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U46 scores up, but at what cost?

The U. S. Department of Education Teacher to Teacher Director Carolyn Snowbarger said it is the teacher's job to make sure students are learning. That, she said, is what teachers are hired to do. . . .And
rather than feeling overwhelmed, Snowbarger said many of the teachers she meets feel empowered by the federal act.

Your tax dollars at work.

By Christine S. Moyer

Standardized test scores are improving in Elgin School District U46.

But at what cost?

Exhausted, defeated, disrespected and overwhelmed is how Janice Booth -- a teacher at Sycamore Trails Elementary School in Bartlett -- described district teachers and staff at a board of education meeting about two weeks ago.

Reading from a prepared statement, Booth told the board that the district's "fiscal responsibility" and focus on "higher test scores" is compromising the faculty's professionalism.

"Our teachers and staff are withering away," she said.

Booth declined to comment further on the issue in an e-mail sent last week.

Test scores advance

In August, the district first revealed that standardized test scores improved from last year, despite increasing standards and the number of students tested.

For the first time since 2002 -- when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was implemented in the district -- each of the district's 40 elementary schools posted adequate yearly progress.

And the number of the district's eight middle schools posting adequate yearly progress increased from one school last year to three this year.

Reflecting on Booth's comments more than a week after they were made, Superintendent Connie Neale said the board understands that faculty members are working hard and are under stress, but she said those problems extend beyond teachers to all district employees.

"Ultimately, they (teachers) are the ones in the class with the children. So of course they feel a great deal of pressure from the expectations of No Child Left Behind," Neale said.

"But each principal feels that pressure ... As a superintendent I feel that pressure."

Act set tough standards

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the standardized test scores of a single student can keep a school from meeting state standards and posting adequate yearly progress.

And penalties for not meeting state standards range from having to offer students a choice to attend a higher performing school in the same district to -- the most extreme -- closing the school.

This heavy dependence on standardized test scores is the root of a problem that stretches beyond District U46 teachers to those in school districts scattered throughout the country, according to Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

"The affects [sic] of No Child Left Behind, and all standardized testing on teachers, is a matter of concern," Jennings said. "... They feel the whole burden is on them."

Discord among educators

According to Neale, the district is trying to ease the faculty's stress by offering them support through staff development and giving them the tools they need to accomplish the required tasks.

However, Booth's comments to the board about two weeks ago evoked a different image.

Booth said that teachers have been told to be on a specific math lesson during a given week -- and that they are hearing their primary job is to produce better test-takers and higher scores.

Neale disagreed. The superintendent said there are time intervals during which certain lessons need to be covered, but she insisted that no one checks to see that teachers are "on the same page at the same time."

'Act empowers teachers'

The director of the Teacher to Teacher Initiative at the U.S. Department of Education brushed off questions about low teacher morale and high stress due to the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Director Carolyn Snowbarger said it is the teacher's job to make sure students are learning. That, she said, is what teachers are hired to do.

According to Snowbarger, the No Child Left Behind Act has forced educators to focus on things that she said in the past were "easy not to pay attention to."

And rather than feeling overwhelmed, Snowbarger said many of the teachers she meets feel empowered by the federal act that aims to make all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Sympathy but few options

During the board meeting about two weeks ago, Booth urged the board to listen to the faculty's concerns, to emphasize that students be critical thinkers -- not just good test takers -- and to not place a price on the well-being of staff and students.

When Booth returned to her seat, only applause from the group of teachers in the audience sounded.

However, more than a week later, Superintendent Neale apologized for the demands placed on the district's faculty, but she said there is little that can be done.

"It would be irresponsible of me not to say I'm sorry we have put so much accountability on those things (meeting state and federal standards). But we have to do it because the consequences are too great," Neale said.

— Christine S. Moyer
The Courier News


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