“It’s medication time,” the morning mantra that Big Nurse bellowed daily at her patients in the asylum in the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ran through my mind at my school’s first staff meeting for the school year. Her patronizing voice reverberated in my brain. An administrator was informing us of the latest state-mandated policy concerning students and medication. No one in a school was allowed to give students medication unless that person had been trained. Staff members taking students on field trips must take a trained medication specialist with them; if they have students who take medications—aspirins included. Said staff members must pay for substitutes out of their subject budgets to fill in for the medication specialist; or they could take a professional development class and earn credit for learning to administer medications.

I thought to myself, “Forget field trips”. In my thirty-eight years of teaching, students had managed to be responsible for taking their medications. Considering our litigious society, I wondered if a parent somewhere had sued a district for negligence; because a child had forgotten to take his medication; and now districts around the nation were trying to protect themselves from future litigation.

Mirroring American society, schools now have mandated policies to regulate every conceivable interaction or situation—imagined or real—within a school. Policies governed by precise rules, regulations, and procedures; predetermine how individuals will relate to each other or must respond to each other in given situations in an attempt to “head off any problems at the pass”. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, it is important to have guidelines, policies, and procedures to run schools or there would be complete chaos. However, it is the overly-prescriptive nature of these policies that is the problem.

Policymaking requires making decisions that affect people’s lives without their having a chance to cast a vote. According to former education policymaker Diane Ravitch, to think like a policymaker means to look at schools, teachers, and students from an altitude of twenty thousand feet and to see them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans with no practical understanding of their effects within the classroom.

No Child Left Behind has been the most grievous policy to inform our education system.

Schools have been straight-jacketed by a national policy that changed the American government’s role in education. Before NCLB, the operation of U.S. public schools was typically the responsibility of states and local communities. Throughout the nation’s history, the federal government was not expected to play a major role in regulating or directly financing schools. This law changed that idea. The quality of education became solely dependent upon standardized test scores and, sadly, the policy would also set the tone for a punitive approach to education.

The policy’s main assumption was that “high stakes” tests could identify which students should be held back; which teachers and principals should be fired or rewarded, and which schools should be closed. NCLB’s destructive core set schools up for failure because test scores do not necessarily indicate real progress when they rise or deterioration when they fall.

Over the decade, more and more criticism of the NCLB Act surfaced in scholarly journals, the media, and educational communities. A prominent criticism was that school districts, administrators, and teachers were caught up in an education paradigm not of their own making. The system was now being driven by policymakers; many of whom had probably never been in the classroom, making educational decisions. Many educators began to feel like “cogs in the machine of education.”

President Obama’s education policy “Race to the Top” added insult to injury.

The policy’s catchy title implied that education was a competition; a “race to the top” with money as a reward, awaiting school districts that could meet the policy’s demands. The policy adopted NCLB’s concept for increasing student achievement and decreasing achievement gaps among students, focusing on state and local policy developments that NCLB encouraged.

Predictably, as educators, students, and schools nationwide have spent years enforcing the NCLB and RTTT mandates in education, the pendulum is swinging in a semi-new direction. On December 10, 2015, the federal government signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Replacing the NCLB Act, the law gives states more flexibility and control; but maintains the corporate mindset of NCLB with its focus on standards, testing, and accountability as keys to student success.

States will be given leeway in how/when they test students, in whether or not they adopt Common Core Standards, in what accountability goals they set, and in how they evaluate teachers, but they must submit accountability plans to the federal Department of Education. However, federal punishment for schools, principals, and teachers whose students have low test scores and Annual Yearly Progress will end. In essence, with the inception of ESSA; states will merely be left to their own devices to continue administering NCLB’s failed measures. Only time will tell how these changes playout. And, the proverbial rat race of corporate education reform continues in its modified form.

The control of schools needs to be returned to local communities, and the focus of education needs to shift from mirroring our consumer, product-oriented society to that of questioning the fundamental assumptions and definitions presidents, politicians, and policymakers hold about education.

Philosopher Krishnamurti believed that education should prepare students to understand the whole process of life rather than merely equip them to pass examinations and get jobs.

To Krishnamurti, the true function of education should be to cultivate the intelligence to try to find answers to life and its problems. It should motivate individuals to find out for themselves what is real, and what is true, without a formula. We need to quit churning out a society of test takers and foster a society of blossoming Krishnamurtis.