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NCLB Outrages

Teachers, and a Law That Distrusts Them

Ohanian Comment: I am in mourning. Mike will be sorely missed. He stands for teachers, and as he observes "The question is: How successful can an education law be that makes teachers the enemy?"

By Michael Winerip

THIS is my last education column after four years. What I will miss most is the free ticket it gave me into classrooms all over the country, where I watched and learned from teachers.

I got to be there at 7:15 a.m. on the first day of this school year with Irene Ray, a terrific high school English teacher in Huntington, W. Va. Ms. Ray had intended to leave small-town Appalachia long ago for the big city, but there she was again, for her 23rd first day, sipping a Diet Coke, nibbling an Atkins breakfast bar, more excited and jittery than her students, wanting to know how their summer reading went, whether they’d enjoyed “The Scarlet Letter” or, like Ms. Ray, preferred “The Poisonwood Bible.”

Ms. Ray spent a week readying her room for the first day, including adding to the favorite quotations that line her walls. Bored students distracted by iPods and the Internet? “She’s got new quotes,” whispered a girl, who was reading Ms. Ray’s walls.

I also got to be there at 3:15 p.m. on the final day of school this year, in Dahlonega, Ga., at Lumpkin County Middle School, when Pat New, a science teacher, taught her last lesson, after 29 years. Ms. New, 62, had fought to the end for her right to teach evolution, winning out against a group of parents and students and an administration that preferred not to make waves.

The columns about teachers generated the most mail, but lots of others were fun to write. Chronicling the mess-ups with New York State’s standardized exams — in math, English, English as a second language, physics, reading — was always great sport.

But the people who took me to the heart of education? Laurin MacLeish, kindergarten teacher in Orlando, Fla.; Roger Cline, diesel engine teacher in Canton, Ohio; Jeff Kaufman, G.E.D. teacher at the Rikers jail in New York City; Liza Levine, English teacher in South Central Los Angeles.

Principals? A little bit. Superintendents? Chancellors? State education commissioners? You can probably still name your kindergarten teacher (that would be Miss Goddard, Beechwood Knoll School, 1957). But how about the secretary of education during any of your 13 years in school?

The education press spends so much time writing about people far removed from the classroom that it’s easy to lose sight of those individuals’ real purpose — to help teachers do their jobs well, the best hope for student success.

As readers know, I’m not a fan of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law aimed at raising education quality. Instead of helping teachers, for me it’s a law created by politicians who distrust teachers. Because teachers’ judgment and standards are supposedly not reliable, the law substitutes a battery of state tests that are supposed to tell the real truth about children’s academic progress.

The question is: How successful can an education law be that makes teachers the enemy?

Even No Child’s strongest supporters acknowledge that one of the law’s most important provisions — to guarantee a highly qualified teacher in every classroom — has been the most poorly carried out to date.

So, to improve classroom teaching and make teachers more enthusiastic about the law, I have three departing suggestions for when the legislation is expected to come up for reauthorization next year.

First, why not add a provision rewarding states and districts that mandate small class size? It’s an idea that enjoys great support among parents and teachers and is easily carried out on a national scale.

Why small class size? Deborah Meier, the teacher, principal, author and MacArthur Award winner who has created successful public schools in New York and Boston, says the best chance for educating poor children well is surrounding them with as many talented adults as possible. The same premise drives one of the most hopeful efforts in urban education today, the Gates Foundation’s small schools movement.

Joe Gipson, a black public school parent in California, which has had a mandatory cap of 20 in grades K to three for a decade, told me small class size is the best thing that’s happened to his children’s education, giving them what rich private school pupils have. While small class size is no guarantee that teachers will be good, he said, with just 20, you can tell faster if teachers are performing well, and get rid of them if they’re not.

Gov. Jeb Bush is very popular in Florida, and in 2002, he opposed a constitutional amendment to cap class sizes, including a maximum of 18 for grades K to three. He said it would be too costly. And yet voters in Florida, hardly a tax-and-spend state, voted for it. Every year since, the Republican governor has tried overturning the class size amendment, and every year he has lost, most recently last spring, when the Republican-controlled State Senate defeated his efforts.

“It’s a moral issue,” said Senator J. Alex Villalobos, a Republican whose wife is a public school teacher. “Class size is the great equalizer. Anybody who has children understands this. We have a moral responsibility to take care of our children.”

In 2003, 115,000 New York City residents signed petitions aimed at setting class size limits, and in 2005, 100,000 did. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the city cannot afford to do more now, and has successfully stalled advocates’ efforts in court, but at a price to children. A recent state audit shows that 26 percent of New York City children in grades K to three are in classes of 25 or more.

The intent of the No Child law could not be more important — to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority children. But what angers public educators is that under the law, schools get all the blame if students fail, when they see many other variables at play, including the crippling effects of poverty on families. Studies show that the economic status of a child’s family has a major impact on a child’s performance on standardized tests. On the SAT, for example, for every $10,000 increase in family income, a child’s SAT scores rise about 10 points.

Which leads to my second proposal. We need a No Family Left Behind Law. This would measure economic growth of families and punish politicians in charge of states with poor economic growth for minority families.

FOR example, in Ohio, black families earn only 62 percent of white household income, one of the biggest disparities nationally. So every year, under No Family Left Behind, Ohio would be expected to close that income gap. If it failed to make adequate yearly progress for black families’ wealth, the governor and legislators would be judged failing, and after five years, could be removed from office. This way public schools wouldn’t be the only institutions singled out for failing poor children.

And if states succeeded in closing the economic gap, test scores would be expected to rise, giving politicians and teachers a chance to celebrate together.

A final concern with the federal law is that it is so driven by state testing that there’s too much time devoted to test prep, too much time spent drilling facts for survey courses, and not enough emphasis on finding something children will fall in love with for a lifetime — the Civil War, repairing engines, science research, playing the trumpet.

Fortunately, the remedy can be found on Ms. Ray’s walls in Huntington, W. Va., a quotation from William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I recommend that as the official motto for a new, revitalized No Child Left Behind law.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times
2006-07-12


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