Falling Further Behind

March 1st, 2008

No Child Left Behind failing disadvantaged students

By Kendra Sundal

While political candidates and media preoccupy themselves with health care and immigration debates, our public schools are failing countless children. No Child Left Behind receives growing criticism from educators and families, while simultaneously receiving less funding than is necessary to make it a success. One of the most troubling aspects of the law, which is often overlooked in these debates, reinforces educational inequalities by systematically according failing status to schools with large numbers of special needs students and English language learners.

While designed to reward schools where standardized test scores are highest, the testing methods have been scrutinized as potentially discriminatory towards special education, minority and English-language learning students. To further complicate matters, special needs students and English language learners are transferred out of these categories when they are able to meet standards of proficiency according to the tests. However, these successes are not accounted for in school data, and this ends up hurting schools with large numbers of special needs students and English language learners. Students who reach proficiency are taken out of the subgroup, leaving only the “failing” students behind. Not only does this method discount the successful transition of some students, it also accords the schools a “failing” status based on the students who remain or who are added to the subgroups each year.

This creates what some researchers have termed a “diversity penalty.” Schools with a high percentage of students in these subgroups—which include English language learners, as well as special needs, poor and minority students—are disproportionately labeled as “needing improvement.” In order to address this problem, there must be a provision in the law to account for successes in these subgroups, and the students attaining proficiency must count towards the data about these groups. This is essential to determine how well the schools are performing, especially in regard to individualized education plans for special needs students and English language learners.

There are other reforms needed in special education programs. As it stands, quotas are set up that limit the number of low-income and minority students who can be labeled “special needs,” because the laws currently argue that non-educational factors (such as family income) must be carefully considered so as to avoid disproportional representation of poor or minority students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately for the law, studies show that there is a decidedly high correlation between poverty and learning disabilities, and likewise a high occurrence of signs of learning disabilities among minority students.
In my own experience working for a summer school program I saw the effects of these quotas. In a city with a small minority population, only one of my 15 students was Caucasian, and only one of my students had been afforded “learning disabled” status. The rest were simply failing—or, the system was failing them. These students deserve the individualized educational plans that their peers in special education receive, as a preventative measure against having them show up in summer school time and again without ever receiving the attention and support they need and deserve—to get ahead.
True, it would mean admitting that racial and class inequalities still thrive in our schools. This is a necessary step, however, to overcoming these inequities and adjusting educational support systems to meet the needs of our most disadvantaged and at-risk youth.

We have a duty to ensure that coming generations will see greater social, economic, and political equality in education. Such measures will result in fewer black men behind bars, fewer families on unemployment, and a more educated workforce. If poor and minority students were encouraged to remain in school, with the support necessary to help them succeed, we would be taking a step towards the educational equality envisioned in the 1950s but never achieved. Imagining equality is easy enough, but now we must recognize our stake in the success of students across the country. In order to bring students up to the levels of achievement NCLB desires, greater reforms and greater accountability are in order.
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Kendra Sundal is a junior politics major. Email her at ksundal1[at]ithaca.edu.

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