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Of "No Child Left Behind" and Blueberries


Voice of Experience

Max Fischer has worked for a year under the shadow of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now he feels the need to react, to point out what's really needed in order to "leave no child behind." It's all about blueberries!

Max W. Fischer
Have you heard The Blueberry Story that's been making the rounds of teacher listservs and conferences

It seems that a successful businessman -- reputedly the producer of "the best blueberry ice cream in America" -- thought he had the solution to the problems plaguing the U.S. educational system. Schools, he impatiently explained at a teacher in-service, need to be run like businesses; businesses know how to provide quality management and produce a quality product. Little did that smug businessman know that his speech would lead him -- and not the teachers he lectured -- to an epiphany sparked by a question. "What do you do," a teacher in the audience asked, "when a shipment of defective blueberries arrives at your business?" The man readily admitted that he shipped them back; inferior ingredients were not acceptable in his successful business. "That's right," the teacher pointed out. "Unfortunately, however, schools can't reject their defective blueberries."

To read the entire story of that man's radical change of heart and perspective about America's schools, see The Blueberry Story.

I couldn't help thinking about the Blueberry Story as I reflected on my first year teaching under the shadow of the "No Child Left Behind" Act. As have so many other teachers in the trenches, I have grappled with how NCLB will impact my students and me. To this point, at best, I have mixed thoughts about the legislation.

The altruist within me relishes the thought of rallying all necessary resources to assist our "at risk" student populations and optimize their learning. It certainly is a most noble endeavor to strive for achievement based on standards from students who have historically struggled with learning.

Yet I remain fixated by the unreasonable nature of NCLB's ultimate goal. The cobbled-together, bipartisan policy anoints 2013-14 as the school year in which every child in America will meet minimum academic proficiencies in every tested area. A decade after testing begins and schools install a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, everything will be hunky-dory with public education in these United States.

Excuse me for not jumping up and down with joy.

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Haven't we seen mountains of legislation designed to eradicate crime? Just as crime can only be fought with an eclectic approach that combines legislation, societal will, and economic opportunity, education can only be as productive as our society works to make it so. The one-sided aspect of NCLB, in which responsibility rests solely on one end of the educational equation -- teachers -- may be politically expedient. It will not, however, achieve the intended results. Pockets of ignorance will remain; in some strata of society, ignorance will prevail.

Altruism aside, I am at heart a pragmatist. I look for practical ways to make things work -- in the classroom or with individual students. By nature then, I must recognize obstacles and try to circumnavigate them. Consequently, I have my own more practical parameters for the time when no child will be left behind.


No child will be left behind when all parents become partners in the education of their children. Education does not occur in the vacuum of the classroom; it must be cherished and reinforced in the home. Until the entire citizenry demonstrates that education matters, divergent values will contaminate the best efforts in the classroom.

No child will be left behind when educators truly get the message that many well-meaning parents are truly turned off by school bureaucracy. Educators must creatively develop the means to engage those parents. Some parents never have overcome negative experiences they had as students; others are intimidated by an academic inferiority complex. Educators sometimes unwittingly stoke the invisible flames that interfere with meaningful home-school partnerships by the insensitive use of educational jargon, or by the emission of a subliminal aura of condescension. In the book Beyond the Classroom, sociologist Laurence Steinberg's 5-year study of schools in middle America, he found that up to 40 percent of parents totally detached from their children's education after sixth grade. Reason would dictate that that percentage is significantly higher in urban areas.

No child will be left behind when government and business leaders recognize the "9/91" factor. Coined by conservative George Will in a January, 2002, column (Waiting for Real Education Reform), the 9/91 factor points out that from birth to age nineteen, ninety-one percent of a child's life is spent outside the boundaries of the schoolhouse. Until an open, substantial dialogue about that fact takes place, any legislatively mandated timetable for universal proficiency is as reasonable as my walking on water.

No child will be left behind when we no longer have dysfunctional families or troubled children. When Jerry Springer's guest book dries up; when children are freed from physical and psychological abuse, depression, anxiety, and bipolar and oppositional defiant disorders; when the array of psychological baggage that affects a growing, percentage of our students across all demographic descriptors is eliminated; then, all children will be free to learn.

No child will be left behind when poverty is a thing of the past. When students no longer have to deal with hunger, fear of crime in their neighborhoods, or any of the myriad problems that arise when unemployed or under-employed adults head their households, students will come to school ready to learn. Nearly forty years ago, Lyndon Johnson initiated the "War on Poverty" with the same vigor George W. Bush has applied to launching NCLB. The paucity of essential resources that a sizeable number of Americans endure testifies to difficulty of solving many of society's problems -- even in the face of the most determined government endeavors.

No child will be left behind when the consummate mass of educators, business leaders, government policy makers, and other interested segments of society realize that quality education is much more than test scores; that laying foundations for future learning involves more than just teaching reading, writing, and mathematics.

The paramount goal of public education needs to be to inspire among all students a sense of passion about the direction their lives can take. To meet that objective, all classroom instructors would have to invest themselves in understanding their students diverse learning styles; they would have to allow students to access their own strengths while working consistently to diminish their weaknesses. Such an effort, however, would require only a modicum of testing to keep vigilance over the basics. It would, moreover, remove the figurative sword of Damocles from above each student's head; frustration with NCLB's "all or nothing" proficiency demands will, I'm afraid, increase the dropout rate.


No Child Left Behind sets an honorable, but totally unrealistic, goal. The claim that schools alone hold the key to improving academic performance only attacks the tip of the iceberg. Surely, the ice cream manufacturer wouldn't have expected his quality-control inspectors to resurrect spoiled blueberries; he would instead have consulted with the growers and shippers to avoid future spoilage.

Until true home-school partnerships become the norm; until a community's social problems are removed from the learning equation; until real dialogue melds all segments of society, our system of education will continue to come up short no matter what the government-inspired panacea might be.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.