Getting Behind the Children

President George W. Bush’s education-reform bill, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was designed “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”

That was a noble goal. Unfortunately, as with many reforms, the implementation did not live up to expectations. It brought in an era of education-by-the-numbers and teaching-to-the-test that treated students as products and teachers as assembly-line workers. Test results=quality control.

Never mind that those products have minds, hearts and souls.

The aftermath not only left children behind, but trapped them in a purgatory of high-stakes testing. Anyone who took Regents Examinations in high school is familiar with the stress and anxiety.

Many of us remember cramming for the Regents with review books. The more recent cottage industry of Regents prep courses has turned education into a mockery.

According to a 2013 report in Forbes, the Education Department seems to have come up with its own solution for low scores:

“Even though New York City Regents Exam scores have generally increased over the past several years — especially at the city’s newer, smaller, more rigorous public high schools — the empirical competency of New York City students remains at embarrassingly low levels, and is getting worse. According to a CBS News New York investigation, “nearly 80% of New York City high school graduates need to relearn basic skills … reading, writing, and math … before they could begin college courses.”

At the same time that Regents testing seems to be getting dumbed down, testing in grades three to eight has gotten more rigorous. After test anxiety reached epidemic proportions — with many children reporting nausea and other physical symptoms — in April 2015, 20 percent of 1.1 million students in grades three to eight opted out of mandated state assessments in ELA (English Language Arts) and math in New York State.

Parents who refused to have their children take the tests included some NYC Board of Education teachers. They know the score.

This week, the House of Representatives will take up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate is scheduled to follow suit as soon the House is finished.

We are not fans of slogans. They become a substitute for serious thought and analysis. However much we dislike it, though, slogans and bumper-stickerization of ideas have become the prime movers of public policy. The new version of ESEA is called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Whether you like the title or not, the bill is a vast improvement over both No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

ESSA would eliminate the adequate yearly progress requirement and shift the focus away from testing as the be-all and end-all of education. This would be a welcome alternative to schools as test tubes.

Even such proponents as the American Federation of Teachers admit that the bill is not perfect. However, they point out, “ESSA brings us closer to letting states, local districts and educators focus on students and their success, and to ending the harmful test fixation that has become the predominant schooling strategy.

And don’t think this affects only public schools. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) has also called on the United States Congress to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The OU statement points out that school districts are mandated by law to deliver ESSA services to all students, including those in non-public schools. All too often, though, school districts fail to implement these programs. The revised ESSA includes recommendations from the Orthodox Union that will, hopefully, greatly improve the distribution of equitable services for all students.

The impact of ESSA for our community, though, goes beyond merely assuring an equitable distribution of services.

We are not championing or condemning Common Core itself. As concern among educators and parents increases about this curriculum, we have to ask ourselves: Does this fit in with what Shlomo Hamelech told us?

Chanoch lanaar al pi darko — educate the child according to his way.

That is how we make sure he is not left behind.