No Child Left Behind and the Role of School Social Work

It’s no secret a high-quality public education can develop a knowledge base and nurture skill sets within children further maximizing their potential while stabilizing communities and strengthening economies. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was signed in to law by President George W. Bush in an effort to reform public school education.

Although NCLB acknowledges and seeks to close the achievement gap, it unfortunately does not address the systemic barriers that children often face when they live in poverty or oppression. From a social work perspective, high student expectations are essential for academic success, but failure to account for segregation and structural inequalities sets up already disadvantaged schools to fail. Moreover, NCLB does not take community differences or issues of multiculturalism and diversity into account. Even though the research literature available in education has long identified personal and family characteristics as risk factors regarding academic achievement, NCLB does not adequately take these factors into account.

ssw2015School social workers are often assigned to work with students in the at-risk subgroups defined by NCLB, and research demonstrates that by alleviating the social and emotional barriers at-risk students face, it increases their likelihood of being successful in school. NCLB does not mandate interventions to address the many additional barriers to learning that students in at-risk subgroups are likely to face and that contribute to the educational achievement gap.

A new study was published that found if we eliminate the achievement gap in the United States, we can grow our gross domestic product by 10 percent and raise the lifetime earnings of low-wage workers by 22 percent.This study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth outlines strategies that have worked in other countries to bar achievement gap.  NCLB affects every public school in the United States–with the unified goal of leveling the playing field for students who are disadvantaged including:

• Students in poverty
• Minorities
• Students with learning disabilities
• Students receiving other special education services
• Those who speak and understand limited or no English

NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with efforts focused on providing equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. Therefore, even if a school as a whole seemed to be doing well, it wouldn’t be making enough progress to satisfy the state if a large enough group of minority, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students missed their targets.

NCLB changed the relationship between the federal government, states, and K-12 schools. The ultimate goal was to make every student proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or disability. States did not reach this goal but Congress has yet to overhaul this law so it is still currently in effect. There’s much more to No Child Left Behind than testing but the testing and accountability provisions have always been the most controversial parts of the law.

There’s a debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,a law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty, at its root, was about leveling the playing field for kids. No Child Left Behind, which is the law’s most recent iteration in emphasizing testing, pulled us away from the focus on kids especially those who are poor–as are half of public school students in the United States.

I have found stories from teachers and administrators even more compelling as they reveal the inequities that continue to persist in America’s classrooms. A teacher from Florida wrote, “I work every day to support learning and high expectations for students who are hungry, are homeless, have experienced trauma, and struggle in many ways. … Please, authorize ESEA in a way that provides for the needs of all students, whether they live in an affluent neighborhood, or in my school’s neighborhood.”debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,

While the current house bill would make some needed improvements to accountability, it would also lock in recession-driven cuts to education., allowing state and local governments to walk away from their responsibility to maintain funding from year to year. It would also divert money meant to go to urban public schools and give it to wealthier schools.

A recent report released from the White House found that this bill would cap “spending for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012.” This is happening at a time when child poverty rates are alarmingly high and when Title I — the biggest federal education program — has failed to see any increase since 2012. The report also found that high-poverty districts could lose $700 million, while more-affluent districts could gain $470 million.

The House bill would further harm our most disadvantaged youth. We need a law that gives kids the resources they need, including computers, lower class sizes, nurses, social workers, and counselors, even when their communities can’t afford them. If the American public define success as getting every child able to read and do math by the 2013-14 school year, No Child Left Behind has failed. By 2011, nearly half of all schools nationally weren’t making adequate progress toward proficiency.

Although the data produced in response to NCLB does show some state-by-state decreases in the achievement gap, national indicators reveal that poorer, urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform in comparison both with national averages and with their white and affluent counterparts. Additional studies have found that the new accountability demands imposed by NCLB may unintentionally be widening the achievement gap for at-risk students.

Accountability mechanisms based on test scores can have a disparate impact on schools with larger populations of minority and low-income students. Small schools and those with highly concentrated at-risk and homeless populations, such as schools in urban and rural areas, are also more likely to fail to meet the requirements. In addition, many schools do not start with a level playing field because of scarcity of resources, lack of qualified teachers, and lack of technical ability to fulfill accountability requirements urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform.

For instance, policy stipulations do not address the impact of nutrition, adequate housing, safe communities, or adequate health care on a child’s ability to attend and excel in school beyond implying that even students in difficult situations should be expected to perform academically. When families do not have access to such services and conditions, children are more likely to struggle academically. Personal and family problems such as abuse and a lack of parental supervision are also risk factors for underachievement. In addition, a lack of steady housing or employment is negatively correlated with school success.

The presence of a mental health problem also makes students more likely to underachieve. It is estimated that 20 percent of children have mental health problems severe enough to impede their learning, but only one-fifth of these children receive the services that they need. NCLB does little to address student mental health and its influence on academic success, with the exception of stating that states can apply for federal funds to address student mental health concerns, which aren’t always acknowledged.

Consequently, some scholars have argued that NCLB overlooks the overall well-being of children in schools. Research has identified protective characteristics such as belief in self, determination, independence, and cultural appreciation all help students from disadvantaged settings to excel. However, when schools are focused solely on test scores and a narrow curriculum, it is difficult to utilize the creativity and effort needed to assist students in developing these traits.

As a result, students are not able to tap into resiliency-promoting traits that make them less likely to fall behind academically or to drop out of school. The quality of the school environment is recognized as a major contributor to student learning, yet it is not addressed in NCLB. Positive school environments are those in which students feel supported by adults, have positive peer networks, and feel secure. Conversely, a lack of positive peer networks is a major risk factor for academic underachievement.

When schools foster feelings of self-connectedness, students experience less emotional distress, exhibit fewer violent behaviors, are less likely to use alcohol and other substances, and be less sexually promiscuous. Feelings of alienation and disengagement in middle and high school students leave them at risk for increased truancy and dropout levels. The socio-emotional risk factors outlined in this article pose a large enough threat to student achievement that policies such as NCLB cannot be expected to succeed unless these conditions are adequately addressed. Focusing federal education policies on both academic interventions and those that address these risk factors could be a more effective means for bridging the achievement gap.

However, the good news is that school social workers can take a lead role in helping students to overcome these obstacles and in bringing these policy issues to the forefront. School social workers are in a unique position to intervene on behalf of students at risk and, thus, help ensure their academic success. School social workers are equipped with knowledge of the structural, social, and emotional barriers to learning, especially for vulnerable students.

They can help reduce the achievement gap by working within the current system of educational reform by educating school staff members about the impact of poverty and racism on students’ ability to perform in the classroom and helping school systems to become more culturally competent in their interactions with students by assisting them in broadening the range of multicultural education.

Examples of ways that these issues can be addressed directly in schools include holding regular in-service sessions for staff, establishing a committee to address the needs of students, making connections with community resources and agencies to help families in need of employment, health care, housing, clothing, and other basic needs.

Social workers can assess students for mental health problems, substance abuse problems, and problems in the home environment. They can also offer school-based interventions to begin to overcome these obstacles. For example, research has described successful school-based interventions such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) that improve behavior and social functioning for at-risk students and facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships to increase attendance and classroom engagement.

The creation of school-based health and mental health centers can help students and their families receive comprehensive health care, individual or family counseling, and other vital services that may improve academic performance. More importantly, school social workers must monitor the impact of their services on academic achievement which will support how school social work services improve academic functioning and decrease the risk of dropout for at-risk students. It will also demonstrate to teachers, administrators, and policymakers how social and emotional problems contribute to the achievement gap and how social interventions can help to eliminate this problem.

The development and implementation of programs addressing bullying, peer mediation, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and other fundamental school issues are also relevant to promoting academic success. In addition, it is important for school social workers to understand the amount of stress that policies such as NCLB place on teachers. School social workers should offer support to teachers and help them to more successfully tackle their classroom concerns especially for at-risk students. Addressing barriers to learning enhances students’ ability to focus more on academics and positive interaction.

School Social Workers are best situated to advocate for education policy change that looks beyond test scores to the multidisciplinary best practices that help at-risk students succeed in school. Additionally, school social workers can address resource inequalities, school segregation, and the impact of NCLB at the macro and mezzo level.

Its current state, NCLB is not working. Social Workers must advocate for policy improvements by addressing the impact ethnicity, poverty, and inadequate school resources have on academic achievement. As members of a profession that focuses on social and emotional barriers to change, we have a unique perspective to lend to policymakers regarding both the strengths and the flaws of NCLB.

Published by

Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac, MSW is a certified school social worker in the state of Florida, a member of both the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Florida Chapters. She is also currently undergoing clinical supervision toward her LCSW and doing group/individual therapy on a part time basis. Lauren holds a Masters in Clinical Social Work with a Minor in Psychology from Cleveland State University. Her experience in the field includes mental health, residential treatment, medical, child welfare and juvenile justice settings. She is constantly seeking new opportunities to raise community awareness on various causes, volunteer, participate in fund raising and other community development activities. Lauren is especially passionate about school related issues such as bullying, truancy, and learning disabilities as well as homelessness, human trafficking, and social policy to name a few. View all posts by Lauren Isaac

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