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NCLB Outrages

BTU Welcomes AFT Executive Vice President Toni Cortese

Note that the Cortese/AFT approach is all about shaping the law, talking to members of Congress. There's no suggestion of grassroots, activism, of real political action.

By Erik Berg

An enthusiastic crowd of BTU members
and staff joined staffers from the
American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
and the Massachusetts Federation of
Teachers (MFT) at a Forum recently to
discuss the Federal No Child Left Behind
Act (NCLB). AFT Executive Vice President
Toni Cortese came to town as part
of a Listening Tour, to hear from classroom
teachers and others who work with
children every day about their experiences
with NCLB.

Cortese began with a brief summary
of the law, noting that it is the most recent
reauthorization of a 40-year old law,
the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, first signed by President Lyndon
Johnson as part of the War on Poverty.
The law is scheduled to be reauthorized
in 2007, although Cortese pointed out that
since 2008 is a presidential election year,
the actual vote on the act may be delayed
for political reasons. The AFT is campaigning
to make necessary changes so
that NCLB works for students and teachers.

Cortese pointed out the importance
of hearing from teachers when she talks
with lawmakers in Washington. “The
purpose today is to hear from you. We
need information so that when we talk to
policymakers in Washington, we have
some evidence to show them how NCLB
is not working.” The listening tour will
go on to Minneapolis and Cleveland later
this spring, and continue next fall.
Cortese spoke about the AFT’s priorities
in the “Let’s Get it Right” campaign:

•Making sure the NCLB Act is fully

•Measuring AYP by student
progress, not arbitrary benchmarks
which measure one group of students
against another

• Doing away with outside Supplemental
Education Service providers
(organizations which provide tutoring
services) and substituting an
intervention process to help schools.

She noted that the US Secretary of
Education Margaret Spellings has already
changed a few onerous regulations,
including those requiring nearly all students
with profound disabilities to take
the required testing, after conversations
with the AFT. “This Secretary has been
more flexible than [previous Secretary]
Rod Paige was . . . and it’s because she’s
been hearing from all sides about the
hardships the law imposes on districts,”
and she enumerated some of those hardships:
While funding for K-12 education
nearly doubled the year the law was
passed, it has gradually dwindled since
that time. Also, districts are having great
difficulty finding and retaining teachers
and paraprofessionals who meet the Act’s
arcane “Highly Qualified” requirements,
and schools are being penalized even
though they are making progress.
Cortese went on, “There’s 50 ways to
leave your lover and about that many
ways to get on the list for ‘Needs Improvement.’”

When Cortese opened the discussion
up to the crowd of BTU members, the opinions began to fly. Timo Philip, who
teaches 11th grade history at Brighton
High School led off, telling the AFT officials
“All of my classroom time, except
for giving the tests, is spent in test preparation.”

Garret Virchick, a science
teacher at Fenway High School, told
Cortese that his pilot school’s effort to
develop an innovative cross-disciplinary
science curriculum had to be shelved
because the MCAS science tests, which
are Massachusetts’ version of the NCLB
mandated tests, are organized by discipline
(chemistry, physics, biology, etc.)
and the integrated approach would not
prepare students for the test in time.

Xóchitl Pérez Castillo, a Special
Education teacher at J.F. Kennedy Elementary
School, mentioned that her
eight and nine-year old English Language
Learners with identified learning disabilities
had to take five or six tests in the first
six weeks of school alone: the Stanford-9,
the Aprenda, the DRA, the SRI, and a BPS
math test. Brenda Chaney, an eighthgrade
English teacher at the O’Bryant,
got straight to the heart of the matter:
“Our kids are tested to death.” She went
on to explain that she no longer can find
the time to put on the plays she used to
rehearse and perform with her students
because of the specific curricular requirements
of NCLB.

Charles Johnson, an automotive
technology teacher at Madison Park
High School told of the effects of NCLB
on his vocational students: “They don’t
care if the kids learned a thing – it’s ‘did
you pass MCAS?’” Johnson explained that
the vocational program has suffered
mightily because of the emphasis on testing
mandated by No Child Left Behind.
One elementary teacher who preferred
not to be quoted by name, perhaps indicative
of the pressure teachers are under,
spoke eloquently about the effects of
NCLB on her young charges: “It’s sad
that they’re 9 or 10 years old, and it’s sad
that our entire school’s reputation depends
on what these kids do for two
weeks. I remember 4th grade being fun,
doing activities, going out into the community,
and a lot of the fun has gone out
of it. These kids are losing a lot. . . I work
in a school with a staff that is so dedicated,
they’re just incredible. Our scores have
never dipped, but we didn’t make AYP
because we didn’t improve as much as
the say we should.” Paige McTavish, a
teacher at the Dever Elementary School,
mentioned that her entire school, including
students in grades that are not tested,
is affected by the required testing: “We
had an entire week for our entire building
with silent lunches and no outdoor
recess.” She also told the crowd that plans
for specialist staffing at her school next year
include specialist teachers exclusively in
academic areas. There will be no instruction
in the arts, physical education, or other
traditionally “specialist” areas.

Toni Cortese responded with gratitude
to the teachers present for sharing their
concerns and ideas, and said that there
are some signs of progress: “There is
good consensus in congress, on both
sides of the aisle, that choice and SES
(Supplemental Education Services) have
not worked well,” and may be changed.
She encouraged the audience to become
politically active, and let state lawmakers
and members of congress know about
teachers concerns. Only by raising our
voices, she continued, can teachers effectively
shape NCLB to meet the needs of
the children we serve each day.

— Erik Berg
Boston Union Teacher


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