Tough Talk on No Child Left Behind

At the National School Boards Association conference in Boston on Saturday, NSBA President Mary Broderick sent a tersely worded letter to President Obama urging him to work hand in hand with Congress to abandon the current “command-and-control” federal education oversight of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Unfortunately, I have no hope that the NCLB/ Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be reauthorized during the 2012 election year, therefore no change in the law will occur.

It is now five years beyond its original reauthorization target year of 2007. Both houses of Congress have made good-faith attempts at the rewrite for this politically charged federal legislation. The further the timeline is extended, the more the current law becomes farcical. The schools that will not be meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals with the 2012 test results come close to 70 percent and it’s getting worse.

During the next few weeks all public schools and their testing coordinators—usually principals, assistant principals and counselors—will be spending most of their time preparing for the very secure California Standards Testing. They will begin by unwrapping the cellophane of each testing packet, counting and distributing the tests, sharpening hundreds or thousands of No. 2 pencils, rearranging school schedules, going over protocols with faculty, collecting tests, counting them 2-3 times, locking them in secure testing closets, and much more.

The regular school schedules are abandoned, periods are lengthened for testing, instructional periods are shortened, and the students are usually not very excited about spending 5-8 days, off and on, filling in circles—completely that is—on an answer sheet for each question. This rite of spring is done for the sake of accountability for federal AYP scores and California state Academic Performance Index (API) scores.

For me, Broderick’s National School Board letter to the President was insightful, taking suggestions from a variety of state school board leaders from across the nation. Here are portions of the letter I endorse as one individual school board member:

“We want for each American child that you and Michelle want for Sasha and Malia—inspiration, aspiration, and creativity.”

“Clearly, we need some testing to gauge student learning, and we have no problem with appropriate accountability. But we have swung to a far extreme that is significantly hurting children.”

“Teachers’ focus on tests is undermining their potential and initiative, making it more difficult to share a love of learning with their students.”

“…(W)e can learn from Finland: It holds teachers in high regard (appealing to competence). Teacher training includes a strong feedback loop; professional development is embedded in the work, through coaching and ongoing support.”

“Across the nation, I have heard growing support for an emphasis on the early years. To close the achievement gaps, we must provide rich learning environments for children born with the least. We need to teach their parents how to encourage their learning.”

“Mr. President, pubic education in the U.S. is on the wrong track…I urge you to convene a national dialogue…to reconsider our educational direction.”

Strong words and thoughts from the president of 90,000 elected school board members. Going forward, research and best practice models should drive decisions about public education. NCLB was a good thing, because it placed school accountability at the top of public education’s agenda. Yet the U.S. dropout rate for high schools continues to grow and the national achievement gap does not shrink.

We cannot forget our schools are the cornerstone of our democracy. President Obama, let’s double down on a quality early education for all 3 and 4 year olds. In Santa Clara County we only have enough federal money to enroll 50 percent of the children whose families qualify for Head Start, and only 1 percent of those that qualify for early Head Start.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Mr. DiSalvo,

    Thanks to the content of your posts on public education I’ve been able to stay true to my quarterly reading pyramid despite my lifelong aversion to the horror genre. I appreciate your sparing me from the likes of Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe, neither of whom could ever twist, as you so deftly do, the commonplace components of everyday life into so terrifying a vision. Your call for feeding today’s precious 3 and 4 year olds to the voracious bureaucratic beast for which you labor and lobby—all in a hopeless attempt to satiate a feeding frenzy rooted in frustration and failure, has left me in fear for tomorrow’s 1 and 2 year olds, and even, perish the thought, the unborn.

    Dumb is not a disease. It is as natural a human condition as is smart, and is, as a result, beyond the curative powers of science or medicine. Schooling a dumb preschooler will no more make him smart than will playing in the yard all the time make a smart preschooler dumb. This country rose to power with a public education system that, in its broadest incarnation, never saw a need to bother four year olds (or their parents). To call for such drastic intervention now, when there is a classroom for every child, is to admit by strategy that which will never be admitted publicly.

    I could probably prove my point by listing any one of a hundred examples, but as evidence of the futility of trying to extract even mediocrity out of stupidity I’ll use the example closest to you, your own system of public education, which has spent five decades destroying itself in a foolish attempt to close an ability gap that exists everywhere in nature. Witness the letter you included in your post, one in which concern is expressed that a focus on testing has undermined teachers’ “potential and initiative.” Any way you cut it, “potential” denotes differences in ability; the existence of a gap, one that can be found between “possible, as opposed to actual; capable of being or becoming.”

    How is it okay to acknowledge gaps between teachers but not students? What has become clear is that the most damaging gap that exists in public education is between the pronouncements of its leaders and the plain, hard truth.

  2. > President Obama, let’s double down on a quality early education for all 3 and 4 year olds.

    There you have it:  The evil statist utopians revealing their evil statist agenda.

    Get children away from their parents and into the hands of the statist brainwashers at the earliest possible age.

    Parents are for sex and breeding.  Indoctrinating future citizens in appropriate social conditioning and correct ideological attitudes is the privilege and business of the state.

  3. “…(W)e can learn from Finland: It holds teachers in high regard (appealing to competence). Teacher training includes a strong feedback loop; professional development is embedded in the work, through coaching and ongoing support.”

    The Finnish fantasy is embedded in many schemes advanced for better education in California, but it ignores that the linguistic and ethnic diversity in California is not really found to such a degree in Finland.  That’s pretty obvious to every observer, but a new finding has emerged from UC-Berkeley that points out that a larger share of Americans holds higher education degrees than the Finnish peoples.

    That is, there is a disconnect between the fantasy education program in Finland, on the one hand, and education on the gritty front lines in America K-16, that DiSalvo should take into account.

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