Educators Struggle with NCLB Standards
LEICESTER — “When you plant a tree, you give it the best soil and the best water,” begins Sid Glassner, Executive Director of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education and a long-time educator. “You put stakes next to it so the wind doesn’t get it and the tree grows and grows. We hardly do that for our kids. This No Child Left Behind Act is just the opposite. You plant a twig and then you throw a storm at it.”
In the Leicester Central School classroom, teachers have seen such a storm arise from the pressure to meet No Child Left Behind’s requirements by using federal programs that are based on “proven educational methods.”
One such program is the Reading First Initiative, which strongly encourages schools to use one of five reading programs based on phonetic and phonemic awareness to teach students in kindergarten through third grade how to read.
The Bush administration promised to increase federal funding for reading programs from $300 million to $900 million when No Child Left Behind went into effect — money that would go only to schools that used the federal programs.
But the Reading First Initiative has had a longer history than the No Child Left Behind Act. The idea of using phonics and phonemics to teach young students how to read stems from the 1998 National Reading Panel whose 15 members determined that the most effective way to teach reading is to focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.
A potential problem, however, was that only one panelist, Joanne Yatvin, had experience teaching reading to young children. The others included a physicist, a brain-imaging researcher, the head of a business school and a middle-school teacher who never had worked with beginner readers. The panel only reviewed 438 of 100,000 studies and only 38 of those reflected the panel’s conclusion, most of which related to special needs students.
“They knew they were going to push phonics and phonemic awareness,” said Glassner, “You can measure certain things like this. It suited a particular need.”
Critics of the Reading First Initiative also question whether business relations were a motive to develop the program. Companies like McGraw-Hill, which has close ties to the Bush family, develop the materials schools need to implement the programs and thus have had a huge economic boost since the law passed in 2002.
Another factor, according to Glassner, was to improve Bush’s public relations by showing that he initiated programs that would dramatically help schools. Glassner points to the Houston Independent School District’s dropout scandal as a precursor to No Child Left Behind. Dr. Rod Paige, superintendent of the school district at that time and the current Secretary of Education under the Bush administration, along with other administrators, claimed that their district had a zero dropout rate in schools. Even after a group of administrators publicly countered the dropout reports with evidence that many students were either transferring or failing, the Bush administration used the alleged no dropout reports to say that they were creating “miracles” in Texas schools, Glassner says.
“This is what gave rise to No Child Left Behind — these kinds of bogus enterprises that were going on down in Texas that gave Bush all kinds of press around the country… It really showed that this No Child Left Behind thing was more PR than it was substance.”
Supporters of the initiative, on the other hand, defend the panel’s results by claiming that the program gives schools a structure with which they can tackle illiteracy, especially in poor socio-economic areas.
But Glassner argues that in reality, the program leaves more children behind.
He attributes the greater problem of Reading First to its goal of attacking illiteracy rather than alliteracy, people who can read but choose not to. The program, says Glassner, who spent much of his teaching career specializing in reading issues, teaches students how to be decoders — to be able to put sounds together to form words, rather than to enjoy the process of reading.
“There’s got to be a major distinction in this country between decoding and reading,” Glassner said, “and we haven’t done that. I know teachers who have told parents that their children are great readers and the only reason why they’re telling them that is because their kids did well in a reading test. And the parents tell the teachers, ‘How can you say my kid is a great reader? I never see him reading. He never wants to take out a book from the library.’”
Many Vermont schools, including Leicester Central School, have rejected federal grants to use only the Reading First Initiative and stayed with existing reading programs they say are more balanced.
Richard Cate, Vermont Education Commissioner, claims that the Reading First Initiative is effective, but that it must also be used with a variety of different strategies.
On the national level, particularly urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, the number of schools choosing to use the program exclusively is much higher.
William Mathis, the Rutland Northeast superintendent, praises the Leicester school for developing and maintaining its balanced reading program.
“It takes leadership on the building level for any school to work and that’s one of the things people don’t understand,” he said. “They think you can buy phonics or any kind of packaged program and implement it and everything’s going to be dandy. Well, you don’t cookbook these things. It takes a tremendous focus and concentration of the school.”
Carol Eckels, Leicester school principal, encourages students to learn and appreciate reading beyond what is necessary for the test.
“Our reading program,” she said, “has a lot of components to it and it’s a balanced program. All of one is not good for kids because every child learns to read differently… We were eligible for grants to put in some of those basal reading programs and we would have gotten a lot of money and a lot of materials to do it, but we chose not to do it. I don’t agree that one program is best for all children. I think what you need is a balanced program and we have one here.”
Although the school recently implemented a new phonics program, they also added a guided reading program designed for students to read books at their specific level and to move up levels according to individual progress. Also, two teachers are now present in the classroom during the first and second grade literacy block, one of whom is a special educator.
PRESSURE IN THE CLASSROOM
Whether schools implement federal “research-based” programs, teachers still feel pressured to meet federal standards, which ultimately has changed the atmosphere in the classroom.
Teachers and administrators recognize the need for activities such as art and P.E. to improve children’s concentration on core subjects and expose them to more situations outside of the classroom, but have struggled to continue such activities.
“There’s no time for fun,” admitted Laura Coro, a Leicester teacher for 27 years. “We’re constantly pressured. We even feel guilty taking kids on field trips because we hate to take time from the class.”
Pam Carter, a Leicester teacher for 29 years, agrees that it is hard to continue other beneficial projects outside of reading and mathematics. “I noticed that at holiday time,” she said, “I really didn’t do a lot of the craft projects that really would benefit kids because I felt pressured to have a lot of other things done.”
Carter also observed that her first grade students, who do not fully understand the impact of not meeting state standards, still feel the stress. “Some of the ones with difficulty,” she said, “really notice if other kids are succeeding and they aren’t.”
To improve scores, the school has not only revamped its reading program, but also has increased the amount of time per day spent on mathematics to an hour and fifteen minutes. The school also added a teacher funded by a federal grant to reduce classroom-size, which has allowed students to learn math by grade levels. This change especially helps Coro, who teaches a class of third and fourth graders.
Teachers have rewritten the curriculum to match state standards several times over the past few years (which now raises a sigh and a chuckle from both Coro and Carter) and Eckels has tried to counter negative publicity from being placed on the “in need of improvement list” for two years by holding an open board meeting each fall. Teachers also share scores with parents at parent teacher conferences.
But despite these efforts, the requirements and regulations still discourage teachers, who often resent what they consider unfair criticism.
Jonathan Miller-Lane, Middlebury College professor of Teacher Education claims that distrusting teachers is a nation-wide problem which the NCLB act encourages.
“It’s difficult to express the visceral anger that rises in you when you’re working your tail off in the classroom and somehow someone else who is not in the classroom walks in and tells you how to do your job, because they were once a student,” said Miller-Lane, a former teacher in Washington State. “We’ve all been students, so we think we all know how to teach. That drives teachers crazy.”
Many agree that NCLB’s programs limit teachers’ ability to actively teach and instead encourage changes that reduce the classroom to a test-preparation center.
“The good teachers will say, ‘I’m not going to let the government’s influence get in the way of what I think needs to be done,’” said Miller-Lane. “But on the other end, standardized testing can also lead to defensive teaching, where teachers teach to the lowest common denominator — they teach to the standardization.”
Eckels agrees and emphasizes that she will not allow Leicester school to simply become a training center for students.
“As long as I’m here, we’re never going to get to the point where kids don’t have art, music or P.E. so that they can do better on a test. It’s just not going to happen,” she said. “Research shows the benefits of arts to children and the need for physical education to improve learning. The availability of those activities enhances learning.”
FUTURE OF NCLB
As more states, administrators, teachers and parents criticize NCLB for not following through on all of its promises, the question becomes, what will happen to the law in the future?
Already, NCLB has lost a lot of bipartisan support from politicians and many agree that they will not support expanding the requirements to high schools. These same critics are also pressuring the Bush administration to fully fund the program and increase flexibility with certain requirements, such as standards for special education and minority students. (See related story, Page 1A.)
In 2005, the National Conference of State Legislatures released a list of 43 specific recommendations on how to revise the law. According to NCSL News, key suggestions include:
• Remove obstacles that stifle state innovations and undermine state programs that were proving to work before passage of the act.
• Fully fund the act and provide states the financial flexibility to meet their goals.
• Remove the one-size-fits-all method that measures student performance and, instead, encourage more sophisticated and accurate systems that gauge the growth of individual students and not just groups of students.
• Recognize that some schools face special challenges and differences among rural, suburban and urban schools.
Although minor changes have been made to No Child Left Behind, such as slightly lowering the standards for special education students, the federal administration has done little to address the larger issues thus far.
But many people question whether the law, even if revised, can still achieve its objectives. And already there is growing sentiment that the law— passed in 2002 — should be completely redesigned.
Miller-Lane stresses that the biggest need is for the government to set high standards, but not standardization. The federal government should continue to set high achievement levels, he said, but allow schools to meet those standards in a manner and at a pace that fits the individual needs of each student. That objective will not occur, however, until progressive educational thinkers and traditionalists compromise.
“The commitment to building critical skills that you have to have, such as decoding or comprehension, are critical reading skills that you need to engage in the critical questions and to analyze the society in which you live,” Miller-Lane explained. “The progressives are asking the right questions; they’re not providing the right skills. The traditionalists, in some cases, are providing fundamental skills, but without the context. They’re not using them in any meaningful way and the kids just get bored silly because they only use those skills to pass a test. There’s a marriage that needs to happen and we haven’t done that yet.”
He offers Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) as an ideal model. Founded in 1984, the coalition is a support system for schools dedicated to personalizing education while still meeting American public education standards. CES promotes personalized instruction, small schools and classrooms, multiple assessments, democratic and equitable school policies, and close partnership with the school’s community. There are currently 19 centers across the U.S. that aid several regional schools, many of which have achieved impressive results.
“What Sizer’s model is showing,” said Miller-Lane, “is that there’s another way to do it that’s working and it’s powerful.”
Glassner agrees that personalized education must be a priority if the American education system is to improve. “We’re in a very human business. When we look at things as a blob of flesh,” he said, “we’ll never achieve our goals … I predict that as time goes along they will moderate the law in different ways.”
But Cate urges administrators and teachers to spend less time focusing on the law’s faults. “The bottom line is that NCLB pushes for the same thing we’ve all along been looking for,” he said, “Vermont schools are going to do what we’re always going to do, and that’s to educate kids.”
Coro agrees that the school’s focus should be on educating students, but disagrees with Cate that the state should not be concerned by NCLB. “We shouldn’t be concerned about it, but we’re still getting nailed by it. No one’s told us that we’re exempt yet.”
Despite the continuing debate on NCLB and the added pressure of complying with yet another layer of testing, teachers and administrators at the Leicester Central School are probably typical in their temporary acceptance of NCLB and what their long-term goals are. “You can’t give up on the kids,” said Coro.” We love what we do, even though it’s getting harder every year.”
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES