Does the Current Educational System Demonize or Criminalize Our Youth? In today’s society our children go down one of two paths: become successful or become criminals. The question then must be asked: have we allowed our children to be tracked down such opposite paths by using discipline as an excuse? There may well be an argument that ultimately the school and prison system have nothing to do with one another; however, I believe they have become one in the same. When a child can be suspended from school for bringing a plastic knife to cut his banana or a child can be expelled after two incidents of misbehavior, I think we have a problem. Where is the compassion and understanding that our education system was built on, particularly in cases of low income, urban or under-resourced communities? Our society casts off our urban youth as misfits and criminals, yet I feel our children can be saved: all we need is more education and a hard lesson on reality.
In 2001, then-president George Bush sought to save the children and reverse poor educational trajectories with what seemed to be a well thought out plan. The ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act would save our youth and close the gap between urban youth and wealthy children and the way they are taught from birth to college. This act would allow all children to receive the education they deserved no matter their race, gender, social class, or US citizenship. Through a standardized test based curriculum, these children would, in theory, have equal opportunity to receive top-notch education by highly qualified teachers in great schools. Higher test scores would lead to increased funding and more resources, thus perpetuating a cycle of change for the better. The very name was held up as an emblem of equality and hope for many poor, immigrant urban or otherwise marginalized children and families, who without this act would be left to fend for themselves in a failing system.
No Child Left Behind or NCLB, as it was later referred to, sought to diminish the claims of inequality in our school system. What NCLB failed to do was actually help children. With the passing of NCLB schools received an influx of children who had not previously been in the school system. Children from the poorest areas of the US were thrust into schools that were not equipped to handle what NCLB had in store for them. Schools in areas that were underfunded were now overcrowded as well. Classrooms with less than acceptable conditions, lack of books, supplies and space for children led to unsafe classroom and overall school system conditions. NCLB had truly left no child behind but it also left no school unaffected. Imagine a river that after days of flooding has reached it’s peak and each day it rains a little more – we hope the river will not flood but as days go on and more rain falls the river floods, there is little chance anyone will be unaffected by the floodgates.
Despite its metaphorical nature, this analogy is truly representative of the overwhelming effect of what happened once NCLB was passed. Children came from every corner and our schools became over crowded. Teachers were forced to teach in classrooms filled to the max, new teachers were hired fresh out of school, teaching aids left to supervise classrooms without a teacher, and classrooms turned to daycare simply because the time it took to get everyone ready to learn exceeded the amount of time allotted per class. Without adequate resources, training, monitoring and preparation, NCLB may have been well thought-of but not well implemented. The resulting years created a true domino effect in relation to the schools and educational system. With the increased number of students and decreased amount of funding per school, many schools were labeled as ‘failing’. This meant that the school was unable to meet the criteria to make their ‘Annual Yearly Progress (AYP)’.
California, a state with a large minority population and many new English Language Learners or Students with Disabilities, serves as a particularly exemplary case. Many schools, particularly those with large populations of the afore-mentioned student groups, were hit even worse than others. With test scores set and students not meeting them, funding for programs such as ESL and Special Education were cut drastically. To make things even harder, the state set a benchmark for these schools to meet, an AYP that would be next to impossible to reach. As Darling-Hammond stated “To complicate things more, those that serve large numbers of new English language Learners (what the law calls Limited English Proficient’ [LEP] students) and some kinds of special needs students (what the law calls ‘students with disabilities’) are further penalized by the fact that students are assigned to these subgroups because they cannot meet the standard and they are typically removed from the subgroup when they do meet the standard.
Thus these schools will not ever be able to meet the proficiency benchmark the law has set.” (Darlng-Hammond) This double-edged sword poses a problem for the school but an even worse problem for the child. In such circumstances, these children are being held back so the school keeps its funding or worse, they are transferred out of the program before they are counted as part of the percentage and left to struggle in the regular curriculum set by the state. With a system so broken and teachers left to fend for themselves without support from the district or administrators, students are the ones ultimately caught in the cross fire. In such circumstances, one can see how easy it is for a child to feel like school just might not make their lives any better. Schools have become more driven by data and numerical results than by holistic student outcomes. To meet standards, students are trucked along grade after grade only learning what is absolutely necessary to pass their tests.
Few if any resources are put toward supplementary programs or emotional or social supports for students. What results are schools needing to hire more teachers but for less pay and with less incentives to stay in challenging school environments. NCLB promises children the education they deserve by licensed teachers; however, when faced with multiple challenges for funding, the schools may find it easier to hire new teachers with little to no experience so that their pay can be less and funds can be allocated elsewhere. With a disparity in resources resulting from NCLB, schools in the less wealthy areas tend to suffer the most: “Unlike most countries that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest U.S. public schools spend at least 10 times more than the poorest schools-ranging from over $30,000 per pupil to only $3,000 (Darling-Hammond)”.
A teacher who has spent years in school to earn a degree is far less likely to want to spend their career in a school that is under funded, under staffed, overcrowded and labeled ‘failing’. This in turn meant that the best educated, best prepared and most dedicated teachers would concentrate in the most highly resourced schools, leaving underperforming schools with teachers not as well equipped or prepared to handle the most challenging circumstances. Teacher transitions meant less continuity for students and less professional relationship building for staff. What our government and law makers failed to consider was the monumental effect, both systematically and individually, this act would have on our children, teachers and educational sustainability. As these children grow older and transition into high schools unable to read at grade level or comprehend English and Math at even a fraction of goals, we begin to see the school-to-prison pipeline take shape.
Teens begin to hate school , often from a lack of investment in them or a perceived belief that the schools “can’t understand” them. Thus, at the same time, they find themselves at an age that they can get around without the help of their parents, and they stop going to school and the suspensions start. Children often turn to the streets, selling drugs becomes an easy way to make money. In an interview conducted for a study a 14 year old biy is quoted saying “When you’re 14 and you’re making $4,000-$5,000 in 2 days, school doesn’t seem as important…I felt like as long as I had money I was safe-meaning I could do anything I wanted. It made me proud of myself. (Hatt)” What we see now is a system that was put in place to help children has become the same system hurting them. The question that must then be asked is who is responsible for these lost children? Instead we find a school system that has failed families living in poverty with a governing state pointing fingers at parents and teachers but no answers.
This roller coaster has gone on for years. NCLB was passed in 2001 and yet, its resulting effects seem to be 12 years of no answers, finger pointing and excuses for a system that isn’t working for anyone. As the system put in place to help continues to fail, our government continues to look for reasons why the outcomes did not match the intention. What happened to NCLB? Governmental agencies and NGO’s begin the war on Teenage Pregnancy, Teenage Drug Use, Gang Violence and Youth Violence. Unwed teen mothers become the focus of all Americans – an epidemic, as some called it. Teenage drinking was the focus for many politicians in the 70’s and 80’s but teen pregnancy became the focus of the Clinton Administration. Teen pregnancy was blamed for the increased amount of unwed mothers on welfare, irresponsible and sexually promiscuous teens were blamed and labeled a drain on the economy and the school systems.
What we failed to realize was that many unwed teen mothers were either victims of molestation and rape, or that many had not had access to accurate and complete sexual health information. As the call for comprehensive sexual education classes began on one side of the aisle, the other side called out for “moral standards” and abstinence. Substance abuse was also blamed, and drugs, gangs and sexual promiscuity became the target rather than acknowledging the true root problem of these issues: schools that have given up on students since early ages, tracked them into success or failure. Essentially the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline is based in a system that labels students from the start and may very well decide such labels before even giving each individual student the opportunities to prove otherwise.
However, one cannot fully examine NCLB without also attesting to what went right with the program, or rather, what goods were intended to arise from this legislation. First, and perhaps most primarily, the act was born of the idea that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socio-economic status, deserved a quality education. With the diverse and widely variant nature of the American population, many discriminatory practices, intentional or unintentional, were liable to be in place across school systems. By organizing all educational districts under one unifying system, NCLB attempted to prevent discriminatory practices. This Act further sought to ensure that all children would be at the same conceptual grade levels and that families could expect nearly the same education from any school in the county, thus eliminating discrepancies between districts, states and systems at all levels.
Another conceptual idea originating from NCLB was the use of standardized testing to cross-test across grade levels and ensures uniform standards in school curriculums. Students at all grade levels would be subject to standardized, national testing from kindergarten through twelfth grade. These tests would be easily implemented in classrooms, require very little additional resources or materials and would, in theory, identify good practices in education that could then be disseminated outward across system lines. Although a national curriculum was not fully implemented nor would teachers be expressly told how or what to teach, there was an expectation that all students could receive similar education at all grade levels in America. Not only that but standardized testing could then be used to differentiate needs among students and tailor curriculum to better address individual needs. Unfortunately, despite best intentions, not all aspects of standardized testing can be considered positive and many criticisms leveled at NCLB arise from this particular aspect of the Act.
First, there is an emerging literature that standardized testing caters predominantly to the experiences, curriculums and learning styles of white, middle class students in well-performing American schools. Students from urban, low-income, ESL and/or under-resourced settings enter testing at a distinct disadvantage and test results only serve to perpetuate the ideas that some students are “naturally” better than others. Second, teachers from low-performing settings can be targeted as bad teachers, when in fact they are already working from a deficit. Teachers who teach beyond the test are often subject to disciplinary action when their students underperform on tests, despite evidence that they are performing better in the classroom. Finally, standardized testing fails to account for complete human development and prizes technical skills over the holistic social, emotional and physical development of the child.
By continuing to subject schools, students and teachers to batteries of tests conducted at multiple points throughout the year, schools are unable to promote continuity in learning and may even be forced to sacrifice some aspects of their students learning in the place of tangible others. Another argument in favor of NCLB was the streamlining of existing programs and funding of new, supportive programs designed to aid student and teacher development. Such programs would, in theory, have allowed wraparound support for underperforming schools and students and provided alternative pathways to career and graduation for students off-track per standardized requirements. Aid to students in the form of free or reduced lunch, daycare for parenting teens, mentoring and tutoring, ESL services, bus services and computing and technology facilities was intended to level the playing field and perhaps could have done so.
However, as referenced earlier in this paper, resources were allocated by performance, which was measured via standardized test scores. This system of reward for scores served then and now only as another reinforcement of a divided system, wherein certain schools and students are rewarded for already being ahead of the curve and others far behind it are punished repeatedly for starting far behind in an already broken system. Our education system is broken, our children are suffering, and our teachers are going back to school to study in different fields, further abandoning our future. I realize that many factors collectively have caused the injustice our children are faced with, however it is hard to overlook the crippling effect NCLB and Zero-Tolerance policies have had on the education system. Perhaps, a restructuring of the NCLB Act would suffice but I would without doubt recommend a complete overhaul of the Act, starting with the standardized testing and zero tolerance policies.
Finger pointing must come to an end, what is most important is getting to the root of the problem not figuring out which administration caused it. All children deserve a good education and a safe place to learn. Socialization is crucial to growth and youth from K-12 spend most of their childhood in school, should we not give them the best schools, education, and teachers? Are we so far gone that focusing all our efforts on our children too much to ask for? I propose we stop and refocus our efforts on helping our kid’s instead of blaming them for the shortcomings of a poorly executed reform plan. Every day our government and policy makers are faced with decisions that will impact our future, bills are passed, amendment’s to laws are made and somehow our kids, our future, are put on the back burner to be dealt with at a later date.
We must re-evaluate NCLB to ensure our future can flourish, because as it stands we are headed in a very dark path, one that I hope can be turned around. As it is, “states end up paying $30,000 per inmate to keep young men behind bars when they are unwilling to provide even a quarter of this cost to give them good schools (Darlng-Hammond)”. The mere fact that stats like those are accepted should be reason enough to make a change.
In an article title “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline/Building Abolition Futures” Meiners gives very compelling facts on where future is headed “with 5% of the world’s population and 25%of the total prison population, the number of people incapacitated in the U.S. has increased since the 1970s, not because of an increase in violence or crime, but because of policies including three strikes and you are out legislation, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the war on drugs (Meiners)”. Examples are endless, the all too clear truth is we must make a change in our policies, and the only way we can do this is by making a stand, and we must no longer accept laws that hide behind names that sound like they are helping when in reality they are hurting our kids.