Attending my public high school reunion in Vestal, New York late last month, I spoke to an old English teacher of mine, now retired, and to a classmate who has himself become an English teacher (my classmate was bracing himself to return to teaching this month). Two separate conversations, two generations of teachers. What I took away from both was a sense of festering unease with the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
“The idea of leaving no child behind,” my old classmate explained, “has focussed more and more resources on the worst students.” Budgets have ballooned for special ed—special instructors, special classrooms, special textbooks and equipment—while starving budgets for mainstream instruction. “In my AP English class,” my old classmate continued, “only about half the students really belong. But I have to carry the other half even so.”
“No child left behind?” said the retired English teacher, one of the finest teachers I’ve ever encountered. “But there are kids who deserve to be left behind.” The legislation may have mandated strict new tests, but the pressure on teachers to ensure that all their students pass those tests means that in practiced public education gets dumbed down, not smartened up.
Is that true of all public schools? I couldn’t say. But a couple of teachers I respect believe that the federal government has made it harder, not easier, to provide kids with excellent instruction.