Jesus told his disciples, "Let the children come to me." One cannot imagine Jesus refusing to bless a single child. Educating all children is a moral imperative, an evangelical task, and a requirement for social justice. This is why I teach.
It is also why the words "No Child Left Behind" are so powerfully resonant in our culture. The words conjure up the image of the open-armed, loving teacher, mindful of her entire flock, rounding up the straggling or wayward child and welcoming the lost student back into the fold and then guiding all of her charges to success.
However, such teaching does not happen in a vacuum. It happens when the institutions surrounding the teacher—including superintendents, school boards, principals, and the community—model and reflect the same nurturing spirit. Unfortunately, this is not what No Child Left Behind, the Bush administrations attempt to reform public education, has inspired within educational communities. Instead it has spawned feverish get-tough regulations imposed most harshly on the people working with the most difficult population of students in low-income schools that have not met Adequate Yearly Progress standards, which were set up under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to assess—using standardized tests and other means—student progress toward meeting minimum proficiency levels.
The lack of funding to meet the requirements of the Act impacts schools unevenly, because only those schools with low test scores are scrutinized. At these schools the teachers must focus their attention on teaching indicators instead of teaching children. In districts where many of the schools are in danger of not meeting the yearly progress standards, such as the one in which I teach, the entire system is subjected to "mandatory" scripted lessons on a weekly basis. These lessons are repetitious and boring test prep, with little or no relationship to the literary analysis or writing skills I may be focused on at the time. The continuity of my teaching is broken each time these mandatory lessons are required.
EVEN MORE disturbing, the entire curriculum is becoming less flexible, and more scripted, which for my classroom means that it is less rigorous. For example, in my jurisdiction many lessons prescribed by the curriculum do not allow enough time for the students to read an entire story, but instead focus very narrowly on a short passage through which one element of analysis can be taught. The opportunity to develop a love of reading and an appreciation for the whole is lost. Additionally, the narrow focus on one element makes it much harder to respond to what I think of as "golden" teaching moments. Sometimes such moments are as simple as prolonging a discussion of a story that has struck a chord with the students, or allowing time for yet another rewrite on a paper.
The narrowly focused curriculum does, in the short term, raise test scores for low performing students. However, it does not create the kind of scholarship that opens the doors of opportunity for disadvantaged students. That task requires creating intrinsically motivated learners, who will continue to pursue knowledge beyond the requirements of the test. With No Child Left Behind in place, students in lower performing schools are increasingly likely to be taught to the exact parameters of the test, while teachers in higher performing schools have more flexibility to educate their students well beyond the test. Social injustice and inequality are once again reinforced in our schools.
If we believe that each person has a right to fair treatment and that each has a unique relationship to the divine, then we must work toward education at the highest level for all of Gods children. For it is only when one can analyze the working of politics that one can truly be a voice in a democracy. It is only when one can articulate well enough to advocate for oneself that one can seek ones own justice. Jesus invitation to all people requires that each person be given these opportunities, not just in our rhetoric but in the implementation of our policies as well.
Heidi Schmidt was a public school teacher in Prince Georges County, Maryland, when this article appeared.