Left Behind?

By Wayne Au

Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools, Deborah Meier and George Wood eds. (Beacon Press, 2004). 152 pp. $13.

By Wayne Au

Many Children Left Behind is a short collection of mostly accessible essays written by some of progressive education’s leading activists, academics, and commentators. The book includes chapters by Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp; Monty Neill of FairTest; author Alfie Kohn; professors Linda Darling-Hammond and Theodore R. Sizer; and editors Deborah Meier and George Wood, co-principal and principal at their respective schools. Many Children seeks to peel back the shiny veneer of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) and is intended as a “citizen’s guide to NCLB” for consumption by the general public, undoubtedly to increase and build upon existing criticisms of the Bush Administration in the election season.

Several pieces in this collection are worth the price of the book. Darling-Hammond’s essay, “From ‘Separate but Equal’ to ‘No Child Left Behind,'” although technical at times, is one of the best comprehensive critiques of NCLB I’ve read to date. In one fell swoop, Darling-Hammond manages to outline nearly every major critique of NCLB. And she examines many of the policy’s outcomes that contradict its stated goal of eliminating achievement gaps.

Another standout contribution is Karp’s “NCLB’s Selective Vision of Equality,” which ponders the question of what would it look like if the U.S. government set the same standards for income equality as it has for test score equality. I also appreciated Kohn’s contribution, “NCLB and the Effort to Privatize Public Education,” which takes a hard look at how this legislation was written, backed, and endorsed by forces opposed to public education. Additionally, Neill’s essay, “Overhauling NCLB,” provides readers a comprehensive vision of what meaningful education reform should look like. Meier’s essay, “NCLB and Democracy,” helps readers consider what truly democratic education, education that includes the participation of all of its constituent communities, needs to embody.

While Many Children Left Behind is indeed a powerful tool for critiquing NCLB, it does have several weaknesses. It lacks contributions from parent or student activists, who have their own unique vantage points from which to view NCLB’s problematic approach to defining school failure and improvement. This shortcoming may make Many Children more useful for professional educators and academics than the broader audience it aspires to reach. And while the book successfully traces the damage NCLB is causing, Many Children Left Behind might also have done more to examine and encourage the possibilities for organizing and activism in response to the law.

One other issue with Many Children Left Behind is that several essays (and the copy on the back cover) use the term “citizen” a bit too loosely. The essays by Wood, Sizer, and Meier, while great for their popular protest of NCLB, talk about the need for “citizens” to be involved in education reform efforts. Their purpose seems clearly to promote civic engagement and action. But the term “citizen” is not necessarily the neutral, inclusive one the authors are looking for, especially in our nationalist, post-9/11 times. Many of the immigrants and English-language learners affected by this law are, in fact, not “citizens” at all. Yet their families and communities need to be included in the fight to overhaul NCLB. It’s worth a little terminological care to make sure our language is as inclusive as our dialogue needs to be.

These reservations aside, Many Children Left Behind is a needed book. Its timely and accurate criticisms of NCLB are sharp enough to poke some holes in the legislation. Meier and Wood have gathered a chorus of committed, thoughtful perspectives on NCLB that most readers will be able to understand. With the November elections looming, Many Children Left Behind is a welcome addition to the growing popular criticism of NCLB, Bush, and his administration’s policies.