Education Policymakers, Researchers Call for Amending Education Law

The No Child Left Behind Act has been ineffective in bolstering the achievement of low-income and immigrant students because it has failed to address the needs of the whole child, and President-elect Barack Obama must redirect the focus of this federal policy accordingly in the law’s reauthorization, policymakers and scholars said.

Dr. Clancy Blair, a professor of applied psychology at New York University says a lack of school readiness is setting some kids back from the start. “Kids are getting kicked out of preschool at a rate of seven per 1000,” said Blair, adding that in some areas that rate is one in 40.

Blair attended a breakfast along with other policymakers in New York last Friday.

During the session, titled “Closing the Achievement Gap: Facing Challenges From Outside the Classroom,” held at NYU, Blair defined school readiness in simple terms as a child’s ability to stay in his or her seat, use language and take turns, among other things. “School readiness is synonymous with self-regulation,” and education is acquired through self-regulation, he added.

Many of these students are coming from single-parent homes, low-income families and neighborhoods that are fraught with poverty and crime, which often program children to become either hyper reactive or listless, said Blair in his presentation. “Education policy is poverty policy, and poverty policy is education policy.” As the economy worsens and families experience more stress economically, these problems will escalate, Blair said.

During the question-and-answer portion of the session, he suggested that the Obama administration improve and expand headstart and early childhood education because children who start off with a bad experience typically stay on that trajectory. “That would make the job of middle-school teachers, high-school teachers and college professors that much easier,” Blair said.

Eugene Prisco, a Staten Island educator who was among many education practitioners in attendance, commented that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society policy addressed many of these societal issues by capping class size at 18, providing one counselor per grade and having an on-site psychologists to help struggling students.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, extolled the premise of the No Child Left Behind Law as a civil rights coup because it seeks to establish equality in education, but pointed out that the law ignores the needs of low-income minority students. For instance, poor eye care impacts Black children at two to three times the rate of other students, said Rebell, adding that providing health care would remedy this disparity.

While there have been attempts by states and courts to make early childhood education more available, said Rebell, these efforts have been decentralized, episodic and done in an unstable manner. The state of Arkansas, for example, passed legislation making pre-kindergarten universal but subject to appropriations. “There is a real demand out there, and it’s a demand we’re not meeting,” said Rebell, who co-authored the book Moving Every Child Ahead: From NCLB Hype to Meaningful Educational Opportunity.

“What we want to do with this conference is to turn this into an action plan,” said Rebell to the policymakers, education practitioners and researchers in the audience. When Obama visited the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization that offers social-service and community-building programs, he said he wanted to create 20 of them nationwide, but education leaders will have to remind him of what he said, Rebell added. He emphasized that Congress needs to amend NCLB to require that states provide the resources for it to succeed.

Obama promised to address 10 areas in education during the presidential campaign, including to professionalize teaching, invest in early childhood education, provide health care and access to college, but “there has been an indication that he’ll be stepping back,” said Dr. Carola Suárez-Orozco, director of immigration studies at NYU, noting that these projects will be prioritized and considered in stride.

One of the biggest omissions of NCLB, said Suárez-Orozco, is guidelines to address the needs of immigrant students. “NCLB never thought about the fact that 23 percent of children are immigrant students.” Many of these students are at a disadvantage when taking standardized tests because they come from households where English is not the principal language or they themselves are limited in English proficiency, she said.

Although the U.S. educational system was the envy of the world during the middle of the last decade, the United States is now the only industrialized country in the world where kids are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents, said Suárez-Orozco. “If we don’t pay for it up front, we’ll pay for it in the penal system.”

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