Up Close and Personal: The Destructive Force of NCLB
Ohanian Comment: NCLB, Reading First, and Open Court--and those who don't refuse and resist--are destroying children. They are also destroying teachers. Note: What is described below is the blueprint for success. Their term.
She had three children of her own before she earned her bachelor's degree in education and secured a teaching credential. She wanted to teach the children most in need of eager, energetic teachers.
In the fall of 2002, she took a job in a second-grade classroom in a Bay Area elementary school in which 98 percent of the students qualify for a free lunch. The families are poor. Many are immigrants. Few of the parents have had much schooling themselves.
The teacher, who talked openly on the condition her name not be used, had lived too long to be naive about what she was taking on. But she had plans for science projects and murals and story-telling and clever games that would engage the children in arithmetic and reading.
Now, a year and a half later, she wonders how much longer she will last.
"I can't keep testing like this," she said, sitting in a classroom filled with shelves of books and alphabet posters. "This year, testing is everything. Eight days of every month I'm testing. About a third of our time is testing."
Under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" bill, her district received a three-year grant worth nearly $5 million to implement a literacy program in kindergarten-through-third-grade classes. Similar grants totaling $900 million went to thousands of low-income, low-performing schools across the country.
The plan made sense: Pour money and effort into helping kids learn to read by third grade, and they will have a solid foundation on which to build the rest of their education.
"I was excited we were getting the money," the teacher said. "I actually was welcoming more testing because I felt it would tell me more about my students."
But policies that are so impressive on paper inside the government offices of Washington, D.C., can look quite different when brought to life inside a classroom. This second-grade teacher follows a prescribed lesson plan every day from a program called Open Court Reading. It takes the first 2 1/2 hours of every morning. The teacher spends 10 minutes on one area, such as grammar, then moves on to, say, verb tenses for 20 minutes, then maybe vocabulary for another 10, and so on.
Despite the pace and rigidity of the program, the teacher likes it. She taught it last year, too, and saw improvement in her students. "I love the reward of getting kids from not reading at all to getting them to read at grade level," she said. And she still had time in her day, after math, for science, social studies and a few art projects.
But this year, because of the new "Reading First" federal grant money, schools have to show more accountability, another word for lots of testing. The teacher gives a literacy test every Friday that reviews the week's lessons. Then she gives three tests during the year that review material from the weekly tests. Then there are the three standardized math tests. And the California standards test. On top of those, she now has to administer six Reading First tests through the year.
Two weeks ago, the second-graders at the teacher's school spent three solid days in mandated Reading First literacy testing, Monday through Wednesday. The teachers were supposed to have Thursday to teach, then spend Friday morning giving the weekly Open Court reading test. But on Wednesday, a school administrator reminded them that the quarterly math assessment had to be administered by week's end. So there went Thursday.
One of the teacher's colleagues, a first-year teacher, broke down in tears.
"She's cracking," the teacher said of her young colleague.
There's another problem with the testing besides the hours it consumes, the teacher says: Reading First tests often are not aligned with what students are learning in the Open Court program. One test had a section on antonyms and synonyms though the teacher had spent only 10 minutes during the previous four weeks focused on them. The students had been learning punctuation for greetings and closings, but the test focused on punctuation for lists and dialogue.
In one test I saw, students were asked to write a letter about a gift they had received. They were given a checklist that included such prompts as, "Did you include sensory words that describe your gift?" These are second-graders. Sensory words?
Just the directions for certain sections of the test I saw were so multi-stepped and confusing that struggling readers -- the population that the Reading First program is targeting -- surely had little chance of figuring out what was being asked of them.
"Kids are given tests so far over their level that it's demoralizing for me to give it to them and demoralizing for them to take it," the teacher said. "The results tell me almost nothing about my students because they're not being tested on the material we're covering."
This teacher rarely has time to teach science or social studies, much less art. She still squeezes in fun games that reinforce spelling, phonetics and grammar. But with the breakneck pace of the literacy program and the endless, often nonsensical testing, the teacher is finding the job radically different from the one she imagined when she walked through the door.
"What's putting me over the edge is there's no joy in teaching," she said.
Thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., Bush recently talked about his "No Child Left Behind" plan.
"It's an exciting time for American education," he said. "We're facing challenges, but we have the blueprint for success."
I know a teacher who would like that blueprint. The one she has now isn't working so well.
E-mail Joan Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco Chronicle
Federal Mandates Limit Classroom Ingenuity