Liz King is Legislative Director for Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa). She has worked in this office since 2005, prior to which she taught middle school in Philadelphia with Teach For America for two years. In her current role she coordinates the Congressman’s legislative agenda and advises him on education, health and social policy. She is passionately committed to improving access and outcomes in education and to ensuring that all students’ potential is realized. She is especially excited about the changing American demographics and the potential to bring new thinking and new thinkers to old problems. Believing that there should always be a strong link between practice and policy, Liz volunteers as a one-on-one tutor and as a classroom volunteer. She holds a BA in Government and Religion from Wesleyan University and an MS in Elementary Education from St. Joseph’s University.
In 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law, it became official policy of the United States government that all students attending public schools (with the exception of students with the most significant disAbilities) meet grade level standards by the year 2014. For the first time, the basic expectation most parents of middle class, White, typically abled children have of their neighborhood school now applied to all classrooms, schools and districts without adjusting for race, income, first language, or IEP. I believe that this is the most important step towards real equity for all students at the federal level since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case desegregated schools in 1954.
While this clearly did not create full equity in access to an excellent education, and didn’t responsibility take into account how far many students, schools and districts were (and are) from this goal, or the incredible changes it would take to enable all students to meet this standard, it was a critical watershed moment. Since its inception, our country has never taken seriously all that students in poverty, students of color and students with disAbilities have to offer. This standard – universal proficiency – requires that educators and systems see beyond the biases that we all hold, and to expect the best of every student.
There is much that is said about the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). There are those who decry the outsized focused on school challenges instead of remedies, and those who celebrate the significant civil rights implications of disaggregated student performance data. Beyond the well-known pros and cons, I believe the value of universal proficiency has been grossly overlooked, dismissed or misunderstood.
From the moment the law was signed, there were those who balked at the perceived absurdity of the 100% goal. Surely that couldn’t include most students with disAbilities! Or those learning English as a second language! Or those living in poverty!
Those of us who are passionately committed to the limitless potential of all students, and who know too well the differentiation of expectations that condemns students in poverty and students of color to lower expectations and less rigorous instruction must defend this provision of the law as we look to the next reauthorization of NCLB.
There is good reason to be skeptical of the blunt, imperfect, and low-level assessments that most states currently use to measure what students know and are able to do. We certainly need more sophisticated and meaningful measures that are truly able to discern what students have, and have not yet, learned. We also need to make sure that the standards themselves represent what we want from a comprehensive, well-rounded education that prepares individuals to be successful and participate meaningfully in a globalized world. These changes will take additional and reallocated resources, as well as a much better understanding than we have now of how to successfully improve and sustain schools that have not been serving students well for a very long time.
Even with improvements in assessment and curriculum that would benefit most students, we still need to find better ways to ensure that those students who are excluded from mainstream assessment are still meeting their own potentials. In spite of the many challenges created by NCLB, and the many outstanding questions of equity, we cannot let the assertion that all students are capable of rigorous academic work fade away. I realize that words alone do not drive improved instruction, change school cultures, or provide much needed resources, especially words tucked in a Federal law whose implementation often bears little resemblance to the purported ideals of its drafters. We need to start somewhere, and given the despicable history of words written into Federal laws, universal proficiency is a much needed beginning.
*The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance, but they do raise important questions about educational equity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.