Teacher Makes a Personal Case for NCLB Waivers

I would like President Obama to meet one of my former students, Rashawn*.

Rashawn was a fifth grader, an African-American boy with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my classroom he received a bevy of services relating to his learning and academic disabilities, and yet he struggled mightily with reading and math.

Rashawn came from a tough section of the district and lived well below the poverty line in a broken home. He father was incarcerated. He had dreams of playing in the NBA. His smile set him apart, and he was a hard worker, a talker, and a thinker.

Rashawn entered my class in 2008, shortly before the nation elected Barack Obama to be president. He was far behind his peers academically, but he worked hard. Working as a team, a special educator and I provided Rashawn with rigorous instruction, and we set high expectations. We wanted him to succeed, and he wanted to succeed.  From the beginning of the year to the end, Rashawn made significant academic progress.

But none of that mattered, under the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB). Although he showed academic growth, Rashawn scored as “basic” on Maryland’s tests. According to the statisticians and policymakers, that was a disappointment. As his teacher, NCLB noted that I had failed Rashawn. When my results were printed, he would appear as nothing more than a name and an ID number awash in pink printer ink.

Rashawn is a perfect example of why teachers are crying out for NCLB to be overhauled. NCLB ushered in an era where we no longer ignore children on the periphery. Now, every student counts. That’s one thing NCLB got right.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz

Unfortunately, the NCLB accountability system fails students like Rashawn because it measures only one piece of data at one point in time. We need an accountability system that acknowledges growth and looks upon every student as an asset, not a deficit. We need our country to measure and reward the growth of our students, not just mark where they place on an arbitrary bar.

I would like President Obama to meet Rashawn. It seems that he had the Rashawns of the world in mind when he granted Secretary Duncan the authority to issue waivers for some areas of NCLB. The President still insists on a high bar for all children, but he gets it that what Rashawn has achieved transcends what is indicated by a single-measure on a poorly-designed bubble test.

I am thankful that with waivers, states won’t be given a pass on maintaining high expectations for all students, and they surely won’t be allowed to toss aside teacher accountability. Our students need schools with high expectations, and states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards. But they will also be given the chance to innovate and design plans that meet the needs of their unique populations of students. And they will be allowed to use multiple measures of teaching effectiveness, so that teaching competence will no longer be boiled down to a solitary line of printer ink.

I haven’t seen Rashawn in a few years. I hope that he aspires to attend and complete college and to play basketball while he’s there. I dream about him earning a teaching degree and joining me as a colleague. Fixing NCLB would be one way to support all of the Rashawns in the classrooms throughout this great country. Something even better, I think, than meeting the President.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Rockville, Md. 

*My student’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.


  1. I would like the State Department of Education to give me a waiver for the Praxis II (Elementary Education, 0011) Content and Knowledge testing for elementary school teachers. I have a Doctorate Degree, I have taken this test for years. The test is designed for new teachers. I am a veteran teacher. I need to repay my college loans, rebuild my credit and find permanent employment. Sub teaching is not a lucrative alternative to losing my classroom, students and career.

  2. This example uses a lot of pathos in it… but let’s show some responsibility and instead of throwing money at the problem, think it through first. Here is an article that shows what education stimulus money has done, and it’s clear we should make some policy reform first. http://americanactionforum.org/topic/some-children-will-be-left-behind Commentor “Amy” is right – but let’s throw money at a system that will actually ADDRESS those problems.

  3. As a special education teacher, I agree with Greg. Students with IEPs may never reach proficiency on standardized tests, even though they grow.
    A couple of points for Annoyed.
    First, the government has mandated many expensive programs and promised to fund them adequately, but has always reneged on the promise. IDEA, from the beginning, has never gotten even half of the funds promised, even though the children’s needs must be being met. States and local school districts have to pick up the slack.
    And remember, schools are judged by how well their students do. Schools are deemed failures and have been subjected to sanctions when too many special education students can’t reach the bar. Think of the requirement that ALL children reach high standards. This would include students who have severe multiple disabilities, who will never learn to read or write, but who learn self-help and daily living skills, which are not measured on standardized tests.
    Cultural values are also not tested. I’ve taught in schools where Athabascan and Yup’ik cultural values are part of the curriculum, but these aren’t measured on standardized tests. Up in Alaska, many tests have questions that students answer ‘wrong’ such as “how do you get to the hospital if you’re seriously injured?” The correct answer in Bush Alaska is ‘airplane,’ not ambulance. Or a simple one. “In which direction does the sun rose?” Where I’ve been living, in the winter, I watched the sun rise in the SSE and set in the SSW, but ‘south’ in not the ‘correct’ answer.
    Standardized tests have their place, but judging schools should not be based on one test alone. Just as students in the US are graded on such things as homework, classwork, projects, and quizzes and not by just one test a year, schools should be judged by multiple measures.

  4. Thank you for posting this. As a special education support staff, every day I see students making dramatic growth and although this may not be apparent on state exams, the growth is clear. At times I have felt a thought NCLB was “NCLB unless their students in special education” and this is NOT acceptable. Diverse learners deserve our time and dedication just as much as the next student and I will advocate everyday for the students who needs extra support. We can not turn our backs on their unique needs.

  5. I’m confused here Greg, help me out. How did the NCLB accountability fail Rashawn? It identified his proficiency level, nothing more. How did NCLB stifle innovative and creative classroom teaching? How did it hinder the admirable work you and your colleagues did with him outside of the classroom to bring him up to basic? Why do you believe that none of it mattered? All of it mattered. NCLB identified Rashawn as needing extra help, and the funding associated with NCLB and IDEA (federal streams) made the extra help possible.
    I think what you are referring to is recognizing and being measured by the growth students make year over year. Many states applied for and received waivers several years back to employ a growth model accountability system. Adopting the growth model would be a wonderful thing to offer as a waiver. Unfortunately, that’s not what Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have done. They have eradicated all of the accountability and measurement in education. Now, a child like Rashawn might be identified, but he won’t matter. There will be no pressure or mandate to work with him to bring him up to speed. You see, the administration has just determined that the vast majority of schools, except the bottom 5% in each state, will be compelled to do nothing to bring individual students up to speed. Those subgroups of struggling students won’t matter. Because individual students don’t matter, only schools matter. And schools would rather report that a MAJORITY of their students are doing well, even if a MINORITY of their students are not.

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