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School Daze

Posted: 2007-01-12

The policies of NCLB are leading our schools away from an appreciation and understanding of the individual; that works well for no child.

My daughter went off to Kindergarten with a knapsack full of the unabridged classic children's books she loved to read. She favored the works of Louisa May Alcott and Carroll and Barrie. Many generations of children have had these classics read to them at bedtime, but my daughter was different; she read these books herself since before she turned three. And her reaction to them was different too; in fact she cherished them, assimilated them, and created various personas and story lines based on her astute perceptions for the writing styles, the character development and the historical periods presented. In a word, this daughter of mine was a literary wizard, a natural decoder, language, music, color, numbers, ideas, all patterns for her and she consistently cracked the code. But she was also a child.

I tried to pave the way for this child before she got to elementary school but the principal had no interest in meeting or understanding the needs of this child before she became enrolled in her school. I looked at private and public schools, even an "alternative" school, but settled on the public school local to our community for many reasons. I bought a home and settled in this region and our community because I had a passion for the locale. I believed that the best manner for my child to experience our community was by attending her local schools. As she grew, she agreed with my choice. What she didn't have the opportunity to learn in school, my child found in the many opportunities of our region. My child's extended learning environments were everywhere.

The first days of Kindergarten were set up as quick, simple evaluations of each child "readiness" and ability to be successful in the classroom. My child was asked to recite her ABC's, which she did, was asked to count, which she did, was asked to read a simple set of words, which she did, and was asked to write her name, which she did. She also answered these questions in French, which she taught herself with the help of foreign language versions of children's books we found at rummage sales and used book stores. My child had also been using a typewriter to overcome the frustrating lag between her desire to write creatively and the development of her fine motor skills. Writing embarrassed and frustrated her, but her teacher was encouraging about her developing abilities. After school, she returned to her typewriter and wrote stories and poetry, kept a journal, and read practically every book in our home and in several sections of the library; but during school time, she worked on her printing.

After the initial evaluation, the "reading specialist" was called in to evaluate my daughter's "advanced reading ability." Her evaluation resulted in these words: "In my 25 years of testing reading levels, I have never encountered a child with your daughter's abilities." She told us that she did not have advanced enough materials to accurately assess my daughters "reading level." She said that my daughter "read above an 8th grade level."

According to the school district policy, the school system had in place a "talented and gifted program." In reality, there was no such program to accommodate my daughter's "giftedness." But, since my daughter was a 5 year old child, and like most any other young child, had plenty to "learn" about adjusting to school in her first years, I lobbied for her preference and desire to remain in her Kindergarten classroom with her peers.

The interest of the school guidance counselor who gained knowledge of my daughter's abilities, gave birth to a "special opportunity" for my daughter to have some portion of her school time honor her advanced reading level. Kindergarten at that time, was two and a half hours long. It was decided that for an hour a week, my daughter would work with the school librarian for "enrichment." This became her "talented and Gifted" program, on paper.

In fact, my daughter, at 5 years old, guided the librarian through a suggested order list to bring the many new books of children's literature into a sadly outdated and marginally adequate library inventory. She also wrote and delivered a book review highlighting her favorite books and authors for her her school's morning video program.

After several months of book-orders, reading sessions, and discussions with the librarian, my daughter felt sad when she was taken from her classroom. She did not like missing her daily activities and felt embarrassed that she was treated differently than her classmates. She did not see the time she spent with the librarian as "enrichment," did not like the time away from her friends. She asked me to stop the intrusion. I met with the principal, shared my daughter's request, and from that day forward, my daughter remained in her classroom with no further "intervention" and little enrichment opportunity beyond the scope and guidelines of her mainstream classroom objectives.

Beginning in second grade, an extra-curricular "Talented and Gifted program" was offered. Various children, invited by their teachers, could enroll in "enrichment" classes after school at various venues in the county. We attended several of these classes and found the quality of instruction much lower than the activities we pursued independently. We also encountered children tagged for these programs who did not generally display evidence of exceptional needs or abilities, and learned that parents, as well as teachers referred students to the "Talented and Gifted" programs subjectively.

The rest of her school years were marked by several attempts to include her in classroom groups of children identified to read on more advanced levels, or various activities designed for better students. Nothing much ever approached a challenge for her academically, but she learned so much about her peers, and the culture of her school. She also learned and examined the culture of her community and region. As she grew, she learned to pursue the positive aspects of her school offerings and balance them with her own extra-curricular interests.

Most of her enrichment took place outside of school where we were active in support of her interests but aware of her emotional needs as well. My daughter learned to "put up with school" but fed her passion for learning on her own time. Her ability to decipher codes helped make her a stand-out on tests, but also gave her a great opportunity to short-cut and bypass her way through a lot of the tedious work; she learned how to avoid much of the monotony. In brief, my daughter became an expert at time and stress-conservation; she did as little as she needed to in school "to get by" but continued to appear to excel, grade-wise.

She learned over the years that the directive to "get in a straight line" did not mean for her to straighten her arms above her shoulders and tuck her body into symmetrical shape. She learned to hold her questions until after school, when some teachers would linger to take class discussions farther than the course objectives. She learned to hold her urine beyond a camel's ability when bathrooms were horrible, stinky places of public school disgust. And she learned to cherish time with friends, away from the confines of the classroom, and managed to make and retain friendships that will probably color the quality of her life forevermore.

Some of the brightest moments and highest pleasures of my daughter's experiences at school were the relationships she developed with her teachers. The teachers who looked beyond the weight of their own responsibilities to see and nurture the happiness of their students made the rest of the ordeal much more palatable. My daughter admired the teachers who delivered a steady and impassioned dedication to their profession. And from them, she learned that it was possible to continue to love to learn at school, and honorable to continue to love to learn everywhere else.

Thanks to NCLB, many of my daughter's best teachers are losing heart; some are gone already, and some stay but look like ghosts, shadows of what they used to be. The force of standardization has turned every remaining possibility for curiosity in the classroom away. All that remains is a nervous tension so strong and so real that you can feel it contaminate and eat away at your spirit. School is not a happy place anymore. It is a place that has been sold out to the pocketbooks of greed and competition. It is a place where students and teachers are bought and traded; they are no longer cherished. They are no longer honored.

By high school, my daughter really looked forward to the possibility that AP classes would begin to meet or challenge her academic needs. Sadly, the timing was horrible. She entered high school just as NCLB policy began to high jack the exact promises she had hoped for. The new AP expansion policies not only created large classes of students unprepared for "advanced studies," but also "recruited" teachers who were neither trained nor prepared to teach the high-breadth/low-depth classes being offered.

My daughter's experiences in her AP classes were uneven; some of her classes were so devoid of any academic or learning opportunity that she dropped them. But, she was disappointed. Some were taught by the few remaining teachers who had begun teaching AP as a way to keep their own academic interests alive. She loved these rare opportunities to share in a learning experience. Some of the veteran teachers learned to balance relentless scripted curriculum with flashes of unbridled learning opportunities. Sadly, all of my daughter's AP classes were driven by the rapidly paced, shallow scope, and insufferable lock-down policies of test-driven, test-based, test-focussed devotion. What a loss; what a disappointment for my daughter.

With the expansion of AP and the pressure to move groups targeted for AYP failure into the mainstream classroom, my daughter's AP classes were brimming with students who were no longer selected for any measure of appropriateness or readiness. The influence of a political system, based on a business model, made the idea of appropriate instruction invalid. Under NCLB policy, the premise that individuals should be sorted by ability and taught on an individually-based, appropriate level, caused a greater statistical liability. The rhetoric called for "inclusion," but at what cost?

Our children of any and every conceivable level of ability are sent into large classrooms where the pace is stepped up and we are to believe that a miracle happens. We are to believe that by placing any child in an environment labeled "advanced," the child with the least preparation is better off, even if they fail, and the child with the most preparation is fine, regardless of the lack of challenge. The rest of the children, in between, are inconsequential. And the quality of the educational opportunity, the course itself, is left unstudied. This is too great a leap of trust for anyone to accept. The quality of "advanced" instruction, any instruction, should undergo substantial and careful study. And the concept of inclusion and standardization should be reviewed with a fresh eye on the individual student's needs.

To allow textbook and testing companies to weigh in and provide scripts, and worksheets, paces for learning, and teaching, takes the process of educating right out of the teacher's, the educator's hands, and places the profit potentials of such industry side by side with decisions about learning. Allowing the business world a voice in these discussions is predictable; the bottom line is always profit, and their profit, in this case, is our loss.

There is nothing innately wrong with specialization. There is a spectrum of student ability, just as there is a spectrum of any human feature. To address the needs of populations or classes, based on accurate and thoughtful evaluation, and classify them by groups with attention to appropriate learning opportunities is not racist, or hostile, or insensitive; it simply makes sense. We should not be afraid to look at the quality and appropriateness of classroom objectives and we certainly should not fear offering groups of similarly functioning students an appropriate pace and level of educational opportunity.

Recognizing the different learning styles and potentials of individual students somehow became threatening to the politics of "equality" and "inclusion." The premise of these operations are rhetorical and function as slogans; they are unsubstantiated in scientific research on learning. The fact that children have many "pre-conditions" before they come to school, race, socio-economic, cultural, physical, should not discourage attempts to find and address the individual learning styles and needs of each individual student. By the time our students reach high school, attempting to teach them in a classroom where their levels span from special ed spectrums to exceptional or above-average abilities does nothing less than to deprive every child of appropriate learning opportunities.

The risk we took and endured by keeping my daughter at grade level in her public schools was probably higher, in retrospect, than any other risk we have faced as parents. But, gratefully, while my child has not finished college early, does not want to zoom ahead in pursuit of her studies, has not accomplished great feats in academia, has not become a master, yet, in any of the multitudes of her interests and talents, I am convinced, that she has grown into a confident young woman who is comfortable in and who understands her piece of the world, despite her losses of opportunity in her schools.

There were, however, damages. She continues to cope with the liabilities that standardization caused. She learned, as most students do, to organize her writing into BCR's or ECR's, essays that give responses in standard, formulaic, narrow measure. This style of writing discourages creativity and divergent thought. My daughter is determined to extinguish this style of writing but struggles with the coding that she practiced for so many years. She also learned to expect short, shallow explanations or facts; memorization was the backbone of her public school experiences. Now, she is asked to consider an open-ended discussion of theories and it is difficult for her to endure the loose and open-ended world of speculation and analysis.

If the damages inflicted by standardization are a struggle for this high-achieving child, the damages are even worse for children who may not have the resources to rehabilitate themselves. Our colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the impact of NCLB policy. The students arrive at institutions of higher learning with a growing need for remedial support, consistently unprepared to handle the demands of higher education.

My daughter graduated from high school with honors and began college last semester. She earned a wonderful medley of merit-based scholastic tuition grants. She is doing very well and finally has the opportunity to experience the joy of learning in an environment that challenges and stimulates her. She earned two complete semesters of AP credit toward her undergraduate degree; all of which she earned by test scores at the highest AP level. Her reaction to seeing these credits on her first transcript was to say: "They better not think I am leaving early."

She is taking several classes she actually doesn't "need" due to her AP credits, because, in her words, "I finally get the chance to learn the subject." In her perception, she finally is doing exactly what she was meant to do: learn.

My daughter hasn't yet declared or even identified one area of concentration...At times she has chosen 3 or more areas she would consider majoring in, but continues to relate to her schedule of class opportunities like a hungry child confronting a buffet. She even describes it that way. Learning for her, is "delicious."

And if I can feel a part of her legacy, it is that part that I would cherish most; not what she has accomplished, but what she has not yet even imagined, but wants to....

The policies of NCLB are leading our schools away from an appreciation and understanding of the individual; that works well for no child. Standardization has dramatically reduced opportunity for flexibility or creativity; that is harmful for every child. And lost in the process is the joy and the time necessary to experience the world of potential in every child and every teacher.

The public schools should be places we honor as extensions of ourselves as a people. It is where we send our children off to begin their journey. And it is where, as they grow and develop, we have their captive attention as they ponder their own future potential contributions to our society. What happens in the years between is where we have our single most important opportunity to leave our signature on the ultimate recipe for their future.

If allow reauthorization of this destructive act, we will seal the deal. If we stop NCLB now, and give the teachers back their rights and responsibilities as professionals, we have an opportunity, once again to challenge ourselves to work on the process and get it right for every child.

Anne E. Levin Garrison

Please visit www.educatorroundtable.org to take a stand on NCLB!!!

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