No Child Left Behind: 'Revolutionary,' Controversial Idea

President Obama recently announced big changes to the Bush-era education law. Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, says the law is still a good idea, and it made his teachers pay attention to all students. Author Peg Tyre says the law focused the nation on the achievement gap but turned many schools into "test prep factories." Both speak with guest host Jacki Lyden.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: To get some perspective now on No Child Left Behind and the announced changes to the law, I'm joined by author Peg Tyre. Her recently published book is called "The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve." Also joining me is Steve Perry, founder and principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut. His latest book is titled "Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve Even If It Means Picking A Fight." He also appears on CNN as an education contributor.

Thank you both so much for joining us today.

STEVE PERRY: Thank you.

PEG TYRE: It's a pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: So as the White House moves to do away with key provisions of No Child Left Behind - or at least, providing a waiver for some requirements - I wanted to start by asking both of you if you thought that No Child Left Behind was a good idea 10 years ago, and if you still feel the same way now. Steve?

PERRY: It was a good idea. It was a revolutionary idea, and it's still a good idea. What it said, at its core, was that just because you run a suburban school in which most of the students are doing well, that doesn't mean that you're doing well as a school. There are minority populations or smaller groups that also - sub-groups that also deserve to have the same quality of education. And until all children are learning at the same level, your school won't be the type of school that we think is doing well.

TYRE: Yeah, I would have to agree with you. I think that No Child Left Behind focused the eyes of the nation on what is an appalling achievement gap between low-income kids and middle-class kids. So there's plenty of middle-class people previous to No Child Left Behind who thought their schools were doing just fine. And in fact, the many, many low-income children in this country were getting a severely substandard education.

LYDEN: Steve, you're a principal of a public school in Connecticut that claims to have sent 100 percent of its graduates to four-year universities. And you've also, in the past, been in favor of No Child Left Behind. So how did it affect your school, and your approach to running it?

PERRY: Well, what No Child Left Behind did was, it made us pay attention to every single group in our school. That means students of color; that means white students; that means low-income students; that means English-language learners and special- education students. We, as a group of schools, now need to accept the fact that our information is public and not just the average, the aggregate score. So if you have very, very high highs and just a few students in the school with low lows, your school does well - in the old regime.

But with No Child Left Behind, what happened was all children had to do well, and having some groups doing well isn't enough.

TYRE: But the down side of that, of course, is that the testing was in English and in math so many, many schools became focused on those subjects as a way to concentrate the children's efforts in improving their knowledge in those areas. So Margaret Spellings, the secretary of Education under Bush, used to say what gets tested gets taught. And that's, in fact, what happened in schools. Now...

PERRY: But that's not the case anymore, because science is also part of it. The tests were phased in, and no state was told which sections. They could have tested on any of the sections. And what happened was, people decided to focus on the skills that were being tested. But in teaching English, you can also teach someone to write a historical essay. It doesn't take you off that course, nor does it take you off the course of writing toward science.

TYRE: Sure, you can. But that's not what happened in the country, broadly across the country. Many, many schools, especially low-income schools - certainly not yours - but many, many schools became test-prep factories. The problem...

PERRY: Apparently not that well, because they still did so poorly.

LYDEN: Let me just ask you to pause here. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about the Obama administration's proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind law. Our guests are school principal and author Steve Perry, and author Peg Tyre. Peg, as we know, the Obama administration is planning to exempt some states - if they apply for a waiver and meet certain requirements - from a 2014 deadline to get kids to meet proficiency requirements in math and reading. Do you think that granting states the waivers is the right approach to addressing No Child Left Behind's shortcomings?

TYRE: Well, I think that there is a large shortcoming that's not being addressed, and that is the way that we're testing kids. And when we administer those very inexpensive multiple-choice questions, the problem is all of the test questions are drawn from the lower third of the material. So the standards that we're asking kids to meet are actually - the curriculum standards are actually too low for our ambitious goals for our children. And while No Child Left Behind focused the nation on the achievement gap between middle-class and low-income kids, one of the things that Obama's new proposal is going to do is to promote what he's calling college readiness. Now, it's a vague term but what, specifically, the issue is, is that in low-income communities, children can get a B in class but actually, they're not doing B work. So a B in a low-income community is a C.

And what happens is children go through school, K through 12. They think they're college-ready, and then they take the SATs and they realize they're actually in the bottom 20 percent of all college-goers. They don't have a chance at financial aid, and the American dream begins to move farther away from those families.

And so that's a real tragedy that's unfolding in our low-income schools, and I think that Obama is aware of that and is trying to focus the nation on that issue.

LYDEN: Steve, how do you explain the fact that so many states are expected to apply for these waivers? I mean, what does that say about the state of public education?

PERRY: It says that they've been caught with their pants down. They're not teaching the children those basic skills. Many people talk about the tests themselves as bad tests, as - we're doing a practice test today at our school. And what the tests are testing are basic skills. And when you look at a student who will perform at about a four or a five - they're usually on a five-point scale, which - four or five is about the top - you wouldn't think that that child is unintelligent. In fact, if you saw that child, you'd think that they're a pretty solid student.

And when we talk about - that we're focusing on the lowest part, there's some truth to that. However, the overwhelming majority of the districts in the country are not performing. The tests themselves are not the issue. It's like standing on a scale that says that you weigh too much, and throwing the scale through the window and blaming it for your weight gain. It's just not the reason. The reason why is that teaching and learning is not at the forefront of what we need to do. It's not just that we're assessing what's being taught. It's just that we're finding out for the first time in American history that maybe our schools aren't as good as we thought.

The focus that we've talked about, on test prep, would seem to give one the impression that that's all we're doing in our schools. However, if we're doing that, then why - in an international comparison - are American students among the worst test-takers on earth?

LYDEN: OK. Peg, do you want to make a quick rejoinder there?

TYRE: Yeah. I actually think that that's interesting, but there is problems with the tests. If people understood what standardized tests really are - that they're not made up of like, an easy question, a middlingly difficult question, and a question that tests complex knowledge. It's all drawn from the lower third of the material. It's a statistical instrument. It's not really like a test to evaluate knowledge. And I'm for testing. If you're going to teach them, test them. But test them in the right way.

LYDEN: Peg Tyre is the author of "The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve," and she joined us from NPR's New York Bureau. Steve Perry is an author, school principal and CNN education contributor, and his latest book is called "Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve, Even if it Means Picking a Fight." And he joined us from WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. Thanks very much, both of you.

PERRY: Thank you.

TYRE: Thank you.

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