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A birthday circle for NCLB?

No celebration here. A mere statement of fact.

The No Child Left Behind Act turned ten this past Sunday. I originally had no plans to mark the occasion, but when Rita Solnet made a birthday quip on Twitter earlier today, I couldn’t help but think about how I used to celebrate ten-year-olds’ birthdays.

In my classroom, I would host a “birthday circle” for each of my students’ birthdays (or half-birthdays, if they were born during a non-school month). At the end of that day, we’d all sit in a circle in our meeting area, and each of us would take turns saying something we appreciate about the birthday girl or boy. This had to be something positive and substantive that they added to our classroom community, not just “Uhh…I like your…shoes.” Then we’d sing  happy birthday and enjoy some cupcakes, or I’d give out candy if they couldn’t bring anything of their own. I embraced the ritual during my time as a student teacher in a Quaker school, after seeing how the act of saying something positive both boosted the recipient’s self-esteem, and helped all of the kids– even those who didn’t necessarily get along with the birthday boy or girl– recognize the Light in each other.

So then I started thinking about what would happen, if there were a birthday circle for NCLB. Would the education community be able to say something positive and substantive about it?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to, saying that

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the first time exposed achievement gaps and created a conversation about how to close them. The law has held schools accountable for the performance of all students no matter their race, income level, English-proficiency or disability. Schools can no longer point to average scores while hiding an achievement gap that is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

This is what people normally lean on when they try to talk about the good side of NCLB. As a Black woman, educator, and one-time History major, though, this ALWAYS bothers me, as it did master teacher Renee Moore. A few days ago, she tweeted:

@askgeorge I am SO tired of folk claiming we didn’t know ’bout ed inequality until NCLB. Shows how much Blk tchrs & parents were ignored.

News flash: You know all those Black and Brown people out in the streets, in the courts, in board meetings, waging sit-ins and college occupations agitating for better education over the decades? They weren’t all hopping mad because they had no clue public schools weren’t serving them as well as they do (richer,) Whiter children. You all had the chance to know that too, well before George W. Bush and his ed profiteering friends came along. Let’s lay that one to rest, shall we?

Guest posting on Living in Dialogue, John Thompson points out that a few other advocates of the policy struggled to find substantive nice things to say about NCLB, and so instead resorted to making excuses, blaming things like “barriers erected by adult interests, bureaucratic routine, structural rigidity, and political stalemate” for its failures. (Hmm. ‘Cause it couldn’t be the case that a society in turmoil,  increasingly inadequate educational resources– or the literal, statistical impossibility of achieving 100% proficiency on tests whose scoring cutoffs are still influenced by older norm-referenced tests– was what really did us in.)

So I’m still at a loss for something positive and substantive to say to NCLB for its birthday…except that through its massive failure, it has succeeded in one thing: bringing together teachers, parents, students and communities who are fed up with it, the misguided policy decisions it has inspired, and the educational neglect it has helped entrench, and further expose. After all, without it, there would have been fewer common experiences to connect and galvanize such a diverse group of people, from outraged professors in Connecticut, to fed up parents across America, to angry principals from Arizona and New York, to fiery superintendents from Texas, to passionate teens in New Mexico, and pissed off teachers nationwide.

(You know? I think I understand now what it must have been like for some of my students who struggled to find something nice to say about that kid they really couldn’t stand, just so they could get to the cupcake. Mexican Chocolate, here I come!)

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