No Child Left Behind? A Promise Made is a Debt Unpaid—Who Will Deliver?

Mar 6, 2013 by

Martin Haberman 1932-2012
Delia Stafford, President Haberman Education Foundation

On September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia claimed the lives of over 3,000 people. This national tragedy is forever etched in our minds.  Similarly,  every day of the school year, on average, twice this  number plus,(7,200) 2012, drop out of high school and very few take notice. America’s greatest crisis is a silent one. While a majority of these youngsters are white, African American and Latino students are conspicuously absent and 2million plus tenth to twelfth graders have “disappeared” (Wingspread, 2002) (June 2006,)

What happens when a child is left behind? The likelihood that these youngsters will ever have a job that pays enough to secure adequate health care or an apartment in a safe neighborhood is significantly diminished. In most cases their lives are limited to dead end jobs, or wasted away in street violence or prison. The estimate is that this horrendous statistic is matched by an equal number of those who never appear in any drop-out data because they have never made it to high school. They are the victims of failed middle schools using high stakes testing as an admission barrier into failing high schools.  Now today 2012,we are creating a city the size of Chicago every year and one half , filled with people Jesse Jackson has labeled “no hopers”.   Further, we now know that state planners look at the literacy rate of their 3rd graders to determine how many prisons to build.

According to Paul Loeb[1] families in the top 25% in income send 86% of their children to college while families in the bottom 20% send 4% of their children to college. But there are other gaps that must be addressed as well: racial, language, early childhood experience, health, parent education, and school and class size gaps, all of which contribute to the achievement gap. While the majority of the  millions of  children in poverty are white, there are disproportionately high numbers of African American and Latino children represented. The diverse children in urban poverty represent about half of the stated numbers.

Leaving no child behind is essentially an issue of equity and justice; it is a moral imperative. Before diverse students in poverty schools can achieve as much as advantaged ones, they need to be part of a society that does not believe giving them access to equal treatments and resources will hurt their own children or raise their taxes.

Leaving no child behind is not a question of generating more fruitful hypotheses. There is already a solid knowledge base explaining why there are successful individual schools serving diverse children in poverty operating in the midst of failing districts. Teacher educators are witnesses, sometimes insightful ones, to life in schools. But understanding that teacher education, like the public schools, reflects rather than shapes American society is basic to any discussion of removing the achievement gap.

Education as a Personal Good

The achievement gap is not an aberration of American society nor is it an unintended consequence. Quite the contrary. That some are left behind reflects the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe in their hearts that education is a personal not a common good and that the highest quality education is a scarce resource. Schooling is the means we use to produce winners and losers.

Who gets into the prestigious colleges is the critical question at the top achievers’ level. Who goes to the other colleges or to post secondary institutions reflects the competition at the next levels down. Who gets training for a decent job or any job at all is the next level and so on. When we get to the poor and diverse children, those left behind in urban schools, the lofty mission of advanced knowledge, citizenship and self-actualization we want for our children has been narrowed down to get a job and stay out of jail. At this lowest level of the bottom half, there is no longer any competition for a future of any substantial value. This level is miseducation and the future “opportunities” it leads to are far from a scarce resource.

School systems state goals as universals but their actual work is sorting students, not supporting them by equalizing their opportunities to learn. Failing public schools in many districts function in ways that ensure that diverse children in poverty will be kept in the bottom half on standardized tests of school achievement. They function as custodial institutions rather than as places where learning is the primary activity. The “pedagogy” offered is these “schools” is little more than a set of cultural rituals that bears no resemblance whatever to the knowledge base in teaching and learning (Haberman,1991b). As in other exploitative situations, most of the parents of the 14 million diverse children in poverty in the 120 largest school districts and in poor rural areas honestly believe that their schools are treating their children fairly.

The long history in this nation of poor children left behind can only be the result of systematic design and purposeful, committed resistance to change. For over half a century, failed urban school districts and teacher education efforts directed at improving urban teaching have spent billions of dollars from federal and private sources specifically directed at equalizing the quality of the schooling offered diverse children in urban poverty. While accepting the funds, urban school districts have effectively withstood these change efforts. The result is that urban schools continue to worsen and the achievement gap has become solidified and predictable.

Who will ensure that no child is left behind? I have seen little to suggest that teacher education seeks to or can contravene society’s intentions and close an achievement gap that is purposeful and rooted in American culture. For me the question raises two others: Can teacher education become a sufficiently powerful force to affect urban schools at all? Can school districts organized to function as a sorting mechanism be transformed into instrumentalities for achieving greater social justice and equity? My answer to the first question is “yes” we can create teacher educators who can leave no child behind, and to the second question about school district organization, I give an equally certain “no”.


A few very vital points of the history of teacher education are relevant to the current analysis and need to be kept in mind.

*First, Teacher training institutions were purposely and systematically located across rural America ( where their state college descendents remain today), because their clients were white, unmarried farm girls who needed employment.

*Second, A great number of such normal schools were needed to ensure that female teachers would not work further than fifty miles from home, could easily return home for holidays and summer work, and that the teachers being trained would be likely to be of the same religious and ethnic background as the children they would be training in morality and the abc’s.

*Third, the notion that school teaching is the appropriate work of young, single women has been imbedded in American culture for more than 150 years. The perception that even married women are less appropriate than single women has been reinforced during periods of economic depression when married women in many urban districts were laid off.

*Fourth, there were very few public normal schools started in urban areas. A few exceptions existed in St. Louis and Detroit but these closed or were subsequently included in larger multipurpose institutions. New York City, with the largest population of children in the country, never had a single publicly supported normal school but the State of New York opened twelve in rural areas. *The need for teachers who could be effective with African Americans, other children of color, children in urban poverty and non-European populations was never a consideration in the development of the knowledge base in American teacher education.

*Fifth, the knowledge base purporting to explain normal child development, how normal children learn and what constitutes normal behavior that is offered in traditional programs of teacher education is derived in greatest measure from psychology.

What is the import of these trends? It was never the intention of teacher education in America to prepare teachers to teach all the children. And since the current graduates as a group seek to avoid teaching where they are needed most and will not stay longer than a brief period if they do accept positions in poverty schools, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the historical and cultural truths regarding teacher training in America still explain and predict the functioning of university based teacher education today.

For ten years I was directly involved with developing and offering a teacher education program for diverse children in poverty schools. In recent years colleagues and I have taken effective elements from various teacher education programs and combined them into demonstration models. In reconstituted schools in Houston and Buffalo colleagues have demonstrated that if we can select a faculty of beginning and veteran teachers the achievement gap can be closed. We have turned individual failing schools into effective ones but have not, thus far, been able to use traditional teacher education to close the gap in an entire school district. What works?:

  1. recruiting mature college graduates from all fields;
  2. using structured interviews to select candidates whose responses are comparable to those of effective urban teachers;
  3. directly observing candidates actually relating and connecting to diverse children in poverty before admitting them into a program of preparation;
  4. placing candidates as paid, teachers of record in urban classrooms;
  5. providing skilled mentors as coaches who were themselves recent and effective classroom teachers in urban schools;
  6. providing technological support that connects the candidates to resources and to mentors for round the clock advice;
  7. providing professional studies which
    1. offer candidates problem solving for specific classroom problems
    2. show the candidates how to teach the curricula required in their district using the methods the district requires
    3. ensure that all advice offered candidates is realistically aligned with the conditions under which they work including union contracts,
  8. providing part time assessors who make regular, formal evaluations and feed them back to candidates and mentors;
  9. making certain that candidates who are failing to connect with students are dropped from the program prior to the end of October so that children can still have a successful year; (If procedures #I,#2 and #3 are followed these will be fewer than five per cent).

10. recommending candidates for licensure on criteria that include evaluations of their students’ learning.

The teacher shortage worsens the achievement gap since diverse children in urban poverty will not catch up through independent study or being schooled at home. The Department of Education estimates that 3 million teachers will be needed in the next decade. This demand increased sharply because of the “Leave no child behind” legislation which requires a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. The main reasons for the shortage is the churn of teachers who quit or fail and simply pass through urban schools on their way to other careers.

Nationally, half of the beginners in urban districts are gone in five years. In my own city this turnover occurs in three years. But there are other reasons why the shortage grows. In many states such as my own, as many as 60% of those prepared in traditional programs of teacher education in a given year do not take jobs serving diverse children in poverty[2]Half of those who deign to take positions serving children in poverty leave in five years or less creating a constant teacher churn. And since a career in teaching is now approximately only 11 years long in states serving the majority of America’s low-income students, the shortage is here to stay. In my own city of 7,000 plus teachers we hire 7,000 new ones every seven years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we have closed the gap in specific schools by providing them with effective principals and teachers land that raises the hope we can change others in the same urban district as well. To explore what I believe can be done, I’ve selected three questions out of a dozen or more critical ones that are key if teacher education in America is to impact the gap. They are: Who should teach? What must they be prepared to do? How can we evaluate success?

Who Should Teach?

The work I have pursued convinces me that in preparing teachers for diverse children in poverty, selection is more important than training. If I were to put a relative weight on it, I would estimate that for urban schools selection is 80% of the matter. This does not mean that college courses, student teaching and inservice workshops are a waste of time or cannot help participants learn new concepts and behaviors. If offered to the right people these traditional formats can be beneficial: how beneficial depends mainly on those selected and somewhat on the knowledge and teaching know-how of the instructors.

Indeed, selecting the wrong candidates, then using the traditional instruction will make participants worse by deepening their prejudices and providing them with a database of direct experiences on which they can more firmly build and strengthen their stereotypes (Haberman,1991a). This is also true for inservice teachers (Sleeter,1992).

What criteria leave children behind?  The most efficient ways of recruiting and selecting the wrong people is to ask questions like, “Why do you want to teach?”, G.P.A., letters of reference, a basic skills test, etc. These irrelevant criteria are frequently used in traditional and as well as in alternative certification programs.

Teachers who see teaching as primarily an intellectual activity are eight times more likely to leave the classroom (Quartz,2001). For example, we know that if GPA is extremely high in courses outside of education, it predicts failing and quitting. The majority of early leavers are individuals with high G.P.A.’s and standardized test scores; more quitters and failers also have academic majors.[3]

The explanation for the power of selection is certainly not new and not limited to teacher education. In 1890 William James explained how we take in and make sense of the world by a process of selective perception (James,1892). This construct explains much about the lifelong strengthening of belief systems which account for and predict behavior. Further, the differences in the ways individuals selectively perceive schools, children and learning are supported by their belief systems. These belief systems are extremely resistant to change by the traditional instruction used in teacher education programs.  These belief systems not only describe but predict teacher behavior.

In The Star Teacher Selection Interview we use to identify who will succeed, candidates’ responses are evaluated in terms of the degree to which their pre-dispositions to act resemble those of stars or quitters/failers (Haberman,1995).

Effective teachers are willing to assume responsibility and be accountable for their children’s learning even though they have no control over their working conditions, or the parents, or the students’ out-of-school lives.

Such teachers are internally motivated and persist in spite of few external rewards. These belief systems and the perceptions they shape cannot be taught. They represent a realm of cognitive and affective knowledge that already exists in many mature adults and must be selected for rather than trained. Finding these mature adults is not an option if we wish to leave no child behind.  Though many children may well be unaware and unappreciative of the many teachers who serve them selflessly every day, those same teachers see ensuring success in school as survival for these students.  They know that if democracy is to survive, if we are to have a nation with more “have’s” than “have not’s,” finding effective teachers is a matter of life and death.   Then and only then will we be assured we have left no child

[1] (Soul of a Citizen, 1999, p 87-88)

[2] Patterson, Chris.  Eight Facts about Teacher Pay & Teacher Retention in Texas Public Schools.

[3] (DarlingHammond&Sclan, 1996).

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