NCLB Up Close and Personal
Comments from Annie: This is not a brand new article but it is riveting to read the following voices of teachers who struggle to maintain their integrity and spirit in the face of NCLB policies which destroy the hope and the principles they have always defended and abided by.
If you can get through the bulk of this article without feeling your stomach twist itself into a tight knot, you will certainly feel it tighten when you read the final words from Bernard John Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This man needs to come out of his office and get a handle on the real-life experiences of teachers in the NCLB classrooms.
Hopefully his rehabilitation and education began with this collection of essays.
It is no longer acceptable to maintain a self-contained perspective which ignores the reality of the damage NCLB has caused in our schools, how negatively it has affected our teachers, and how awful the results are for our students…
by Linda Starr and The Education World Teacher Team
Has NCLB affected how you teach? The Education World Teacher Team reports from the trenches.
This month, we asked members of the Education World Teacher Team the following questions: How has NCLB affected how and what you teach? Has it improved student progress at your school? Has it closed the achievement gap? Are your students better readers, better writers, better learners…better prepared to face the future because of NCLB? This is what they told us.
"Our school district, with a poverty level of about 20 percent, would be considered somewhere between suburban and rural," one teacher told us. "Most district schools have met adequate yearly progress every year. A few schools have had a subgroup (special education or economically disadvantaged students) that put them in 'school improvement' for a year.
"NCLB has affected how and what is taught. I think we always taught the important information...but NBLC has forced us to spend more time focusing on the academic anchors that the standardized test will focus on. Approximately a month of time that previously would have been spent doing story plots or other activities that students particularly enjoy now is spent reviewing standards and anchors for the test.
"No one likes to teach to the test, but NCLB has forced all schools to do that to survive. Any school that says they do not spend time focusing on what is supposed to be on the test either is not telling the truth, or is in 'school improvement.'
"Perhaps NCLB has closed the achievement gap; it has increased expectations for lower-level students while raising roadblocks to the advancement of the most talented. Although that has helped some lower-level students accomplish more, for many of them it has served as a continuous frustration. Expecting 100 percent if the student body to meet the same criteria is impossible. If you grow apples, you know you'll never get 100 percent perfect. How anyone can expect teachers and schools to be able to achieve 100 percent success with students is totally beyond belief.
"Schools are expected to work miracles with students with disabilities, mental problems, emotional issues; with students who are living in poverty or taking off on three-week vacations; with students with no parents or parents who are not supportive…. They are asking the impossible -- and teachers are leaving the profession in ever-greater numbers.
"Some students might be better readers now...but some now hate reading because they can't read for pleasure any more; they have to focus on reading for the test. Are they better students? No -- although they might be better test takers. Are they better prepared to face the future? I think not. There's no time to take elective courses such as home ec, child care, welding, drafting, art, financial management, and so on. Many teachers who used to cover a lot of life prep in their classes, now are forced to focus only on what is on the test."
TWO AFFLUENT SUBURBAN DISTRICTS
I teach in a suburban school system long accustomed to scoring in the top tier of schools on statewide assessments," another teacher told us. "No Child Left Behind has had a nuisance effect on schools like mine -- establishing requirements for much more detailed data collection, and opening the door to misinterpretation of that data. My own school did not make AYP in the first reporting year, due to one or two special-education students who did not test -- although overall scores were high. Some of our most accomplished middle school teachers, who held elementary certification, were no longer considered "highly qualified." The cumulative effect on the district was additional hoop jumping, record keeping, and public relations, as a highly regarded district scrambled to explain why high test scores didn't automatically mean that 'progress' was being made.
"Nonetheless, I support any and all efforts to provide additional support and resources to public schools, and to uncover and unpack reasons for lackluster (and worse) student achievement in schools of all kinds. NCLB might have modest positive effects in dysfunctional districts simply by offering incentives to organize chaotic reading curriculum or putting teeth into the effort to get real teachers into classrooms.
"At the very least, NCLB has turned a harsh spotlight on our public schools, although I wish different legislation had been passed. Wouldn't it have been great if teachers had had a voice in such sweeping policy creation?"
"My school is located in a very affluent area," said another teacher. "Most of our students would be classified as upper middle class and above. Our average test scores are high, so we're straining to make those last percentage point gains. We never have been close to failing, but with the possibility of a single subgroup (a small percentage of the school population) failing to meet AYP, it might cause the whole school to be labeled 'failing.' Our special education population is quite large and some of those students are very low functioning; because of our philosophy of inclusion, however, they still must take the tests."
"NCLB certainly has heightened my awareness of how I use my class time," the teacher continued, "although I believe it was the National Board Certification process that really brought home the need to teach to a standard and be on-target most of the time.
"Has NCLB improved my students' progress? Probably to some degree, especially for the lowest-performing students. We are more united in our efforts to focus instruction around the standards. But sometimes I ask myself 'At what price?' We are so overly aware of math and reading scores, I fear we are losing the value of the arts, and of just learning something for the pure curiosity of it all. I know that I am painfully aware of time constraints -- getting through everything in enough time. Goodness knows, there are more standards than any single person could teach well in a single year.
"So, are students better prepared to face the future because of NCLB? No, I don't believe that. What we might have gained in reading and math, I think we've lost in other content areas and in the arts. I read about teachers and districts abandoning science and social studies (or at least significantly decreasing the time spent on those subjects), so they can double up on math and reading. I cannot believe that is in our best long-run interest. Students need to know as much as they can about this increasingly complex world -- scientifically, technically, politically. I cannot see that it is in our best interest to not foster love of the arts, music, theatre, vocational arts, and so on. What kind of adults will our kids turn out to be if they don't have the chance to learn and grow in those areas too?
"I do think NCLB has closed the achievement gap in our district. Our subgroup populations were so small that we tended not to see the trends because they were lost in the overall picture. Now we are focused, believe me. But that focus also has caused us to devote a huge effort to a small number of students. I'm not sure that is in the best interests of the school as a whole.
Yes, a few students will be better off, but in a world with finite resources, if you pour more into one area, it has to come away from another area. I know that I have to spend so much time making sure that the lowest students are successful, I must take away time from the others. The time I used to be able to devote to creating enrichment units, I now use to create remediation units. I worry that our top students no longer are being challenged in the same way. Is that all bad? Probably not.
"My school is a city school that struggles to meet the state's learning requirements each year," reported one urban educator. "We are moving out of provisional accreditation because we achieved passing test scores last spring -- after two years of failing to comply.
"I appreciate the intention behind NCLB, but I feel strongly that it is not accomplishing what was intended. I think we have spiraled down into a system that drills and teaches to a test in order to maintain accreditation. My instructions from my supervisors are to teach only the specific topics in U.S. History that students will be tested on. Doing so has changed the way I teach. I believe students are not getting a true picture of history and are missing connections because teachers can no longer teach about events not on the approved list. A climate of drill and practice in history does not teach students to appreciate their heritage.
"Districts in my state now are introducing tests to prepare for the test; in my situation, those preparatory tests are given every six weeks. It takes two days of teaching to review for the district assessment; a day to test; and a day to review the test. That results in one full week of instruction lost five times a year -- to practice for a test that is a practice for the big test.
"In addition, it is imperative that teachers in my district stay on a strict timeline, which does not allow for re-teaching if students don't understand a particular area. The district expects all material to be presented by the first of May; one month is supposed to be spent reviewing the entire curriculum in order to prepare for the 'real' test in late May. Spending extra time on a particular unit in order to participate in a simulation or other extended project is no longer possible. Deadlines are very important and are included in evaluation reports. Test scores have become one way of measuring teacher competence.
"It's sad to think that teachers might begin looking at a school's test scores before making a decision to accept employment there. I chose to work in a school that deals with poverty and crime issues because I believed that these students needed me more than those at the school in a wealthy area nearby that also offered me a contract. Although working with so many students who have little (if any) home support is very rewarding, I realize that my scores would be much higher if I worked elsewhere."
What about our future teachers? Are they being prepared to teach under NCLB? Bernie Poole shares his thoughts.
"I do prepare future teachers differently because of NCLB, though what I do is no different philosophically from what I've always done. Let me explain.
"NCLB has become a point of reference that validates how I've felt about teaching all along. With my [education majors], I frequently bring up the whole notion of NCLB as a positive, realistic call to arms for all teachers. Indeed, no child should be left behind. Teachers shouldn't need a law to make that clear. It should be obvious in every teacher's heart that that is true.
"I've devoted my teaching career, now closing in on 40 years, to singling out students who are struggling to learn what they need to know; giving them the extra time, the extra attention, the extra concern -- OK, the extra love -- they need. Love goes a long way in the classroom, which is why some people call teaching 'hard work' -- because it's 'heart work.'
"So, NCLB makes a lot of sense to me. Having said that -- and you'll hear this from others, I'm sure -- NCLB ain't goin' nowhere without adequate funding to
• reduce teacher-student ratios drastically. I'm talking about one teacher to every 10 -- or fewer -- students. Isn't that what the best private schools and home schoolers do? Drastically reducing teacher-student ratios is not such a far-fetched dream. Look what a referendum in Florida is doing to effect change. I truly believe that, thanks to the pressure of laws such as NCLB, fifty years from now a 1:10 teacher-student ratio will be a reality.
• reward teachers for what they do to help children learn. Whether teachers ever get paid what they deserve is moot, because teachers, for the most part, don't do what they do for money; they do it for love."
Who Are They?
The Education World Teacher Team includes more than 30 dedicated and knowledgeable education professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following educators contributed to this article:
• Nancy Flanagan, K-4 music teacher, Round Elementary School, Hartland Consolidated Schools, Hartland, Michigan
• Rebecca Martin, middle school social studies teacher, Paul Lawrence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg City Schools, Lynchburg, Virginia
• Bernard John Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
• Marsha Ratzel, 6th grade math and science teacher, Leawood Middle School, Leawood, Kansas
• Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
Linda Starr and The Education World Teacher Team
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES