Does ‘No Child Left Behind’ Encourage All to Move Forward?

by Ruth Robinson (President, Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted) and Susan Corwith (President, Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth)

Last year, Congress passed and the President signed a bill that has become known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Its purpose is to provide a blueprint for change, with accountability and achievement as top priorities. According to Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, No Child Left Behind is a “historic agreement to improve the educational opportunities for every American child.” This is a bold statement — and high expectations are commendable. But does the Law really deliver its promise to improve educational opportunities for every child?
The full impact of the Law is just now beginning to play out. In the effort to help each child become proficient in core subjects like reading and math, we seem to be operating in conflict with the American tradition of providing each child with a “free and appropriate public education.” Carol Ann Tomlinson (Education Week; November 6, 2003) states “NCLB is a laudable advance toward equity [in educational opportunity]. Its impetus to ensure that all children achieve proficiency in the foundational skills of learning is clear … [however[, there is no incentive for schools to attend to the growth of students once they attain proficiency, or to spur students who are already proficient to greater achievement, and certainly not to inspire those who far exceed proficiency.”
National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent, published by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993, reported that gifted elementary students begin the school year having already mastered 35%-50% of the regular curriculum. Without curriculum differentiation, the chances are that these students will spend much of their time reviewing and not learning new material. It is a real concern that students beginning the year as proficient will stagnate, rather than be encouraged to face new challenges in learning and understanding.
It is often assumed that gifted children will always be motivated learners. However, without appropriate instruction and encouragement, a large number of these students become disenchanted, underachieve, and even drop out of school. Eighteen to twenty-five percent of the nation’s dropouts are students identified as gifted (Renzulli, Gifted Child Quarterly, Fall, 2000). School faculty and staff, and their attitudes toward gifted kids, have a huge impact. Students often report that encouragement and inspiration from even one adult — teacher, principal, coach or parent — is often enough to keep them motivated and excited about learning.
Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal (December 29, 2003 and February 6, 2004) highlight another problem — the loss of programming and resources for gifted learners. In our own state, this is happening at an alarming rate. Last fall, sixty percent of the superintendents reported that their districts were cutting or eliminating programs for gifted students this year. Thinking in terms of equity, this is a problem. All children deserve to learn something new every day. Eliminating gifted services makes this more difficult.
There is another equity issue tied to eliminating programs. Giftedness is found in all populations. It is not tied to race, socioeconomic status or anything else. When we eliminate programs and services because they are perceived as “extras” or “elitist”, it is children in low income situations or with parents who are unfamiliar with managing the system and finding alternatives that suffer the most.
We must value all learners. Secretary Paige tells us, “Our commitment to you, and to all Americans, is to see every child in America — regardless of ethnicity, income, or background — achieve high standards.” This is the intent of NCLB; but the concern is that in reality, it’s requirements reinforce minimal standards for students at or above proficiency.
If we are serious about closing the achievement gap and having a highly educated citizenry, public schools need to do the best job possible of serving all learners. We as educators, parents, politicians and citizens are pleased when our students perform at advanced levels. So, as we follow the guidelines of NCLB, we must insure that once those proficient and advanced scores are attained, learning continues to be encouraged and valued.