Mara Casey Tieken: The Children “Left Behind”

Why Rural Schools Matter, by Mara Casey TiekenWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Mara Casey Tieken, author of Why Rural Schools Matter. From headlines to documentaries, urban schools are at the center of current debates about education. From these accounts, one would never know that 51 million Americans live in rural communities and depend on their public schools to meet not only educational but also social and economic needs.  For many communities, these schools are the ties that bind. This book shares the untold story of rural education. Drawing upon extensive research in two southern towns, Tieken exposes the complicated ways in which schools shape the racial dynamics of their towns and sustain the communities that surround them. Vividly demonstrating the effects of constricted definitions of public education in an era of economic turmoil and widening inequality, Tieken calls for a more contextual approach to education policymaking, involving both state and community.

In a previous post, Tieken compared the effects of Brown v. Board of Education with recent resegregation in U.S. schools. In today’s post, Tieken evaluates the apparent failure of the No Child Left Behind Act in light of a more holistic view of education.


It’s 2014, and we failed.

This year, according to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, 100 percent of our nation’s students were to achieve proficiency in reading and math—a target that we came nowhere close to hitting. This failure has long been predicted, leading many to claim that it is NCLB that’s the real failure. And NCLB is a failed policy—but not simply for its punishing absolutism. The real failure lies in its most basic assumptions.

NCLB, passed with bi-partisan support in 2002, required states to administer standardized tests in reading and math and publicly track schools’ and districts’ achievement on these tests. Schools and districts had to make “annual yearly progress” toward this goal of 100 percent proficiency, a deadline to be reached this year.

Thousands failed well before 2014—unable to make their state’s required “adequate yearly progress”—and, with this failure, these schools faced one of the law’s increasingly severe sanctions, including state takeover and closure. But now states are in the uncomfortable position of informing parents that, because 100 percent of students are not proficient in reading and math, all of its schools are “failing.” Most avoided this fate through waivers issued by the Obama administration; these waivers offered states flexibility in meeting some of the act’s requirements, including the 2014 deadline, in exchange for adopting other policies favored by the administration, such as expanding charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student achievement. But, waivers or not, it’s still 2014, and we are left with the wreckage of all this failure.

Much has been made of NCLB’s flaws, particularly its reliance on test scores and the severity of its sanctions. The realism of NCLB’s target is also worth questioning, especially for an educational system dependent upon a wholly inequitable funding structure. And many have questioned it, even assuming—mistakenly, it turns out—that the sheer rigidity of its goal guaranteed its repeal.

But the Act has another flaw, deeper and more consequential than its 100 percent proficiency mandate. Written into NCLB is an assumption: that imparting basic math and reading skills should be the purpose of our schools. In mandating a tested-and-sanctioned proficiency in these basics, the Act quickly reduced the purpose of public education to a very narrowly defined type of academic achievement.

I won’t argue the importance of reading and math—these are necessary skills. But I will argue that schooling should be about more than reading and math, especially the sort of reading and math that can be measured on a state test. This goal overlooks a lot of other knowledge and competencies that we, as a public, hope our children will gain in school. There’s science, social studies, and writing, of course, but also a student’s ability to use evidence to evaluate an argument, the desire to explore a question or idea, the capacity to create something that meets a need or serves a function.

But even these goals are limited. Public education has never been about just the student, its purpose not solely individual; communities, both large and small, also rely upon schools. This reliance is a legacy written into our history: the American public education system was established to sustain our democratic system of governance. And we continue to ask our schools to serve collective goals. The Brown decision was an effort to integrate a racially divided country, the HIV/AIDS epidemic led to an expansion of sex education in schools, and most school days still begin with an appeal to national patriotism, the Pledge of Allegiance. Even those initiatives that seem solely about academics and students—the current focus on STEM education, for example—are tied to local and national needs—like the desire to encourage innovation, support industries and markets, and remain internationally competitive. We regularly rely upon schools to instill values and continue traditions, to shift boundaries and welcome newcomers, to challenge conventions and address inequities, to maintain economies and sustain cultures.

The danger in assuming basic reading and math as the purpose of our schools is that we reduce public education to what’s most easily tested, not what’s most important or useful or necessary. Our education policies, then, must reflect the complex roles we assign our schools: the goals of our policies must match the complicated and multiple goals of our schools. Without this complexity, we risk creating schools devoted to one thing and one thing only: proficiency in basic reading and math. The other purposes are forgotten, squeezed out by what is incentivized, mandated, sanctioned.

It’s 2014, and, yes, we failed. We failed to reach the goal of NCLB. But imagine if we had actually succeeded, if we had actually focused solely on reading and math to achieve 100 percent proficiency—imagine all the failures accompanying that success.

Mara Casey Tieken is assistant professor of education at Bates College and coauthor of Inside Urban Charter Schools: Promising Practices and Strategies in Five High-Performing Schools. Her book, Why Rural Schools Matter, is now available.