No Child Left Behind and Library Activism

By Samantha Raddatz

The No Child Left Behind Act was introduced by the Bush Administration back in 2001 and went into effect in 2002. The stated intention was to hold schools and teachers accountable by developing a standardized test for each state to ensure that students were learning what was necessary before graduation from high school. Schools whose students did not meet the approved standards with their test scores would be subject to “federally mandated interventions”1, which usually take the form of budget cuts. Many teachers said, prior to the law passing, that this would cause a lot of formulaic teaching in the classroom and an extreme emphasis on math and reading. Unfortunately, in the years since 2002, they were proved to be correct.

In Steven Bell’s Library Journal article entitled No Child Left Behind Comes to Campus he highlights that the students entering universities now are largely the result of the formulaic teaching that resulted from No Child Left Behind.2 The freshman that entered college this year would have been in 2nd or 3rd grade when the law went into effect, meaning that if they were within the public school system, the vast majority of their education has been dictated by the questions in their state’s standardized test. This is all besides the larger issue that the tests, and therefore student results, are different across each state. How is an admissions officer in any state supposed to compare a Michigan student’s scores against a California student’s?

The test has had an affect on public school libraries as well. Not only do the budget cuts for low-performance schools automatically mean cuts in the library’s spending budget, it also means that librarians could be sacrificed in order to keep a classroom teacher that can teach to the test. And though the test emphasizes reading, it doesn’t encourage library use or information literacy. University librarians are actually being forewarned that the students they will be receiving soon will have very little knowledge of how to write a proper research paper, let alone how to find their way around the stacks and resources the library has.2

Though there are no blatant indications of censorship or threats to access to information, it’s surprising that librarians, even non-academic, have not had a larger reaction to this law from the start. As André Cossette highlights in his essay Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, one of the major roles of librarians is as an educator.3 The No Child Left Behind Act is both inhibiting students from learning analytical thinking, but also discouraging the discovery of new and varying information. Information that could be found in their library. Steven Joyce would agree that librarians should be a loud voice in this conversation because they not only have opinions on information access, intellectual freedom and literacy, but also exist in the social and political realm and cannot be separated from it.4

Though many librarians outside of the school system, may think that the No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t affect them, or that it isn’t their place to stick their noses—whether out of a belief of the necessity of remaining a neutral librarian or general apathy—they might soon be seeing the effects in their own libraries. If younger generations aren’t being taught the importance of libraries and the information they can provide, they are very unlikely to use them as they get older. As Wedgeworth put it, “If librarians decide that the issues vital to society are irrelevant to librarians as librarians, then society may find that librarians are irrelevant to it.”5 Luckily, university-level librarians may be able to undo some of the damage that has been done in middle and high school, since they don’t have to answer to a standardized test (yet), but not only does this put a lot of pressure on those librarians to educate a massive group of students, but it also misses those students that don’t continue on to higher education.

The No Child Left Behind Act now appears to be failing all over the country. Texas, the state that the principles of the Act were based on, has just been granted a waiver allowing more wiggle room on how to measure the student’s achievements “in exchange for a state plan to prepare students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership.”1 But, wait, wasn’t that supposed to be what the No Child Left Behind Act encouraged? Texas isn’t the only state that has requested a waiver, forty-one states and Washington DC  have as well.1 So, it appears that the Act isn’t working. As the standards have increased over the years, more and more schools have failed to reach the standards and have had their funding cut as a result. At this point, not only are the students failing, the schools are as well.

The law has been up for renewal since 2007, but congress hasn’t addressed it at all, which is why the Obama Administration is issuing so many waivers.1 It seems that now would be a good time for librarians to  to take a stand against this, because, as Robert Jensen would say, not speaking up is the same as supporting the oppressor.6

1. Associated Press. (2013, September 30). Feds Grant Texas No Child Left Behind Waiver. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2013/09/30/us/politics/ap-us-education-waiver-texas.html?ref=nochildleftbehindact&_r=0 

2. Bell, S. (2013, March 20). No Child Left Behind Comes to Campus. The Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/03/opinion/steven-bell/no-child-left-behind-comes-to-campus-from-the-bell-tower/ 

3. Cossette, A. (2009). Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. (Litwin, R., Trans.). Deluth, MN: Library Juice Press. (Original work published 1976)

4. Joyce, S. (1998). A Few Gates Redux: An Examination of the Social Responsibilities Debate in the Early 1970s and 1990s. In Lewis, Alison (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality (pp. 33-65). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 35. 

5. Ibid., 43

6. Jensen, R. (2004). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. In Lewis, Alison (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 91.

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