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NCLB Outrages

Outlook: No Child Left Behind?

Comment from Annie: Take your pick of your favorite Jay Mathews blooper. I happen to be most fond of the reports where he admits to his own incompetence, but this on-line “debate” is most notable in his blissful and limited style of missing the mark consistently, and true to form, instead of allowing his guest to reply, he, in most cases blabbers on with the same old schlock that is his hallmark.

It is too bad that the principal did not elaborate on his courageous statement against the policies of NCLB.

The highlighted question in this is mine.

Outlook: No Child Left Behind?

by Reginald Ballard and Jay Matthews
Principal, Cardozo High School/Washington Post Education Reporter

Q. Do you know what AYP means?
A. They are the three key letters in any discussion of NCLB. If you're still mystified, you're not the only one. The principal of Arlington County's Key Elementary School, Marjorie L. Myers, doesn't quite get the new public school labeling game that was created by the No Child Left Behind Act, either. She thought her school was on the "needs improvement" list, but it turns out it's not. She only missed one reading target for one year, which a careful examination of the very detailed Virginia Department of Education Web site shows is not enough to land her on the dreaded watch list.

Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo High School and Washington Post education reporter Jay Matthews were online Monday, March 13, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss No Child Left Behind and the reason why more than 200 area schools failed to meet the standards set by the act.

Read the Sunday Outlook article: No Reader Left Behind: A Guide to the Law, ( Post, March 12, 2006 )
The transcript follows.

Frederick, Md.: Did I read something on Bush wanting to institute testing in public colleges? My friend and I were debating on whether this could face legal resistance. What are your thoughts? Thanks.

Jay Matthews: There has been some discussion of finding ways to measure how much learning goes on in college. The RAND corporation and a non profit group have come up with something called the CLA, Collegiate Learning Assessment, that gives students a three-hour exam, mostly problem solving exercises that require a lot of analysis, and attempts to determine who much a student has progressed from freshman to senior year. But higher ed, unlike the K-12 schools now ruled by No Child Left Behind, has a very good reputation, and I don't see any way that such a program can ever get much political support as long as colleges are looking as good as they do now.

: Annapolis, Md.: I would like to thank Mr. Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo High School, for his honesty and integrity illustrated by his statement about NCLB: “There is nothing positive I can say about No Child Left Behind."

Mr. Ballard:

Your perspective is shared by many educators, by courageous administrators, and by parents, teachers, and students who are nearly paralyzed with overwhelming pain over the results of this oppressive educational policy.

It is a horror that the Education Secretary continues to carry out this destructive plan. Her intentions are clearly aimed at continued growth progressing into more control at the high school and university levels. Ultimately, she is aimed in the direction of a National Test.

I admire your strength and conviction as an educator, and your passion to remain a part of a system which makes your job a living nightmare.

Knowing that you are busy trying to keep a "failing" school from destroying many more students, I wonder if you have any thoughts about facilitating a national force of teachers, parents, administrators, parents, and students who could find strength and security enough to resist the destructive guidelines and ideology of a test-oriented policy which causes such academic devastation.

In our schools, it is easy to hear privately about the degradation of curriculum and teaching lost to "meeting standards." Even the administrators will admit to the damage, in private. But, somehow, the political forces have state and district superintendents desperately trying to follow the nearly suicidal (academically speaking) mandates.

And much of this discussion is ignored by the press, it takes place in academic circles and is published in professional and advocacy journals and newsletters that the public will never see.

With the recent hiring of a Broad Foundation-trained superintendent in Prince Georges county, there is no doubt that their schools are set up for more of this horror.

How, do you think, we can turn things around? How can we take our schools back from the control of business and political interests and return the profession of teaching and learning to the educational community?

How do we manage to invite ethical, informed superintendents back into the leadership positions when political and business groups seem to have the strong-hold and influence to assure vacancies be filled only by their ideological compatriots who demonstrate allegiance to the NCLB policies?

What can we do to stop these forces? I have no problem finding agreement in the academic community; the problem, it seems to me is how to prepare a path for action. Any ideas?
Thank you.

Reginald Ballard: You asked do I think we can turn things around in this country educationally. Yes, but not with out the help of very action parents and community members who go to the polls and vote.

Chantilly, Va.: Are the early signs and indications from the No Child Left Behind law that it is having its intended effect or do we have yet another "feel good" law from government which is adding nothing more that administrative burdens and forced choices for school systems?

Jay Matthews: I just did a washingtonpost.com column--you can call up my Class Struggle archive and find it---on the results of 10 years of test-based standards education, which began as state programs but now is a federal program called No Child Left Behind. Those results show significant progress in math for fourth and eighth graders, but only marginal progress in reading. NCLB has not been around long enough to give a final verdict. There are signs of test scores going up, but that usually happens with most new programs.

I think the intention is good: we need some consistent measure of what our schools are doing. But whether this will motivate better teaching remains to be seen.

Etlan, Va.: Probably one of the biggest faults of NCLB is that each state has varying passing standards on different standardized tests that make up pay. Meaning comparisons between states doesn't mean too much. To alleviate that problem do you think we will see a federal push to have one set of tests using one federally-sanctioned curriculum ala NEAP.

Jay Matthews: You are absolutely right in your description of the situation, and I think you are also right that we will move toward a system that gives our one national achievement test, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) to more kids, and in every state. That is already happening, but it remains just a test in which some kids are sampled, but not everyone does NAEP. This will be a test of how strong our old federalist instincts still are.

Washington, D.C.: I feel sorry for the kids currently in public school. Learning just enough to pass a standardized test--what a crabbed, meager view of education!

I feel even sorrier for the teachers who are saddled with these unbelievable expectations and endless paperwork.
Is NCLB such a success that it merits all these sacrifices?

Jay Matthews: Most of the best teachers I know don't see it that way. They think they ought to have high expectations for each child, and are happy to measure their efforts against a test they do not control, as long as the test makes sense to them. The problem comes when administrators order them to do things that do not make sense---like long drills with old test questions, rather than more creative teaching that brings every child into a conversation about the lesson.

Severn, Md.: What should one study in college if they are interested in changing our education system? What are some careers in educational policy?

Jay Matthews: I think the best thing to study is whatever subject interests you, be it history, science, math, English or something else, so that you are prepared to teach it when you graduate. I think anyone who wants to have a career framing educational policy should first work for a few years as a classroom teacher. I envy reporters who have, unlike me, had that background.

Washington, D.C.: How do they expect 100 percent of students to test proficient by the year 2014?

Jay Matthews: They don't. That was a part of the law that made sense in political terms, but not educational terms, and like most education bills, this one was written by politicians. They felt they had to set a goal, and could not defend setting a goal less than 100 percent. Let's say they had set a more reasonable goal, 70 percent. They feared their opponents in the next election would say---"Don't vote for Rep. Miller. He passed a bill that sends 30 percent of our kids off to oblivion."

North Hollywood: In some states, schools that continually fail to meet Federal standards will be closed and the education system may be privatized. May this be the hidden agenda of the Grover Norquist-type conservative movement to increased the privatization of schools?

Jay Matthews: This is very unlikely to happen to more than a handful of schools. In those few states that have schools that have reached that stage of the law, they are almost all choosing a much less draconian alternative, like replacing the principal or bringing in a special advisor.

I know that a lot of smart people think NCLB is a Republican plot to kill the public education system, but it is just not true. NCLB is a direct linear descendent of programs that were invented by very smart Democratic governors in the South, including Bill Clinton and Dick Riley. If you check the Gore platform in 2000, you will see a plan that is pretty much the same as NCLB.

Del Ray, Fla.: I'm a happy-to-be-retired teacher who can't understand why test scores of special needs students (some of whom can't read or write) and students who don't speak English are included when calculating a school's standing. I would be much more comfortable with No Child Left Behind if these particular categories were dropped.

Jay Matthews: So how would you measure the progress of those students? These days, if we don't test the kids, we don't pay much attention to them. Most special ed and limited English kids have the capacity to raise their level of achievement significantly. I don't see any way to make that happen without testing them. Their first scores will be very low, but that is just the baseline. The important thing is what is done to help them improve.

Springfield, Va.: This article I am sure hit a nerve with all educators in the area. Although the intent of NCLB is good and perhaps the best interests of the child was what initiated it, I don't believe legislators have any idea of the problems it has caused and in many cases, has resulted in less time spent with the neediest of the children. I would love for those sitting behind their desks to get out in the field and visit some of these schools and stay for a few days. Take off the rose-tinted glasses and join the real world of educators and the reason why in many cases the NCLB legislature just can't work.

Reginald Ballard: I don't think legislator understand that if they write laws and don't fund those law properly. All you do is create more problems especially in urban school districts that are already underfunded. NCLB should provide money for those schools that are failing in the urban areas. Without resources schools will continue to fail.

Jay Matthews: I have a different view than Mr. Ballard's. I think on average we have MORE time and attention being devoted to low income students than we did before we started giving these tests. We are spending more on public schools now than we ever have in our history, and because of their success on the tests, charter schools like the KIPP schools that spend ALL their time focusing on low income kids are getting the attention and backing they deserve. Mr. Ballard deserves a better measure than he is getting with NCLB, and all its odd pieces, but he needs something to show how much better his school is than it was before he arrived.

Montgomery County, Md.: I used to work in a school system. Now that NCLB is a few years old, most school systems are getting spanked because special education students and other special needs students are not progressing as fast as the law demands -- even while schools as a whole have risen to the challenge. It goes without saying the undue and unfair stress being placed on special needs students and the teachers who teach them.

The testing continues to be culturally insensitive. Of course some children aren't going to understand the reading passages -- they have no context in which to do so! One teacher pointed out to me a reading passage about King Arthur and the Round Table. She was trying to help a whole group of students for whom English is a second language. They had never heard of King Arthur.

If we must base so much learning on standardized tests, let's at least choose appropriate test questions.

Jay Matthews: You are quite right. There is no excuse for dumb teaching. And as you have indicated, we would have no clue to the effects of dumb teaching if we did not give these students a regular test that the teacher does not control.

Washington, D.C.: RE: Reading & Writing: Mr. Matthews & Mr. Ballard: It was mentioned that NCLB has not shown significant improvement in reading. I hear often from those in the business community and those who work at colleges that young peoples writing skills are declining at an alarming rate. How can schools better equip students with the grasp of language that is so necessary to their future success?

Jay Matthews: There is no evidence that writing skill is declining. That impression I think is just the natural instinct of old people like me who feel our youth was a golden age of great schools and smart students. But we do know that writing skills have not improved much, and we all know the solution for that---better teaching of writing and more writing assignments. I am appalled that almost no high schools demand long writing assignments for their students, and many teachers are not well trained in what good writing entails. We need to devote more time to this.

Proctor, Mont.: I see many failures in this program and feel this is because children do not develop mentally and physically at the same age and rate. Any school program should and must take these factors into consideration when promoting and endorsing any program that effects children's minds negatively. Isn't this program putting too much stress upon many children and this is effecting their learning habits as well as their nervous systems?

Jay Matthews: I appreciate your thoughts. Many people agree with you. But that kind of thinking, entertained by people less sensitive than you, is one of the principal reasons why are inner city schools have done so poorly.

Many otherwise fine people felt those low-income kids just could not handle challenging lessons, and they did not get them, with disastrous results. I have written several books about this, and Reginald Ballard and his school are a living testament to the power of having high expectations for low-income kids.

Washington, D.C.: Charter schools were introduced to D.C. by Congress as a way to improve education in D.C. Yet, there were at least 18 charter schools who did not meet AYP.
Has the growth charter schools affected Cardozo in any way? And, do you think they are the answer to improving DCPS?

Reginald Ballard: Yes, charter schools have affected Cardozo student population. We now recruit students from areas outside of our school boundary.

If we don't recruit citywide Cardozo will not have enough students to pay for the teachers and staff. DCPS and Charter Schools are funded on a per pupil formula. Cardozo is competing with three charter high schools within four blocks of the school. No, I don't think that charters are the answer to improving schools.

Compare their test scores to the DCPS scores and you will see that they are not the answer to improving education in the District.

Jay Matthews: Again, Mr. Ballard and I disagree. He is absolutely right about the average score comparisons. On average, charter schools do no better than regular schools. But I don't think that is as useful a measure as looking at individual schools. Among regular schools, Cardozo high is doing very well, with AP participation rates far about average for urban schools.

The average for AP participation in D.C. is much lower, and would disguise Mr. Ballard's achievement if we just looked at averages. In the same way, the KIPP middle school in D.C., which is a charter with almost all low-income kids, has the highest math and reading scores in the city, including regular schools.

You don't want that to get lost in the averages. I say, try charters, try innovative programs like Cardozos, don't rule out anything that might help kids do better.

Annapolis, Md.: Re: "There is nothing positive I can say about No Child Left Behind."

Can you discuss some of the damages or harm this law has caused?

Can you discuss a case for teaching/learning without the high stakes testing strategy?


Jay Matthews: There are very few examples of programs that work in the inner city without regular testing. The Central Park East school in Harlem did very well in the '70s and '80s treating high schoolers like grad students, giving them oral rather than written exams. But very few other places have been able to make that work.

Southern Md.: AYP = annual yearly percentage or something like that and it's my understanding as a parent with a child in the Charles County Public School System, that if my child's school fails to reach a certain percentage for two years in a row, my child is entitled to being transferred to a school that has met its goals and the county has to provide public transportation for my child no matter how far the distance.

I do believe one Middle School in CCPSS is close to failing their AYP - heads up parents from General Smallwood Middle School, if this happens be prepared to send your child to another MS in order for them to learn. As we all know in Maryland, our middle school students MUST pass certain high school assessment tests in order to graduate and if my child is not being taught in MS, s/he will be behind in HS.

Jay Matthews: You have described the law and its effects very well. Although in some cases it is hard to find a school to transfer to that has room for your child.

Orlando, Fla.: NCLB is well meaning but should have been accompanied with a standard federal test of competency. Don't you think that a diagnostic test should have been applied to accurately define achievement levels uniformly across the U.S. instead of leaving it up to the individual states? Wouldn't the feedback from a diagnostic aid in attacking weak areas of curriculum better than the systems in place presently?

Reginald Ballard: Because we do not have a national curriculum it would be hard to accurately define achievement levels uniformly across the U.S. Yes, diagnostic aids would help in attacking weak areas of curriculum.

Jay Matthews: I agree. And as I said in response to that previous question, some people want a national curriculum. I do too. But it will be difficult to get the states to agree, and the constitution is on their side.

Crofton, Md.: Why can't the Senate and Congress see the extreme problems facing our schools with NCLB? Is there anything our law makers can do about NCLB?

Jay Matthews: They think, as I do, that NCLB is helping make the schools better, not worse, despite its flaws. They say they are now going to look for ways to fix the flaws. I hope they do.
Reginald Ballard: I hope that they do find ways fix to the flaws. Because I don't feel that the law is helping failing school districts.

Coral Gables, Fla.: My 16-year-old nephew has been diagnosed as ADHD and other challenges.
A recent staff meting with teachers, counselors etc. has prompted a second meeting to determine the IEP. Besides a small class size, manageable work tasks etc. what has been found to work in this type of environment?

Jay Matthews: This is an excellent question which I lack the information or expertise to answer. If you are unsatisfied with the IEP your school is suggesting, you should Google special education and contact some of the good non-profit groups that specialize in this issue. I suspect they have many interesting things for you to read.

Montgomery County, Md.: I totally agree that the point is not where kids score, but how much their school helps them grow academically. However, schools are being judged using tests like the Maryland State Assessment (MSA).

This once-a-year test, looking at a huge cohort of kids (say, all third graders), will show very little change from year to year. If there is growth it will appear slowly across many years of testing. These kinds of tests do NOTHING to show whether or how individual children are growing over time.

Jay Matthews: In general, you are right. But when you break down the results by subgroup, such as low income kids or minority kids, you can see some very interesting differences. Montgomery County, for instance, has been able to show using those test results that its new intensive K-3 program for low income kids has had a marked effect, and helped them achieve much more than programs in other counties, or in the past.

Annapolis, Md.: I'm really hungry for intelligent, realistic conversation on this subject, but all that is heard are the extremes - i.e. one of the first contributors to today's discussion stating "no value" at all in NCLB, or at the other end of the spectrum NCLB is the answer to all of education's woes. The former need to admit that the old system was failing.

The latter need to admit that NCLB is just a starting point in need of refinement. That which took many years to create such a mess will not be undone overnight. I would encourage educators who DO find NCLB to be of SOME value to speak up to counter the school administrators who, through fear tactics ("you'll lose your job if your students don't ...") are sabotaging the system.

Jay Matthews: My goodness. I agree with you entirely. We have to deal with the world as it is, and change usually only happens on the margins. But that is better than no change at all.

— Jay Mathews
Washington Post


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