"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 08, 2007

NCLB and The Hounds of Hell

"It really has brought the Hounds of Hell down on the schools of Prince William County," says Betsie Fobes, a recently retired eighth-grade algebra and pre-algebra teacher at Parkside Middle School in Manassas, Va. "This AYP business is just killing us — absolutely killing us."

Parkside, which has seen a large Latino influx, didn't meet its goals two years in a row — so now teachers must attend twice-weekly meetings, often focused on testing. They've built in a tutorial period, and even secretaries do their share of tutoring.

Here is another big chunk of the USA Today story on how NCLB has changed schools:

It's driving teachers crazy

Here's a pretty safe rule of thumb: Start in the classroom and travel up the educational food chain. The further you travel, the more you'll find that people like the law. Mention it to most teachers and they'll just roll their eyes. Many principals tolerate it. Ask a local superintendent, a state superintendent or a governor and the assessment gets rosier as their suit gets more expensive.

Carmen Meléndez quit her job as a bilingual language arts teacher at an elementary school last spring in Orange County, Fla., after the law prompted her principal to institute 90-minute reading blocks and a scripted curriculum — in the process making individualized instruction impossible. Meléndez also found that she couldn't teach poetry anymore.

"It was insane," she says. "The kids were all jaded. They were tired — they hated school."

Most of the frustration, teachers will tell you, comes from the stress of mandated math and reading tests. The law requires that virtually all children be tested each year starting in third grade — and it doles out growing penalties if schools don't raise scores each year. Naturally, test day in most schools is fraught with tension.

"They're 8 years old, and they're so worried about a passing score," Meléndez says. "I think that's inhumane."

Dianne Campbell, director of testing and accountability in Rockingham County, N.C., told the American School Board Journal in 2003 that administrators discard as many as 20 test booklets on exam days because children vomit on them.

Also, many state rating systems (which often predated No Child Left Behind) now end up celebrating the same schools the federal law slams.

Longstreet Elementary School in Daytona Beach, Fla., has scored high on the state ratings for five years, but Longstreet is one of 21 Volusia County schools due for "corrective action" this year under the law.

"Our parents are thrilled at what happens at our school — and a lot of what happens at our school has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind," says counselor Bill Archer.

Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington education research group, says some of the testing actually helps drive better instructional strategies and, in that respect, is helpful. But he says teachers tell him they're overwhelmed by the sheer volume of testing, which can last six weeks in some schools.

"I don't think you can go into a teacher meeting in the country without somebody bringing up No Child Left Behind," he says.

After five years, the law has even spawned an online petition that, as of Sunday, had about 22,500 signatures of people urging Congress to repeal it.

Along with his signature, teacher Mark Quig-Hartman of Vallejo, Calif., said: "I am well on my way to becoming an embittered and mediocre teacher who heretofore considered teaching to be a profession, not a job. I once loved what I did. I do not now, nor do my students; school has become a rather grim and joyless place for all."

Teachers' unions have often been the law's loudest critics. One top National Education Association official even entertained the NEA's 2004 conference in Washington by appearing onstage with an acoustic guitar and singing a protest song with this unforgettable hook: "If we have to test their butts off, there'll be no child's behind left."

And if you think it's just teachers who complain, think again: 2006 saw even the law's most ardent supporters complaining, but for a very different reason: They say states and school districts game the system by lowering their standards.

Because the law allows each state to set its own pass/fail bar on skills tests, "proficient" means something different depending on which state you live in. The percentage of Missouri fourth-graders at or above "proficient" in English is only 35%, but 89% of Mississippi fourth-graders meet that state's standards. In math, only 39% of Maine fourth-graders are proficient or better; in North Carolina, 92% are.

Philadelphia Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas jokes that to really improve scores in his city, he could make classes smaller and modernize buildings. "Or we can give everyone the Illinois test," he says.

It's narrowing what many schools teach

If nothing else, the law's first five years have proved the maxim "What gets tested gets taught."

The law's annual testing requirements in math and reading have led many schools to pump up the amount of time they spend teaching these two staples — often at the expense of other subjects, such as history, art or science.

Jennings found that 71% of districts are reducing time on other subjects in elementary school.

"What we're getting under (the law) is a very strong emphasis on building skills at the expense of history and literature and science," says researcher Thomas Toch of the Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

Other critics say the law has created a "complexity gap." Children in lower grades have made improvements — some impressive — in basic skills, but the improvements vanish in middle school and beyond, when kids are tested on more complex conceptual thinking.

Brown University researcher Martin West this fall compared federal data from 2000 and 2004, and found that since No Child Left Behind, elementary schools have spent, on average, 23 fewer minutes a week on science and 17 fewer minutes on history. He also found that in states that test history and science each spring, teachers spend about half an hour more a week on each subject.

. . . .

It's making the school day longer

If a restaurant takes 12 eggs and makes a lousy omelette, will adding another two eggs make it better?

If a school can't teach a child to read in seven hours, will eight do the trick?

Under No Child Left Behind, the answer is: Probably yes.

The law requires schools that don't make adequate yearly progress to offer free transfers to a better-performing public school.

If results don't improve the next year, the school must begin offering free after-school tutoring — in many cases with classes taught by the school's own teachers with whom the kids were failing during the school day.

William Bennett, Ronald Reagan's education secretary, invoked the egg metaphor, and as it turns out, a lot of families — and teachers — are willing to try the omelette. In the 2004-05 school year, 1.4 million students were eligible for the tutoring, and about 17% took advantage of it.

Spellings says the tutoring is often provided by different teachers from the ones a kid sees during the regular day. Perhaps more important, she says, the law is forcing large districts such as Los Angeles to figure out how to keep kids from needing tutoring in the first place.

"They're … sitting there thinking, 'What the heck? How can we have so many kids who can't get to grade level in the course of the school day? What needs to happen in the school day different?' "

It's changing how reading is taught

Forget everything else No Child Left Behind stands for. If it does nothing else, advocates say, it will have improved poor kids' reading in unprecedented ways. A few say it already has.

The law gives schools $1 billion a year to spend on reading and focuses it, laser-like, on 5,600 schools that serve the nation's poorest 1.8 million kids. It starts with kids as soon as they enter school and, so far, has trained 103,000 teachers on "scientifically based" reading strategies heavy in phonics, step-by-step lessons and practice, practice, practice.

And because many schools build their reading programs around what primary grades do, it could affect millions more students' reading skills.

How could it fail? Easily, say critics such as Susan Ohanian. She points to overly scripted reading curricula and a curious little reading test called DIBELS, which makes it easy to rate children's reading skills, in part by asking them to look at nonsense words; it then rates them on their ability to read the words aloud — very quickly.

"I have never seen anything like this," says Ohanian, a former New York teacher who blogs about education in general and No Child Left Behind in particular. She bemoans the loss of teacher autonomy and says DIBELS is one of its worst symptoms.

"I don't dispute that it's quick and easy and it's a tool — and if you just used it that way, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it," she says. But she adds: "They're using DIBELS to hold kids back in kindergarten. And that's where it becomes really evil. Some kids are just not ready for that skills stuff."

1 comment:

  1. It all sounds too familiar... I've been a teacher in California for seven years, and NCLB has been one of the reasons (not the biggest one, not the most important one, but one) I decided to go back to Spain. It's insane. They are taking the joy out of teaching and turning teachers into repeating machines. It's ridiculous.
    Nice finding you.