-day periods, since there would be so few students coming to their first period class.

She laughed and said that “we don’t play” on attendance and behavior: miss school, disrupt school, ignore your homework, and you “will be gone,” back to your assigned neighborhood high school -- like the one I taught at!

That, in a nutshell, is the problem one faces in high-poverty schools.  There are many students, of all ability and skill levels but mostly in the lower levels of both, whose attendance and behavior right from kindergarten would result in them being dismissed from charter or public “application” schools and sent back to neighborhood schools – if their guardian had been able and willing to navigate the path to a charter or application school in the first place.

These children form a good share of the neighborhood, open enrollment schools in high-poverty areas.  At the school I taught at over 100 of the 800 students on the rolls were suspended and out of school at any one time for disruption.  Only about ten of those had been assigned to DC’s semester-long special school for suspensions.  The rest were just home and in the streets for periods of a week to two months. 

If you added to this group the students who had skipped half their classes or never did homework and classwork, you’d be up to 400, or 50 percent of our students.  Teaching the well-behaved 400 is a challenge, of course, due to weak skills and the number of years they have fallen behind, but it is a challenge that can be successfully met – that’s teaching!  The issue is: how can we reach both the 400 who have a fighting chance and the 400 who are on the ropes, usually years behind, and unable to function in a college-prep academic setting (thereby disrupting those who are trying to learn)?

First, let’s ask why the attendance is so low.  Why is there so much absence from school, which is warm in the cold months and cool in the hot months, where there is food, friends, sports, and drama?  (And if you have little interest in education, also a place where you score sex and drugs and see fights, too…definitely entertaining.)  Poverty is disruptive, so there are more absences when guardians move or travel or are in crisis, but most of the attendance problem comes from simple alienation from school demands. 

If you are six years behind grade level, coming to school is guaranteed to make you feel stupid at some point of the day.  To keep the teacher and your friends from seeing how weak you are in academics, when you do come, you disrupt!  You’ll either be left alone by the teacher, or be taken out of the classroom.  Whew - dodged another bullet.

I remember former anti-imperialist Congressman Ron Dellums saying, about reaching Americans with foreign policy messages, that as a former social worker he remembered that the first rule was to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.  We are not reaching students where they are – we are trying to reach them where we want them to be, and it is very frustrating to them

Classroom tasks have to be possible -- they have to be based on where the students are.  Given the reality of many students being years behind by high school, I propose requiring every guardian to make a choice:

In general, both tracks are weak in today’s high schools, because of the dogmatic insistence of politicians, including Presidents Bush and Obama, that “everybody’s going to college.”  No, they’re not – half of poor children drop out of high school, and most of the rest are not ready for or interested in college right away.  Enough with the expensive buildings, highly-paid consultants and administrators, and college prep curriculums that litter the public educational landscape today.  Let’s give students a chance to succeed in top-flight, hands-on vocational programs that include a high school degree.  And if we must have “school reform,” as it appears the politics requires at the present, keep it out of these programs.  Give their administrators room to experiment, and their teachers room to teach.  We can only hope that someday the same opportunity will be provided in all public schools.

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