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NCLB Outrages

True confessions

Ohanian Comment: The first one quarter of this is very worth reading. But then the author joins the school bashers who think that schools have been in the tank ever since they graduated and that "A Nation at Risk" was an accurate report of the state of American schools, that teachers should just teach and ignore all those things such as self-esteem, that whole language damaged children, and so on. There is a grain of truth in many of his assertions, but he's making a mountain out of them.

Berger is right on target with his denunciation of the current trend to push skills earlier and earlier and over-stated on the rest. Just because some teachers do things badly doesn't mean we should damn the very idea.

By Peter Berger

I have a confession to make, and it's a serious matter. We have a lot of those in education serious matters, that is but sometimes it's hard to spot them. That's because a lot of our serious matters are also ridiculous.

Take No Child Left Behind. We keep wasting unconscionable resources and time collecting heaps and heaps of nakedly unreliable, invalid, hideously expensive data that according to RAND analysts identify not "good" and "bad" schools, but "lucky" and "unlucky" ones. Then we keep pretending that all these meaningless numbers are somehow helping us achieve the unachievable goal of making every child in America proficient in reading, writing, and math by 2014. That's the patently unrealistic requirement that schools are supposed to be making "adequate yearly progress" toward or else and helps explain why more and more aren't making it.

We've got eight years to accomplish the impossible. After that, I'm not sure what will happen, but I'm betting it won't involve shipping all our kids to Capitol Hill for tutoring.

In the meantime, schools are trying everything they can, including many things they shouldn't, to keep the data wolves at bay. And that brings me back to my confession.

I'm an English teacher. I teach America's children.

But 51 years ago, I was a kindergarten illiterate. That's right. I entered kindergarten unable to read, write, add, or subtract. Sure, I knew my colors, and I could sing the alphabet song. I could even sit still. But hand me the Saturday Evening Post, and I was dead in the water.

Back then, not being able to read when you were five wasn't considered a crisis. Most people figured that was why kids went to school. And I'm not talking about some rustic one-room schoolhouse in the hinterland. I'm talking about suburban New Jersey, where mothers crocheted booties in Ivy League colors and permanent records were inscribed on stone tablets.

Some experts counter that life is much more complicated today in our technological age, and that's why we need to ratchet up our education system. Give me a break. My classmates are the guys who invented the technology they're talking about.

The reason we need to ratchet up our education system is we've spent the past 30 years ratcheting it down. That's what "A Nation at Risk" meant when it said we'd "lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling and the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them." That influential report blamed factors ranging from "diluted, diffused" curricula to the "multitude of conflicting demands" placed on schools to solve "personal, social, and political problems."

As schools shifted gears to meet those non-educational demands, we paid the "educational cost" that "A Nation at Risk" predicted. Ill-advised instructional fads, from obsessing over interdisciplinary thematic units to letting students direct and design their own educations, have only made things worse. Changes in American society and values are to blame, too, but if we're each going to clean up our own share of the mess, schools definitely have some work to do.

Some schools have begun to refocus on academics, particularly in the early elementary years where kids learn the reading skills that enable them to learn almost everything else. This was especially necessary after decades of the "whole language" reading method left too many students unable to read. Math achievement likewise suffered as experts advised schools to concentrate on problem-solving and skimp on basic arithmetic, a strategy that left kids unable to do basic arithmetic or solve any problems.

American education has suffered enough from "math their way" and yearlong units on whales. We needed, and still need, to reinvigorate instruction in skills and content at every grade level, including the elementary years. That doesn't mean, though, that we now need to begin teaching those skills and that content earlier than ever before.

"Earlier" isn't necessarily better or effective. Many schools that used to introduce arithmetic and reading instruction in first grade now begin those lessons in kindergarten, complete with word lists, "essays," and arithmetic facts. As one Ohio principal put it, "kindergarten has become the new first grade." This is partly because No Child Left Behind requires that all students be able to read by third grade, or else, which makes schools anxious to start kids as young as possible, whether it's a good idea or not.

NCLB, though, isn't the only reason for schools' overreaction. Education reform is addicted to extremes. We can't just say, "Let's return to teaching elementary kids the fundamental skills we used to teach them." Moderation is never good enough for America's education experts. Their motto is, "Don't just stand there. Recommend something dramatic." So now we have 5-year-olds prepping for achievement tests and activists lobbying for universal preschool so toddlers can learn phonics.

Or not. Because as militantly as one camp of experts is pushing for more academics earlier than ever, the other side is screaming that it's all "too much, too soon," that America's children are "crumbling" under "pressure" that's "rapidly rising." Newsweek recently headlined this charge in one of its semiannual education hysteria cover stories. Newsweek's experts warn that our "race to turn kids into overachievers" has created "a classroom culture" that's "too competitive." It's so horrendously cutthroat that in the opening paragraph of the article, it's transformed a "bright" 5-year-old with "twinkling eyes" into a "distraught," "exhausted" casualty sobbing at the dining room table, and driven her parents to move her to another state.

Not content simply to question the wisdom of teaching reading in kindergarten, Newsweek laments that "instead of story time, finger painting, tracing letters, and snack," first graders are now subjected to "math worksheets and sounding out words in groups," both activities that were staples in my old first grade. Rejecting such a "rigid academic curriculum," these experts favor a return to a "more child-friendly classroom" where kids become "lifelong learners."

Here we go again. In response to one side's extremism, imagined and real, the other side is advocating its own brand of nonsense. All the while schools and students are caught in the sweep of the pendulum. Yes, we need to refocus schools on academics. But no, we don't need to give 5-year-olds serial achievement tests. We don't need to teach reading in kindergarten to produce an educated America. I know this because all the experts who insist we do didn't learn to read until they were in first grade.

On the other hand, our schools and students have been crippled long enough by reform follies that shunted academics to the sidelines. We can't afford any more lost time in the shadow land of social goals, self-esteem, and watered-down content.

There's nothing "child-friendly" about illiteracy.

You can't be a lifelong learner unless you start.

Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield Middle School.

— Peter Berger
Rutland Herald


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