No Child law hinders education
Vermont educator follows up study of teacher attitudes about NCLB.
by Alis Headlam
In 2002 Congress signed into law the most auspicious education bill of our time. Called No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, it heralded a new wave of initiatives in our schools that have been claimed a great success by its supporters and a dismal failure by its opponents. As the bill comes up for reauthorization, everyone is talking about how to fix the problems without losing the benefits. Everyone is wondering what the next turn of events will bring.
One of the most significant impacts of this bill was a sweeping mandate for testing. The bill explicitly requires schools to incorporate "high-quality academic assessments" that are aligned with state standards "so that students, teachers, parents and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement."
The results of these annual assessments are used to determine annual yearly progress (AYP). Each year schools are held to a heightened set of expectations that raises the bar for AYP. Any school failing to meet AYP for two or more years is labeled "in need of improvement" and provided with remedial assistance. If AYP doesn't then improve, the school may find themselves threatened with takeover by the state Department of Education.
While the intent is good, the result has been to focus schools so much on the results of a single yearly test that instruction may be in jeopardy. In May of this year a Rutland City School Board meeting, as reported in the Rutland Herald on May 24, focused on the question of whether this increased emphasis on testing in only the areas of reading and mathematics might not be detrimental to the learning and teaching process in other subjects. What would happen to subjects like social studies and science?
In April 2006 a study of 216 Vermont teacher responses to an electronic questionnaire about NCLB was conducted by Dana Rapp, associate professor of educational studies at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, with Bill Mathis, superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. The findings of this survey are frightening. Not only do teachers find the mandates of NCLB ineffective, 83 percent reported that they have had a negative effect on education, and 80 percent said that NCLB doesn't address the needs of students. High percentages of teachers indicate that NCLB has created a more stressful classroom environment for both teachers and students.
Education, according to the survey, is moving in a negative direction with fewer enriching opportunities and fewer intellectually challenging activities. Some of the unintended consequences are that there is a higher reliance on worksheets and increased teaching to the test. Ninety percent of the teachers surveyed think that Vermont's commissioner of education is "inaccurate" in believing that NCLB has had no detrimental effect on Vermont's schools.
I have followed up this study by holding informal and formal interviews with teachers and administrators in the Rutland area. I found no one who disagreed with the overall findings. However, one teacher indicated that she felt that teachers deserved more credit than the study might imply. While 93 percent of the replies indicated that students' love of learning was less, this teacher said it depends on the teacher. Good teachers generate a love of learning in spite of the methods and emphasis. Good teachers find time to manage the pressures to focus on reading and mathematics and still incorporate the fun stuff. But overall, everyone agreed that creativity is being discouraged in place of more structured activities that will either be reflected in the annual test or lead to greater accountability. And so therein lies a conflict and challenge for even the best of teachers in this new era.
Even while most teachers find problems with specific tests, with the reliance on annual tests as the sole measure of progress in a school, and with the timing of the new NECAP tests, there are benefits to the increased emphasis on accountability. In a telephone conversation with Mary Moran, superintendent of schools in Rutland City, I was reminded that data can be used to help make informed changes. When teachers learn to use all of the data available, including test results and their own assessments of student progress, the teaching/learning connection is stronger. The one good thing out of NCLB is that it has made teachers realize the importance of using data well.
Looking at the data of the Rapp survey and the results of my own interviews, I can only conclude that NCLB has forced us to swing to a very narrow view of how children learn and that this is causing havoc in many schools and classrooms. Opponents of the bill may not be so far from wrong when they say that instead of ensuring the success of every child we are being forced to implement measures that may instead disable our schools and compromise our children's education.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont society for the study of education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES