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

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Educational Genocide, Close Up

From the SF Chronicle:

My school, Noralto Elementary School in Sacramento, is being torn apart, thanks to No Child Left Behind.

Of the 664 students at my school, 450 of them are English language learners. They come mainly from underprivileged families, and rely on our school as a pillar in their lives. Many parents are unable to provide the academic support our students need, and nearly all our students struggle with language barriers. Consequently, the vast majority of them are reading below grade level. Fortunately, the staff is full of passionate teachers who care deeply about these children.

When students arrive at our school from Mexico, Thailand and Laos, they have to learn to speak the language before they can begin to read. Additionally, students arriving directly from Thailand and Laos must first master the English letters before they can even begin to blend the sounds. Can you expect these children to be reading at a fourth- or fifth-grade level by the end of the year? Certainly not. Have the teachers failed because they have not achieved such a miracle? Yes, according to our president and his No Child Left Behind act.

Every year, No Child raises the standards higher, and schools scramble to meet them. Last year, the Annual Yearly Progress score requirement was 24.4 percent for English Language Arts (reading and writing). My school's was 27.9 percent - above the required percentage - but one significant subgroup, our Asian American population, scored only 22.8 percent.

So, once again, we did not meet the goal. Failing to meet the goal two years in a row labels a school Program Improvement. If you are such a school for five years, No Child can come in and wipe the slate clean, getting rid of all the teachers and replacing them with new, "more qualified" teachers - teachers who evidently possess mystical powers to teach English to nonnative speakers in the blink of an eye.

What is extremely frustrating for Noralto is that our administrators and teachers have been working harder than ever, and our scores have steadily improved since the inception of No Child in 2002, when our reading scores were only 14.3 percent. However, the government continues to take punitive action, and labels us as a "failing" school.

My school is in its fourth year of Program Improvement. Next year, the imposed goal is 35.2 percent - a goal we cannot hope to meet - and it will continue to leap every year until it reaches the 100 percent mark in 2014.

This means that my school and thousands like it have "failed," despite desperate efforts to provide quality education for all students. For us, this means that all nontenured teachers will probably be fired at the end of this year, and all permanent teachers could be "involuntarily reassigned" elsewhere in the district. And, sadly, our students and families will be faced with new teachers who will have no connection with them, the school, the community or each other.

How is this better for children? How does it make any sense? The reality of No Child is that it is sucking the joy out of education. A teacher's job is to breathe life into education and to get children to love learning. Creating rigorous testing is simply creating an oppressive educational system in which music, computers, physical education, science and social studies are gradually fading into nonexistence as the panicked push for language arts and math becomes a nationwide obsession.

"Good" teachers are the ones who teach to the test, rather than those who employ creativity, excitement and a positive learning environment. At my school, a specialist has created a rigorous "bell-to-bell" schedule, in which each minute of our day is mapped out. We are told what and how to teach, what to put on our walls, and what interventions to provide. All assemblies and field trips have been banned.

As a bonus, No Child is up for reauthorization in Congress, with the additional stipulation of merit pay. This dictates that teachers' salaries will be contingent upon test scores. The immediate effect of this act, if it goes through, is that all the best teachers will flee to the best schools, leaving the children who need the most help with the teachers least able to supply it. Then, truly, we will be leaving our children behind.

Alyson Beahm is a teacher at Noralto Elementary School in Sacramento. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

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