POET: Dylan Garity
PIECE: Rigged Game
The impact of No Child Left Behind on English language learners

Key Lines/Phrases

Key Line/Phrase

“Improving a school by picking its pockets
is like tuning a guitar by ripping off the strings.”

In 2001, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act which aimed at closing achievement gaps. As mentioned in the poem “Rigged Game,” the law had many unintended consequences which negatively impacted poor, minority, and English-Learning students. Dylan Garity explores the impact this policy had on English language learners in his sister’s class with an acute attention to the narratives of some of her students.

Full Transcript of Poem

Every day when I was five, my older sister would play teacher.
Her students were me, my stuffed rabbit and an American girl doll,
She’d line us up at the end of the bed and teach us whatever she’d learned in school that day.

Now, she teaches ESL at an elementary school in Boston
and every week she tells me stories about her students.
Ana does not know how to read in Spanish, much less English
but she still wants to be a writer when she grows up.
Juan chooses to stay inside and study at recess so that one day he’ll be able to teach his own brother.

These kids are good organs in a sick body.
In 2001, No Child Left Behind
gutted bilingual education.
Students who have been in the country for one year
are now expected to perform at grade level
on standardized English tests.
My sister is not allowed to instruct them in Spanish.
If the kids don’t jump high enough, the school loses money
Improving a school by picking its pockets
is like tuning a guitar by ripping off the strings.

Learning to read in a new language
before you can even read in your own
is like learning to walk while a pit bull is chasing you.
Like learning to sing with the conductor’s fist down your throat

This year, for my sister’s birthday,
I bought books for her students.
A poem on one page in Spanish, the next in English.
She is not allowed to help them read the first.
Their heritage is a banned book
Learning to read in a new language
when you can’t even read in your own
is like trying to heal a burn victim by drowning them.
We are telling these children
who have spent their whole lives in the deep end
that they’ll learn how to swim if they just float out a little farther.

In the 1980s, American slaughterhouses
began building corrals in curves,
so no animals could see the blood at the end of the track.
This is how we kept them moving forward.
In 2001, we began building the hallways of our schools in curves.
This is how we keep them moving forward.

You never learn, you fail the test
You never learn you fail the test
You never learn, you drop out.

I know, I am lucky enough to be one of the winners of this game
I was handed a head start
and a rulebook in my own tongue
but the winners of a rigged game
should not get to write the rules.

On the television,
some senator preaches that throwing money
at an “urban school” is like feeding caviar to your dog.
They just won’t know how to appreciate it
After all, if these parents can’t take care
of their own children, why should we?

Well tell that to Ana
who has my sister translate newsletters aloud to her father
because he, too, was never taught how to read

Tell that to Juan
whose mother and baby sister are still in Guatemala
whose father works three jobs

My sister tells me school is the most stable place in these kids’ lives.
She has been a teacher since she was smaller than they are.
but since when does being a teacher mean having to swear not to help?
Since when does being a teacher mean having your hands tied
as the schoolhouse burns to the ground?
We are leading these children along a track built in circles
as their lungs fill with smoke
telling them it is their fault
they can’t find a way out.


In-depth Analysis

In the poem “Rigged Game,” Dylan Garity explains how the inequalities in education
marginalizes bilingual students. One example that supports this accusation is the No Child Left Behind policy which prevents learning in a student’s native language. The poet uses the students his older sister teaches in her ESL class to express his concerns of culture and education. This classroom represents a type of formal education, which is schooling that takes place in a formal setting with the goal of teaching predetermined curriculum. Literacy is among the most important elements of formal education, yet Garity demonstrates how policies like No Child Left Behind contributes to the global divide in education.

Symbolic interaction theory: His sister and her students interact, and also other students from other cultures interact. But because the teacher is not allowed to teach these students the ways to read, write, and even properly speak in their native tongues it is hard for them to interact and communicate with those outside their classroom. One example is Juan wanting to teach his brother the English language but not being able to do so because he is not being taught the translation of his native language into English. Juan’s mother and little brother are in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Nearly 25% of the country’s population is illiterate. An average schooling in Guatemala is only four years with 3 in 10 children graduate from the sixth grade (GlobalEducationFund.org) . This is why Juan wants to help his brother so that he to can get the education that Juan has received.

Rational Choice Theory: In this spoken word one rational choice being made is Dylan’s sister wanting to remain a teacher even though she has to watch her students struggle and is not allowed to help. This is a choice that she as a teacher has made in order to do the best she can in teaching these students. The children’s parents are also making the choice to allow their children to go to school and receive an education. In 2012, the US Bureau of Labor reported that only 50% of Hispanics, age 25 and older have completed high school, and 64% of Hispanics have attended college.

Conflict Theory: The potential for conflict between Dylan’s sister and the administration is indicative of how policies like No Child Left Behind allow education to reproduce class inequalities. Dylan’s sister is becoming frustrated having to watch these children struggle and not be able to do a thing about it. Due to her passion for teaching it can be predicted that she will eventually take action. According to The Atlantic article “Why Do Teachers Quit” anywhere between 40% and 50% of teachers will leave their classroom within their first 5 years of teaching. There is also conflict between the non native English speaking students and the education system. These students are frustrated that they are not able to understand the ESL material. Students may soon blame their teachers for them not understanding the material. The teacher-student relationship is very important when it comes to leaning as teachers are on the frontline in education. The overwhelming consensus is that a good teacher student relationship helps improve child learning rates.

Dylan Garity’s spoken word poem pointed out many problems within the education system for those who have come from other countries. The No Child Left Behind system has not been thinking about the students but instead about the money that they are making off these struggling children. It is important for school districts to take a more active interest in the students that occupy their schools in order for these students to learn properly and make a difference in society.
(D’Aujane Lee)

Follow-up Resources/Discussions

Discussion/Follow-up Questions

Follow-up Sociology questions:

  • What are the pros and cons of No Child Left Behind?
  • How does Common Core differ from No Child Left Behind?
  • If you were a student between 2001 and 2010, what were you educational experiences – especially as it related to testing?

Artist Comments

This space is reserved for any comments the author of the piece may have about the points he was trying to get across and the background of why he wrote the poem.