Impact Of No Child Left Behind Is Debatable

Seven years after the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, Congress has struggled to answer a simple question: Is it working? Lawmakers could learn a lot about the pros and cons of the law from a group of high school debaters.

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Seven years after the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, Congress is struggling to answer a simple question: is it working? As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, lawmakers could learn a few things from a group of high school debaters.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's Saturday, 8:00 a.m., and the cafeteria at Theodore Roosevelt High School is filling up quickly with debate teams from across Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning, ladies, welcome. So you guys want to take over these two tables?

SANCHEZ: There's the all-female team from Cesar Chavez Academy. Next to them is the Lab School. John Aragona(ph) is the coach.

Mr. JOHN ARAGONA (Debate Coach): All of our students attend Lab because they have a language-based learning disability, so we're kind of - kind of the odd one out because we're not supposed to be able to read and speak, but we do have a lot of fun.

SANCHEZ: The kids though look serious as they strategize. During the debate, they're only allowed to use hand-written notes on a single lime-green sheet of paper. And they won't know until the last minute if they're going to argue for or against the topic at hand, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Debater): (Unintelligible) how Texas and Kentucky cheatedā€¦

SANCHEZ: The team from Bell Multicultural High School plans to zero in on two criticisms of the law. First, many states have watered down their academic standards. Second, Congress did not provide enough money to pay for the things schools must fix under the law. But Cosby Hunt, the coach, has a reminder for his students. Be ready to point out the good things that have happened because of No Child Left Behind.

Mr. COSBY HUNT (Debate Coach): We can't ignore the gains that are own school has made in the last year: 19 percentage points up in reading, 20 percentage points up in math. So it's working at our own school.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Debater): You could use like don't throw away the baby with the bath water.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Debater): Yeah, I put that on there.

SANCHEZ: They're ready, just in time.

Unidentified Man: It is now 10:24. You'll be in your rooms debating at 10:44. Go for it.

SANCHEZ: Kids disperse to their assigned classrooms. First stop, the Lab School versus Thurgood Marshall Academy.

Mr. ALEX LIPPO(ph) (Debater): Good day, Judge. My name Alex Lippo. I represent the Lab School of Washington and I am for the opposition. Judge, No Child Left Behind had a noble purpose, but the sad truth is it did not serve it.

SANCHEZ: Alex, a tall 16-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair, struggles to keep his baggy pants up, but quickly finds his rhythm.

Mr. LIPPO: First of all, test discrimination, Judge, they're allowed to discriminate against races, against disabled people, English as a second languageā€¦

SANCHEZ: Alex's teammates rapped their knuckles on their desks in approval. Students with special needs, Alex argues, won't always do well on tests. He knows, he's one of them. At the Lab School, students with learning disabilities get more time and attention. Under No Child Left Behind, says Alex, regular schools don't allow it. India Young(ph) of Thurgood Marshall Academy offers her rebuttal.

Ms. INDIA YOUNG (Debater): First, I'd like say that the NCLB has goals and the goal is for 2014, so until 2014 you can't really say something has failed until that goal has been met.

SANCHEZ: Down the hallway, it's Bell Multicultural versus Washington, D.C.'s Math, Science and Technology Charter School led by its top debater, Leona Law(ph).

Ms. LEONA LAW (Debater): No Child Left Behind is a dismal failure.

SANCHEZ: The law relies too much on standardized tests, Leona argues. They can't possibly take into account the hardships that keep many kids from learning.

MS. LAW: I don't think teachers know the half(ph) about what students face in their home life or in their personal life. Instead of these tests, we need to place more counselors to help the students.

SANCHEZ: Leona pauses and Samuel Eddum(ph) from Bell jumps in. Do you oppose all tests? he asks. Leona stays on message.

Ms. LAW: All children learn differently. Some children are visual learners, some children can hear something and learn, some children need to watch a movie and learn. I don't think that these tests serve all different types of learners - yet.

Mr. SAMUEL EDDUM (Debater): Do colleges, when they administer the SAT and the ACT, do they somehow manage to see how well a student can paint or how well they can draw or how well they can play music, do they do that?

SANCHEZ: Sam and Leona go back and forth for another half hour. The first round of debating is over by noon. Kids break for pizza, and in between bites they tell me that to them No Child Left Behind is not just some abstract policy. They've seen how the law has changed their schools. Nathan Sanders(ph), 17, from Bell Multicultural, says it has changed him too.

Mr. NATHAN SANDERS (Debater): I knew I had the potential but - however, I was too lazy to apply myself. Then with the right teaching under the No Child Left Behind, through Bell Multicultural, I've indeed excelled and become much better of a student.

SANCHEZ: Nathan is convinced that without No Child Left Behind, teachers would have given up on him. But here he is, representing his school, debating that very law.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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