President George W. Bush’s much maligned education law may not leave any children behind, but it is pulling them forward far too late. In order to ensure that students pass the standardized tests required under the 2002 No Child Left Behind act, school districts across the country are regrettably being forced to eliminate history, science and other courses for low-performing high school students in favor of remedial reading and math classes.
While axing high school electives in order to provide extra reading and math lessons is an educational travesty, it is a necessary measure in light of the drastically inadequate preparation that most American students receive in their elementary and especially middle schools. Completing eighth grade without competency in reading, writing and math is unacceptable. Elementary and middle schools must ensure that students leave with a solid background in these areas.
It is in this respect that the No Child Left Behind Act is failing. Instead, the problem is left to high schools, which are forced to “teach to the test” because their funding is tied to student performance on standardized assessments. But for students who will not have the opportunity to continue their education after high school, those four years are the final chance to gain necessary knowledge.
Public schools do more than promote basic proficiency in the standard academic areas. They also prepare generations of Americans for a lifetime of citizenship and participation in a democratic society. When high school students spend their entire school day learning reading and math, instead of taking other classes in the humanities and sciences, they fail to acquire the intellectual curiousity that makes them interested and capable citizens of the United States and of the world.
Earlier this week, federal Department of Education spokesperson Chad Colby told The New York Times, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask our schools to get kids proficient at grade level in reading and math.” It is not unreasonable, in fact, it is vital. This should be good enough reason for public officials, from those in elected office to the Department of Education, to undertake some deep reflection on how to better acheive these goals. A new initiative that aims at increasing the quality of reading and math preparation in elementary and middle school, and avoids the problematic tendency to teach to standardized tests, should be a top priority.