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NCLB Outrages

A 'no child left inside' approach

by Richard Louv

Second of two columns

Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori school movement – and not a favorite figure among many mainstream educators – often referred to a comment by an 8-year-old boy, one that touched her deeply. The boy said, “I would give anything to be able, one night, to see the stars.” He had heard the stars being discussed by adults, but had never seen them.

“His parents thought it necessary not to allow the child to stay up a single evening on any pretext whatever,” Montessori wrote, adding that such well-meaning concern “has made the world neurotic.”

That story could serve as commentary on today's No Child Left Behind education reform movement, so narrowly focused on standardized testing that in some schools the joy of learning has become an extracurricular activity. Pressured to obscure the metaphorical stars, public schools across the country have jettisoned programs in the arts and music, canceled field trips, lengthened school hours and banned recess.

Caught up in the test race, worried about funding, some teachers and principals have even fudged their school's standardized test results.

In fairness, the proponents of No Child Left Behind can point with pride to some successes. Specifically, Hispanic and African-American 9-year-olds are testing better in literacy, compared the results of a 1998-99 study. This progress is overdue; a decade ago, too many high school seniors were graduating functionally illiterate. (One problem now, is that many of today's functionally illiterate students are simply dropping out of school.) Broad advances have, however, been illusive.

A recent National Assessment of Education Progress study of large urban school districts, over the past two years, found little to no improvement at most grade levels, especially among teenagers. Therefore, No Child Left Behind advocates urge more funding and focus on high schools.

That is likely to occur, but a mid-course correction is in order. In addition to questioning the degree of emphasis on standardized testing (without throwing out testing), the public should take a serious look at the environment of learning.

It's time to balance No Child Left Behind with a No Child Left Inside approach.

In the 1990s, Gerald Lieberman, director of the State Education and Environmental Roundtable, conducted a national study of environment-based education. “The term 'environment' may mean different things at every school; it may be a river, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground,” according to the roundtable's report, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” issued in 2002.

The roundtable worked with 150 schools in 16 states for 10 years, identifying model environment-based programs and examining how the students fared. The findings were stunning: environment-based education produced student gains in social studies, science, language and math; it improved grade-point averages and standardized test scores; and it developed skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.

More recently, a 2005 study released by the California Department of Education, conducted by an independent research group, found that students in outdoor classrooms improved their science grades and gained self-confidence. The study involved 255 fifth-and sixth-graders, most of them from low-income Latino families, attending weeklong environmental science courses in San Diego, Los Angeles and Fresno.

These students increased their science scores by 27 percent, compared to a control group of students in traditional classrooms.

In addition, the study found that students in the outdoor classrooms were more open to conflict resolution. That finding echoed several earlier studies showing that children who play in natural settings are more cooperative and more creative than those who play on flat turf or asphalt playgrounds.

The compelling research on environment-based (sometimes called place-based) education is thin, bit it does point to a way to humanize – or naturalize – education reform. In San Diego, a number of innovative programs are working with schools to get students outside, and these programs merit a later column. But taking kids into nature isn't the only way to immerse them in the world.

In 1995, educators Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, who recently moved to San Diego, founded The Big Picture Company to design small high schools, each with approximately 100 students, within public school districts. Big Picture emphasizes intensive internships and other out-of-the-school-box experience.

Supported by Bill Gates, Big Picture has launched 36 alternative schools, including a new one in San Diego, which is part of the San Diego Unified School District's High School Renewal effort.

At Big Picture's flagship high school in Providence, R. I., 80 percent of the students, most of them from low-income neighborhoods, have gone on to college or technical training – and, once there, they don't drop out. Washor told me recently that he defines a successful school day “as a day when no one is in the school building.”

In other words, leave no child unknown, and no child left inside.

— Richard Louv
Union Tribune


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