Can Albuquerque's public schools be run by numbers and mandates? When test scores become the end goal of education—by which students and teachers are measured—there are far-reaching implications and powerful repercussions, often perpetuating the inequalities as old as the nation itself, the very antithesis of progress. With the inception of No Child Left Behind in 2001 a new set of rules were imposed in the public education system, with an emphasis on so-called “accountability.” Success is then gauged through test scores and schools that don't meet test score standards are threatened with a mayoral takeover and teachers with the loss of their jobs. “No Child Left Behind has driven education in a new direction … Education isn't recognizable to me from what it used to be,” East San Jose Elementary School art educator Amy Sweet said of the prevailing system.
No Child Left Behind legislation is an arrogant and out-of-touch attempt to disprove the simple, quantifiable fact that things like poverty, a lack of healthcare and a turbulent family life can doom children to failure in school. This is illustrated in the bulk of research on the national level—for example, a Program for International Student Assessment study illustrated that American schools in which fewer than 10% of students were poor outperformed schools in nations known for high academic achievement like Finland, Japan and South Korea. However, in the typical public school in New Mexico where there is a high percentage of students living in poverty, graduation rates continue to fall. Yet, instead of addressing the social ills that lead to poverty, the onus is put on teachers who are also doomed to failure when they work in schools where poverty exists. “It's not because the kids aren't smart or the teachers aren't good. It's because of poverty,” Sweet intimated, her posture and voice reflecting the sadness and frustration felt by many working in the public school system.
With more traditional public schools being branded as “failing” there has been an increased push towards the privatization of public schools, mostly in the form of charter schools, but in some cases (Chicago, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles) control of schools is given over to the mayor and a mayor-appointed school board. In Albuquerque more and more charter schools swing open their doors and parents are given the opportunity to shop around the city for the best school for their child. At face value, that choice seems to be a bright spot in a dismal landscape. Yet, the charter school movement tends to expand the chasm of inequality. Poor families can't afford transportation and charter schools are selective about the students they accept, invariably accepting fewer children who are learning English as a second language or have disabilities, in order to maintain higher test scores.
“The emphasis [used to be] on community. People supported one another, talked to others who lived in their neighborhood. When people 'shop' for schools and scatter students throughout the city, you lose something,” Sweet said. “People no longer have a vested stake in their community.” Because of their unique status as publicly funded, yet private entities, resources are also diverted from traditional public schools to their more successful, wealthier charter school counterparts, further perpetuating failure in traditional public schools. “It's an unequal playing field,” Sweet continued. “Public schools are just as segregated now as ever.”
Under the current system, the only measure of success are the results of standardized tests, so, operating under the threat of the loss of their job, educators are forced to “teach to the test.” “It's a movement from the art of education to scripted teaching,” Sweet said of the prevailing classroom. This comes at the expense of the arts and other subjects that aren't tested—“the things that are valuable to well-rounded students and human beings.” Sweet recognizes the importance of her role as an art teacher, something little time is set aside for. “I realize my sliver of time is one of the few things that feels meaningful, that is relevant and collaborative and imaginative … where kids who aren't successful in academics can feel successful and kids who are can feel challenged.”
More than the experiential, creative components of education are lost as the squeeze of No Child Left Behind is felt in our public schools. Instead of empowering local schools to improve by identifying and serving the needs of their unique communities, power is, as ever, consolidated to the wealthy, as are public funds. Despite rigorous testing standards and increased emphasis on accountability, there is still a strong connection between socioeconomic background and educational achievement. When test scores become the pinnacle of academic achievement, teachers and students alike are done a great disservice, where those who have, according to Sweet, “already been marginalized are punished further,” by an institution that is meant to serve them. “Traditional public education is the foundation of democracy,” she said. It is a strong metaphor, and when extended and examined, a very troubling one.