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

Friday, February 16, 2007

Stand Up to the Bullies of ELL, Poor, and Special Ed Kids

The greatest reward for a learner or a teacher is to experience those light-bulb moments when the "dawning organization of something new throws into confusion something that was certain before" (Eleanor Duckworth). Such is the case as millions of parents and teachers across the country begin to see that NCLB is designed to leave their children and their public schools behind while sacrificing the most vulnerable children in the process.

The sun is not up yet, however, as witnessed in the following commentary, which focuses on the unfairness for ELLs. The real dawning will happen when the unfairness for special ed students and poor students is acknowledged and turned back.

By Maria Neira
Niagara Gazette

You’ve heard of the schoolyard bully, the one who picks on the most vulnerable children on the playground?

The big bully standing around sneering today is none other than the U.S. Department of Education, and among the victims are some of Niagara County’s most vulnerable children -those who are new to this country and do not yet have command of the English language.

In a policy shift, the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. earlier this month required New York’s 60,000 newly arrived English Language Learners to take the same grade-level tests as the general student population.

Requiring children to take inappropriate tests far beyond their current ability will likely have disastrous consequences for some Niagara County school districts. With 107 students labeled as having limited proficiency in English, Niagara Falls is likely to be hit hard by this unwarranted, ill-considered policy shift. Lockport, with 190 immigrant students, may even fare worse.

The likelihood is great that many of these foreign-born students — some living in the area for just 12 months — will fail the ELA tests. And, because of the unbending accountability requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, too many failures will mean that Lockport and Niagara Falls’ schools will be falsely labeled as “in need of improvement” and penalized by the federal government.

Amazing, isn’t it? Despite the heroic efforts of Niagara Falls and Lockport teachers to help the city’s large immigrant population learn English and succeed academically, many of these newly arrived students will fail merely because they are being forced to take an unfair test of their skills. And, as a result, the city schools will be labeled as failures.

The real, measurable progress that districts have been making with these students and others toward closing the performance gap will be obscured. The sea of negative publicity will be devastating for teachers, parents and the city.

Teachers fiercely lobbied the Regents and State Education Department to allow English Language Learners to continue to take an appropriate assessment that would fairly measure their progress in learning to read and write English. This test, which had been used successfully since 2003 and had been recently revised to be better aligned with New York’s learning standards, was not even reviewed by the federal government.

Sadly, the Regents chose to let the U.S. Department of Education’s ruling stand.

Make no mistake, teachers — and their union, New York State United Teachers — strongly support accountability measures. Teachers support well-designed tests that are aligned with the curriculum, and which fairly measure students’ academic progress. These tests are important tools for teachers in learning which children are progressing satisfactorily, and which need additional support.

States and school districts should also be held accountable for the performance of all students, including special education students and recently arrived English language learners.

Yet, requiring new immigrant students who are not proficient in English - and students with moderate disabilities -- to take tests they are obviously not able to pass makes a mockery of both the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB.

Expecting a Niagara Falls eighth-grader, living in this country for a year, to read and write English as well as a native-born teenager is cruel. Requiring disabled students in special education to be assessed on material several academic years beyond their ability is totally unreasonable. Taken together, it amounts to a concerted effort by the federal government to set vulnerable children and school districts up for failure -- and then penalizing them when they do.

Teachers and parents are natural allies on many issues. In Niagara County, there must be a strong voice against unfair, unsound and unreasonable testing policies that pick on the weakest. It’s time to stand up to the bully.

Maria Neira, a former elementary school bilingual teacher, is vice president of the 575,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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