"No Child Left Behind is dead."
That was the bold statement of education researcher Richard Rothstein, who argued the federal law has actually widened the achievement gap and cannot be fixed.
Rothstein, a former education columnist for the New York Times, said the law is doomed for a variety of political and substantive reasons.
"Not only can't it be fixed, NCLB is having the effect of widening the achievement gap," Rothstein said.
He said the law's unrelenting focus on test scores has forced educators to overwhelmingly concentrate on reading and math skills. Numerous studies have documented that this comes at the expense of many other important areas like social studies, science, music, art, physical education and character education. "There's much more of a shift in focus in schools serving disadvantaged students," he said. "A different kind of gap is emerging… Rich kids will study philosophy and art, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets."
Rothstein said educators around the country say the testing craze has forced them to concentrate on the "bubble kids," those who are just below proficiency points. "By focusing on them, you make Adequate Yearly Progress," he said. "But this diminishes the attention for the high-scoring child and those at the bottom, because they have no chance."
Rothstein suggested policy-makers need to focus on the socio-economic reasons for the achievement gap: health care issues, housing, economic stability for families and different parenting skills by social class.
He cited studies showing the achievement gap exists as early as age 3, arguing that a lack of early childhood education can lead to deficits in vocabulary, hand-eye coordination and higher-level thinking skills.
Watching too much television can lead to vision problems, Rothstein said.
He cited one study on early literacy acquisition that counted the number of words infants and toddlers are exposed to, depending on social class. The middle-class child heard 2,000 words per hour; the working-class child heard 1,300 words an hour, and the child whose family was on welfare heard 600 words per hour. By the fourth birthday, the middle class child's vocabulary is twice as large, Rothstein said. "Can teachers, schools and curriculum, no matter how good, make up the difference and close the gap for these children?" he asked.
He cited similar studies on children's exposure to books. The average college-educated parent reads every day to his or her child, while working-class parents read one or two books a week to their child, Rothstein said.
Social class differences go far beyond child-rearing practices, Rothstein said. Some are more easily remediated such as improving health care. He cited studies showing children from low-income families have six times the rate of asthma, causing absentee problems. Other health-related issues include poor dental health, vision care and exposure to lead and other toxins. "All these things add up to the achievement gap," he said.
Establishing full-service clinics in school, including medical, dental and optometric care, would be "relatively inexpensive compared to what we spend on other education reform initiatives," Rothstein said.
Offering disadvantaged children high-quality after-school and summer programs would also go a long way toward narrowing the gap, Rothstein said.
"We're not talking about remedial math and reading," he noted. Instead, he suggested dance lessons, music programs and exposure to sports leagues that middle class children regularly enjoy.
Rothstein urged his audience not to be afraid to call attention to the underlying socio-economic causes for the achievement gap. He said national education groups, like the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, are wasting their time trying to fix NCLB. "They fear being accused of making excuses," he said.
AFT Executive Vice President Antonia Cortese (pictured) said the union certainly does not shy away from talking about social injustices.
"It is a very sensitive subject in Washington," Cortese said. "Many times I've been told you're making excuses … or that unions are protecting the status quo."
She said unions are very concerned about early-childhood education and other social justice issues. "Unions have long worked to correct social injustice,"Cortese said.
But it's also the union's job to highlight the many schools that are making amazing progress in educating disadvantaged students and work to share successful practices with others. "We can never give up on doing what we can do within our sphere," Cortese said. "School improvement is our job. It's union work."