Classroom Caste System
By David Keyes
Monday, April 9, 2007; A13
Written five years ago to reduce the "achievement gap," the No Child Left Behind Act has in fact created a gap in American education. Its pressure to raise test scores has caused many schools to give poor and minority students an impoverished education that focuses primarily on basic skills.
As it comes up for reauthorization, members of Congress should consider the unintended consequence of the act: a new gap between poor and minority students, who are being taught to seek simple answers, and largely wealthy and white students, who are learning to ask complex questions. In my work as an elementary school teacher, I have seen this new gap and I worry about its impact on my students' future prospects.
Although supporters and critics of No Child Left Behind agree on little, both would acknowledge that testing lies at the heart of the law. Schools approach the act's testing requirements differently, depending on the students they serve.
Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools remain largely segregated. Schools serving mostly wealthy and white students have a distinct advantage when it comes to testing. Their students are far more likely to be raised in an environment that gives them the necessary tools to succeed on tests. They grow up with the intellectual abundance their wealth provides: books, educational videos and Baby Einstein games, to name a few. Having these resources may not make children smarter, but it does educate them in many of the skills -- such as letter sounds and addition facts -- that are covered on standardized tests. Knowing their students are likely to succeed on tests gives these schools freedom to teach higher-level thinking skills.
Poor and minority children also come to school with rich backgrounds. They speak foreign languages, make music, tell vivid stories and have other skills not typical of their peers. Their backgrounds, however, often do not provide them with the academic skills needed to succeed on standardized tests. Fearful of poor test scores that can bring punitive measures, schools spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their students for the tests.
Schools often use test-prep programs to try to raise test scores. The problem with these programs is that they teach the skills covered on tests, and only these skills. Poor and minority students spend hours repeating "B buh ball" and two plus two equals four. Every hour spent drilling basic skills is an hour not spent developing the higher-level thinking skills that are emphasized in wealthier school districts.
I have worked in both types of schools. Currently, I teach in an almost exclusively minority, high-poverty elementary school. Administrators require teachers to strictly adhere to a months-long test-prep program. My students recoil at the sight of their test-prep books. Last year, some of my students cried, wracked with anxiety over the tests.
My students are 7 and 8 years old.
I did my student teaching in an almost exclusively white and wealthy school. There, the students studied the role of quilts on the Underground Railroad, brainstormed plans to save wolves from extinction and performed dances based on retellings of Cinderella. The children learned to think and they loved it.
At the end of the year, test results will come out for these two schools. Educators and politicians will trumpet any reduction of the so-called achievement gap. This misses the point. Students will leave these two schools and schools like them with a widely varying set of skills. As the achievement gap is being reduced, another gap is being created. Students in largely wealthy and white schools are learning to ask larger questions; students in poor and minority schools are only being taught to answer smaller ones.
The effect of this gap will be long-lasting. Students taught higher-level thinking skills will be able to compete for jobs at the upper echelon of the 21st-century economy. Students who receive an impoverished education focused on basic skills will be stuck at the bottom.
The No Child Left Behind Act is creating a caste-like system in which students' future prospects are likely to be similar to those of their parents. This undemocratic development is at odds with a society that prides itself on being a meritocracy. As Congress debates the renewal of the law, members should consider not only whether the act is reducing the achievement gap but also the skills gap it is creating.
The writer is a second-grade teacher at Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring.