Friday, February 23, 2024

No Child Left Behind… What?

November 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Parenting From Balance©

Linda Shannon

The “No Child Left Behind” act was supposedly conceived of and designed as a fail-safe system by which our country would cultivate masses of academically superior graduates who could then compete on the world stage.  Oddly, though, one of the goals is counter to this strive for excellence: in unveiling the grand plan,  President G. W. Bush proclaimed that “every child should perform at average,” which is clearly a statistical impossibility; not to mention that it is a quick recipe for dumbing us down.

Instead, “NCLB” has inadvertently placed undue emphasis on elements that have nothing to do with academic success.  The entire system has instead created a generation of button-pushers who lack critical thinking skills as well as the emotional and social intelligence to get their needs met independently.  We are not creating people who are following in the footsteps of our forefathers: independent thinkers, inventors, and self-sufficient pioneers who have the skills and tenacity to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in Horatio Alger fashion.

“It is the great triumph of compulsory governmental monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my student’s parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.  Only a few lifetimes ago…originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world; social class boundaries  were relatively easy to cross; our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do much for themselves independently, and to think for themselves.” (John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down)

We have to take another critical look at this system before we churn out yet another generation of unmotivated, unskilled, and incapable graduates.

I know that it is hard, as a parent, not to be seduced by the thrill of having our child ‘succeed.’  But what exactly defines ‘success?’  In early childhood, we often judge success on how much a child knows.  This leads many parents to put their children into “academic” programs that focus on abstract knowledge, rather than experiential, play-based programs. Is this drive for children to know lots of things, and to perform their knowledge, for the benefit of the children, or their parents, or the result of a misinformed society creating academic standards that are not developmentally appropriate?

“Except for a handful, who may or may not be good students, children fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives.  Why do they fail?  They fail because they are afraid, bored, and confused.” (John Holt, How Children Fail)

These government-subsudized, mainstream programs have a child ready (academically) for today’s highly academic kindergartens replete with developmentally inappropriate curriculum, by the time they are 5!  Until 2002, when “No Child Left Behind” act was put into motion, kindergarten was developmentally appropriate: it provided a transitional period bridging the developmental leap between concrete and abstract cognitive abilities.

“A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development.  It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function.”   (Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, Alix Spiegel)

This cognitive shift typically takes place between 11 and 13 years old, and allows a child to glean productive information from abstract, worksheet work, rather than needing to work solely in an experiential plane.  This developmental leap does not do away completely with the value of experiential educational projects in the educational arena, however.  All the way up to adulthood, people still learn best by doing.

So the bigger quest here is how to get administrators and parents to relax, and understand that development takes time; and that time is dictated only by the clock within their child. And there is no judgment on this. Some kids are ready to read at 4, and some are ready at 8. It doesn’t mean that either is better. They will all read finally, by third grade. Today’s kids are not failing the academic standards – the academic standards are failing our kids! Everyone has their own timetable. If we honor it, then our children can bloom, and their innate gifts will emerge.

“If you read the FAQ page on the common core standards website, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or democracy.”  Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase

“success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”  If these new national standards are more economic than educational in their aspiration, more about winning than learning, devoted more to serving the interests of business than to meet the needs of kids, then we’ve merely painted a 21st century facade on a hoary, dreary model of school as employee training.  Yes, we want excellent teaching and learning for all — although our emphasis should be less on student achievement (read: test scores) than on Student’s achievements.”  (Alfie Kohn, Debunking the Case for National Standards)

I read somewhere that Einstein didn’t speak until he was 5. If he had been born in this decade, he would be facing evaluation by psychiatrists, and probably drug therapy for his potential autism or other neurological problem… and then what would the world lose?

A child is ready to learn when s/he is ready to learn.

“David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are thirteen, you can’t tell which one learned first – the five-year spread means nothing at all.  But in school, I label Rachel “learning disabled” and slow David down a bit, too.  For a paycheck, I teach David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop.  He won’t outgrow that dependency.  I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, “special education” fodder.  She’ll be locked in her place forever.”  (John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction)

I read somewhere else that any academic advantage a child has in kindergarten is short-lived, and outgrown by the time they are in fourth grade. This means that, in the words of Bev Bos,

“if you take their 3rd and 4th years, and spend them drilling on alphabet and counting, you have simply wasted their time.” (Bev Bos, Tumbling Over the Edge)

These children might know how to spell apple, but do they know that an apple is crisp, and cool, and sweet, and white in the inside, red on the outside? They might know that  1+1=2 , but do they know that “1” weighs less than “2”?  Being Fluent in numeracy means understanding the concepts of math implicitly.  It does not mean memorizing symbols and formulas.

This press for our children to learn more facts earlier and earlier reminds me of the new “your baby can read” fad.  Taken out of context and applied, it only serves to steal time from our children.  What is the sense of this? It reminds me of something I did, when I first met my husband. He is a native Farsi speaker, which is written in the Arabic alphabet. I wanted to show him that I could read it, so I memorized the alphabet in one night. Not a big deal, really, since there are only 26 or so symbols to remember. In the morning I demonstrated my new ability to read Farsi by reading the title of the Persian newspaper. My husband said “very good. impressive. Now tell me what it means.”

The same goes for these little guys who are drilled to learn abstract facts and codes. They can definitely do it – that is not even in question. Their minds are supple sponges, ready to soak up anything within reach. But when we give them things to learn that are driven by our agenda, is that to their benefit, or ours? Are we allowing them to develop their gifts? Are we even allowing them to develop naturally? We have fears, as parents, of our child “fitting in.” What happened to the originality and inventive thinking that made us so special as a country in the first place?

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not by accident but he result of substantial education which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.(John Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction)

And this pressure we feel to keep our child moving in rhythm with the rest of their society is all governed by “standards.” And those standards for children are not developmentally appropriate. Kindergarten is intended as an arena for social and emotional developmental, and first grade a transitional year as our children move from the concrete to the abstract. The system now has foreshortened this in a disastrous way… in fact, many people now refuse to send their child to kindergarten until the age of 6, to avoid the stressful experience their child may encounter in today’s academic and achievement-oriented kindergartens.

According to many diverse scholars from John Gottman to Diane Ravitch, the number one indicator of academic success is social and emotional intelligence.  So if we want our children to truly “succeed” in school, how to we get them there?  We need to pay more attention to parent education and support programs, and to the quality of childcare preceding kindergarten, so children can develop the social and emotional skills necessary to succeed in our public school systems.

In setting guideline for appropriate standards for young people, most challenges arise because the people in charge lack an understanding of developmental milestones and stages. It is pervasive, throughout our society, and trickles down to the parents’ level. The stigma of having a child who is “slow” is a hard one to bear. And if your child doesn’t measure up according to academic standards, then he the implication is that he is a little inferior than the rest of the “normal” population. Ouch! It’s hard not to take that one personally. This is your crown jewel, your little prince, the apple of your eye. A chip off the old block. And you have just been informed that he is not quite good enough. (And what does that say about you…?) And the funny thing is that there is really no “not measuring up” at all! If we all understood ages and stages, then most of these judgments about our children would not be made at all!

Just because our society has advanced into the computer age does not mean that children do not still need to develop from the ground, up. We need to allow children the opportunity to experience the REAL world before they advance into the abstract. We need to let them pick and eat and hold an apple, before we expect them to recognize that a black line drawing represents one.

But the bigger challenge, as educators and child advocates, is how to express this to parents, caretakers, and other educators in a way that they will embrace. How to express this without being judgmental and therefore turning them off completely to what we have to say (and therefore losing the opportunity to make a positive change in someone’s life, and in the world itself.)

If we would just take a moment to stop and consider our aspirations for our own children, then we could get rid this new yet arcane system that is digging us into a deep hole of intellectual poverty.  By doing so, we could perhaps end up with well-adjusted, productive, self-fulfilled children and citizens.  Isn’t that the goal, anyway?


Linda Shannon

Founder and Director,

Riviera PlaySchool in Redondo Beach, CA

A Mindful program for the ‘Whole Child,’ inspired by the best of Attachment Parenting, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf and Non-Violent Communication.


(articles are available online via google)

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, Alix Spiegel (article)

Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?, Paul Tough (article)

Debunking the Case for National Standards, Alfie Kohn (article)

Tumbling Over the Edge, Bev Bos (pp 23)

How Children Fail, John Holt (pp 5 ~ 6)

Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Gatto (pp 13)

Dumbing Us Down, John Gatto (pp 11)

Further Reading:

Learning All the Time, John Holt

The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller

On Becoming a Person, Carl Rodgers

The Hurried Child, David Elkind

The Aware Baby, Aletha Solter

The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff


One Response to “No Child Left Behind… What?”
  1. Åsa says:

    wow, I totally agree with you. I’m going to have to spread your post 🙂

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