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

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Foundations Student on NCLB

I just wound up a summer session of my graduate foundations class. This is how one student closed her final essay in response to this question:

Is it possible or likely that the purposes and aims that you will pursue and promote as an educator are or can be realized by all American children, regardless of race, gender, or where they happen to go to school? Using evidence supplied from this course, explain how and why your most important educational purposes or aims are equally accessible – or how and why they are or cannot be equally accessible.

American education should be an equal-opportunity endeavor, but it is not. History has seen a constant struggle for democracy in education. Educational thinkers and policymakers have grappled with the question of how to give all students equal educational opportunities, yet even today, equity in American education is lacking. As a result of No Child Left Behind, the country is experiencing a frenzy to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. The unfortunate irony of NCLB, however, is that it is creating inequity in education rather than alleviating it, for the law is effectively harming precisely those students it purports to benefit: minority students, students with learning disabilities, and students whose first language is not English. Thus, my aforementioned aims [to cultivate a love of learning in my students and promote an ethic of care] as an educator are not equally accessible to all American children, regardless or race, gender or where they happen to go to school. The current emphasis on test prep makes fostering a love of learning nearly impossible, and the push to bolster the scores of some students while letting others fall through the cracks precludes an ethic of care in education.

My first aim as an educator is to cultivate a love of learning in my students by engaging their interests and making the classroom experience a positive one. However, if I am forced to teach to a test, that aim is made almost impossible. Many critics of NCLB say it is an attempt by the federal government to implement a standardized curriculum in public schools. Scripted lessons and “one-size-fits-all” curriculums are the antithesis of engaging and interactive learning. As Jaeger points out, “Teachers find that their work has been reduced to follow a scripted teacher’s guide, passing out worksheets, and drilling students on isolated skills,” (chapter 6). How can I, as Dewey and Noddings suggest, take my students’ individual needs and interests into account when I must deliver a robotic lesson or drill test strategies into their heads? It seems to me that NCLB unfairly makes teachers more concerned about ensuring students are proficient in math and reading for the sake of a test than providing them with a wholesome, fulfilling education.

Not only does NCLB lead to robotic teaching and narrow curriculums, it also reduces learning to filling in blanks and bubbling in scantrons; that is, it sends the message that the purpose of learning is to pass a test. According to Dewey, learning needs to be made relevant to students’ lives so that they will seek out more positive educative experiences in the future. In order to achieve my aim of cultivating a love of learning in my students, I have said that I will try to help them see the relevancy of the material to their daily lives. But if I can only justify the relevancy of my lessons by saying, “You need to know this for the test,” that aim is effectively derailed. The last thing students want to hear is that they must absorb the information because they’ll be tested on it later. High-stakes testing turns students off to learning. School must be made relevant to daily life so that students can realize the immediate impact of their educative experiences. The current testing craze greatly inhibits that aim.

The law also is antithetical to my second aim of promoting an ethic of care in the classroom. The very name of the law, “No Child Left Behind,” sounds caring enough in theory, but the reality is that it cares very little about the welfare of America’s children. It is largely ineffective in providing support for the students who need it the most. It expects children with learning disabilities to achieve at the same rate as other students, yet states are not allowed to make provisions for alternative tests or significantly modify testing conditions to make that possible (Jaeger, chapter 3). Furthermore, higher qualification standards for paraprofessionals has forced many of them out of their jobs, which means students with learning disabilities are not receiving the extra support they need (Jaeger, chapter 5). English language learners who have been in the U.S. for at least a year face a similar unrealistic and unfair expectation, for they are required to take a test that is not written in their first language. What’s even worse is that when it comes to intervention services for struggling students, many districts now focus on “those children who are considered ‘pushables’ (those just below passing) and ‘slippables’ (those at risk of slipping out of the proficient category),” according to Jaeger. “When one teacher asked what was to be done for students in dire need of extra help, she was told by her principal to ‘forget them’” (chapter 2). How can teachers care about each and every student when they are being told to forget about those deemed lost causes? And how can teachers show students they care when they cannot gauge their understanding of and response to the material, as Jaeger describes when she writes, “ They are unable to respond appropriately to the diverse needs of their students because required adherence to a rigid pacing schedule forces them to move full speed ahead whether students understand the lessons or not” (chapter 6)? Noddings says every child has the potential to achieve. It is our responsibility as caring educators to help students realize their potential, yet NCLB prevents such a caring approach to education.

Furthermore, NCLB makes it advantageous for schools to let drop-outs fall through the cracks. The provision of the law that it supposed to help schools with high drop-out rates implement prevention programs has a $0 budget, and “other provisions of the law serve to diminish rather than increase incentives for keeping all students in school,” (Jaeger, chapter 7). “There is a reason for excluding from testing lower-achieving students...by transferring or expelling them, or by encouraging them to drop out. If these students leave school, they do not participate in the tests which determine whether schools are deemed under-performing,” (Jaeger, chapter 7). Thus, NCLB effectively encourages schools to not care about lower-achieving students who are likely to drop out. One hardly needs to point out how this goes against an ethic of care.

Thus, it is clear that society’s emphasis on standardized test scores, as well as the federal government’s intrusion into the educational system, makes the realization of my most important educational aims highly unlikely or nearly impossible. But, to end on a more optimistic note, there is hope for me yet, as No Child Left Behind is up for re-authorization this September. Repealing the law would make my aims more feasible.

Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education (reprinted ed.) New York: Touchstone Books.

Dewey, J. (1938/2000). Experience and education. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophical documents in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 115-124). New York: Longman. (Reprinted from Experience and education by J. Dewey, 1938, Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, pp. 33-50).

Dewey, J. (1897/1972). My pedagogic creed. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophicaldocuments in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 103-110). New York: Longman. (Reprinted from John Dewey: The early works 1895-1898, vol. 5 by J. Dewey, J.A. Boydston, Ed., Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 84-95).

Dillon, S. (2007, July 25). Focus on 2 R’s cuts time for the rest, report says. New York Times. Retrieved August 9, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com

Glater, J. (2007, July 29). Certain degrees now cost more at universities. New York Times. Retrieved August, 9, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com

Jaeger, Elizabeth. What every parent, teacher, and community member needs to know about No Child Left Behind. Unpublished manuscript.

Noddings, N. (1992/2000). The challenge of care in schools: An alternative approach to education. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophical documents in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 247-257). New York: Longman (Reprinted from The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education, by Noddings, 1992, New York: Teachers College Press).

Tyack, D. (2003). Seeking common ground: Public schools in a diverse society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

I wish that all my colleagues could say as much on the subject as well.

Posted 11.18.07 at Education Policy Blog

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