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NCLB Outrages

Schools double up on teaching math and English: They hope to abide by No Child law -- and avoid closure

Ohanian Comment: Such doubling up could be a good thing--if--and only if--they offered an approach that emphasized real reading and real problem solving rather than test prep skill drill. But when this 'doubling' occurs as a last ditch, panic effort to play the numbers, success if unlikely, and damage is probable.

chronicled my own involvement in a doubling of Language Arts classes for kids whose reading skills and habits needed drastic help in Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum. Although we immersed our students in books and newspapers, our version of "basic skills" could not be found in a workbook or a textbook.

And the one thing my teaching partner and I insisted on was that the 'doubling' could not take place at the expense of art, music, P. E., or shop.

As more evidence of Oakland's bleeding, don't miss what happens in a financially strapped school there: If children want to take art or music, they must stay after school, when talented teachers donate their time.

What other profession treats its practitioners--and its constituents--this way?

Nanette Asimov

Like thousands of low-scoring public schools across the country, Everett Middle School in San Francisco and Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland have responded to the federal No Child Left Behind Education Act by requiring students to take double periods of math and English every day.

A sweeping new study of the impact of the federal law shows that schools like Everett and Havenscourt are hammering hard on basic skills in hopes of steadily raising their test scores in English and math as required under by No Child Left Behind, while avoiding its consequences, which include possible closure.

But the study also faults the federal law for providing little or no financial help for districts to meet the challenge. It says that without such help, schools nationwide are narrowing their curriculum to the exclusion of other courses that round out a student's education, including art, social studies and science.

In its fourth annual look at No Child Left Behind, the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy surveyed 299 urban, suburban and rural districts across the country and found that 71 percent have focused on English and math to the exclusion of other subjects.

"Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessary to help low-achieving students catch up," said Jack Jennings, president of the center.

"Others pointed to negative effects, such as short-changing students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school."

So that schools no longer have to choose between adding more basics and offering a well-rounded curriculum, the center is urging the U.S. Department of Education to provide "adequate funding" so that schools can implement No Child Left Behind without shortchanging students.

"Both the President and Congress moved in exactly the wrong direction last year by approving a cut in education, and this year aggravated the situation by approving another cut just as the demands of the law were becoming greater," Jennings said.

Everett and Havenscourt are cases in point.

Under the law, 24.4 percent of students must score at grade level in English, up from 13.6 percent last year. In math, 26.5 percent must do as well, up from 16 percent.

Neither Everett nor Havenscourt achieved the targets after last spring's round of testing, so this year, the methods became drastic.

Both schools doubled the time their students spend in English and math classes -- although at Everett, higher-scoring math students are exempt.

But there was a difference: Everett was among a handful of San Francisco schools that received extra local money from the district to accommodate the new courses without losing others. Havenscourt, like most schools, did not.

With its extra money, Everett extended its school day by an hour to 4 p.m. That meant students did not have to cram basic subjects like social studies and science into a single semester or lose electives -- everything from computers to choir to salsa dancing.

"We gave up nothing," said Principal Francisco Duran. "Most middle schools have six academic periods. We have eight."

In the financially troubled Oakland Unified School District, Havenscourt did not receive a special infusion of cash.

"We had to give up electives," said Principal Jacqueline Phillips.

Now, if children want to take art or music, they must stay after school, when talented teachers donate their time.

Unlike many schools surveyed around the country by the center, Havenscourt and Everett still teach full courses of social studies and science. But at Havenscourt, as at many schools in the era of No Child Left Behind, many children feel that school has become all math and English, all the time.

"No offense, but it's kind of boring," a 12-year-old boy named Ulukaulupe told The Chronicle as he neared the end of his second math class that day.

"I think we should have more kinds of classes," said Guadalupe, 11.

Robert, 12, wished the school still offered music during the day. "I like painting," said Melanie, 11.

But in the end, 10 of the 15 students interviewed by The Chronicle said they appreciated the double math class and said they were actually learning something about fractions and decimals. And 10 -- though not the same 10 -- said the double English class wasn't too bad, either.

"This is what our kids need," Phillips said. "This is the basis. The meat. The heart and soul. Kids want to learn. We have too many young people out there who aren't educated. So when you get a kid focused and on track, you see a different child."

Here are other key findings from the report about the influence of No Child Left Behind:

-- Teachers and principals are making more of an effort to teach what they are testing.

-- Test scores are rising in a large majority of states and districts. In urban districts, 85 percent reported increases.

-- The number of schools identified for a special improvement program -- which can result in punitive measures -- has held steady, "despite earlier predictions that these numbers would soar."

The full report can be found at www.cep-dc.org.

— Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle


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