Guest Column

Federalizing Scholastic Football: No Player Left Behind

by William J. Mathis

Fall sports are a risky venture in Vermont. A sharp wind was snapping as I hunkered down on the cold metal bleachers. I sat next to Harold, our former varsity football coach and now athletic director for the Cheshire Cats. The playoff game was already under way and the Mount Mammoth Megathors were leading Cheshire by 86 to minus 32 at the end of the first quarter.

“Harold,” I asked, “what’s going on? How do you get a negative score in football?”

“It’s the new ‘No Player Left Behind’ rules,” he mumbled. “Under NPLB, Cheshire started with a negative score because we didn’t make Adequate Yards and Points (AYP) last year. Now the Megathors won the state championship last year so they started with plus 40 points.”

“That hardly seems fair!” I said.

“If you didn’t like the Principals’ Association rules, they look real good next to federalized football. See, the Megathors only have to go one yard to make a first down since they’re coming off a winning season. The Cats have to go 29 yards for a first down.”

“That’s ridiculous! Why are you just sitting there?” I asked indignantly.

“Oh, it all evens out in the end,” Harold said laconically. “The rules get tougher every quarter. By the end of the fourth quarter the Megathors will have to go 50 yards to get a first down, and points will get subtracted if they don’t make a first down.

“But that won’t help us any because the Cats will be so far behind,” I complained.

“No, but it means that the Megathors can’t win either. In the NPLB game, everybody loses,” Harold explained.

He pulled his cap low over his eyes and went on. “Then there’s the ‘everybody meets the standard rule.’ Every player must run 100 yards in a world-class time of 10 seconds. See those chunky Mammoth linemen? They may be good football players, but they’re sure not fast.”

Private Assistance

At halftime, we drifted down to the concession stand. I got an $8 Halliburger and $5 water bottle from a purple concession van with out-of-state license plates.

“Harold,” I asked, “what happened to the Booster Club stand? Isn’t that how you raise money for equipment, scoreboards and the pee-wee league?”

“Oh, it’s been privatized,” he said matter-of-factly. “You see, if you haven’t had a winning season for the last three years, you have to privatize 20 percent of the athletic program. If you have a losing season for five years running, then you have to turn the football program over to an alternative provider. I hear the New Orleans Saints have an eye on taking over some Vermont high school programs. They could use the help.”

“Who needs the help—the Saints or the high schools?” I asked.

Harold ignored me. “Then there’s the ‘choice’ rule,” he said as he turned and spat. “You see that Megathor fullback who ran for a hundred yards in the first half? Well, last year he was one of my Cats. If you don’t make AYP for two years, your players are given a choice. I’m not supposed to say this, but the Megathors did a mite of recruiting.”

“How can you get better if they keep creaming off your best players?” I asked.

“You can’t,” Harold said as he hitched his suspenders. “Now that you got me all worked up, there’s the money! The feds promised us they would make sure we had enough money for good uniforms, a weight room and the like so we could compete with the Megathors on a level playing field. They said they increased spending 40 percent. Big whoop! Well, 40 percent of nothin’ is still nothin’. Now that they ran up this big federal deficit, they actually cut the team improvement money for next year!”

Back to Reality

The sorry plight of our fictional footballers, the Cheshire Cats and the Mount Mammoth Megathors, is not as far-fetched as it seems. The No Player Left Behind rules are not that different from the real No Child Left Behind. To be certain, school administrators have the obligation to honestly inform the public as to how well schools are doing and how well they are doing with the neediest of our children. Unfortunately, Adequate Yearly Progress test scores will be about as useful as NPLB football scores in telling us which schools did a good job and which didn’t. Let’s look at the parallels.

Some schools start with a negative score from last year. Based on where they started, one team may have had a 28-point improvement (when they needed 29) while a more fortunate school had to make only a one-point improvement. The school with the hardest job and the one that made the greatest gains gets penalized, while the other school does not.

Yet it all evens out. By 2014, all schools and students have to meet the federal standards. As many respected and independent scholars have noted, this means that all schools will fail unless the rules get changed. In football, at least one team wins the game. In the federalized NCLB world, everybody loses.

Schools that do not make AYP for three years must set aside 20 percent of their federal student improvement money for private vendors. School vouchers kick in after two years of not making AYP. By the fifth year, school governance must be changed. This poses grave questions for the future of local school boards and community schools.

A Moral Obligation

Perhaps these draconian consequences could be justified if the mandated remedies worked. However, this is not the case. There is simply no scientific body of evidence that shows privatization and vouchers to be an effective reform strategy. On the contrary, the independent research is abundantly clear that choice schemes have little effect on student achievement but cause social and economic segregation.

Despite federal claims of full funding, the total increase in federal Title I money since NCLB was enacted amounts to just under 1 percent of total education spending. This meager funding ensures many children will be left behind. In the upcoming year, virtually all school districts will see level or decreased Title I funds. Additionally, federal professional development and technology appropriations have been cut more than one-fourth from their already paltry level.

It is our moral obligation to teach every child. Yet test scores, vouchers and absurd bureaucratic penalties will not teach children. Instead, we must ensure all children are provided good learning opportunities in a caring way. What the NCLB law has ignored are the effects of impacted poverty on both the schools and society.

If democracy and a robust economy are our guides, then we cannot embrace a punitive model with perverse effects. Rather, it must be an inclusive model where all children are taught the skills and commitments to be contributing citizens who, in their turn, will make the community, state, nation and world a better place.

William Mathis is superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, 49 Court Drive, Brandon, VT 05733. E-mail: