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NCLB Outrages

A Boost Up, Montgomery County is helping its least-advantaged kindergartners close the gap

Examining a Twisted Fable

Anne E. Levin Garrison

The Fable
In the recent Education Review, the Washington Post's premier educational reporter has revealed himself once again as an elitist with a small mind and a bigot's heart in yet another twisted hallmark story about a poor little struggling brown child. The story opens: "Johnny was a dark-haired little boy..." and the reader is asked to make the first assumption of racial profiling. But the story that unfolds is a misguided trip down a lane where teachers who work with children of color or special academic needs are painted as sisters or brothers of mercy instead of teachers.

The Setting
The article supplies the following information: "even in affluent Montgomery county...[the students are] from another country or poor or both" in her classroom. Here lies the indignity and fundamental flaw for the manner in which disaggregated scores have turned into a horrible nightmare for children in these focal groups. Their individual identities have been replaced with their race, or their IQ, or their socio-economic status for NCLB purposes. They are highlighted, not for their strength, not for their spirit or their individual potentials, but because as in the NCLB tally, they are more often the group that "fails" the school in AYP accountability.

Implied in this article, is that in an affluent county, children of color or need are given places at the table without belonging there; given a free-ride, they are a "charity case." The reporter even makes the statement that they are being schooled in "upper income districts that focus on the middle-class children whose parents pay most of the taxes." And the reader is asked to buy into the concept that immigrant or poor children are schooled for free as they increase the bills of everyone else.

The Protagonist
It is not the child, rich in spirit or courageous in soul who is the hero in this story. No. In this report, it is the reader of the Post, and the struggling teacher who, out of desire to be generous and benevolent, schools this child, who, as outrageous as it can be made to sound, has needs outside of the mainstream or middle- or upper-class child. That the child has to learn another language in order to learn in a public school is simply demoted to a given prerequisite in our American classroom.

The Plot
When affluent or middle-class children are offered the opportunity to learn another language in elementary school, a program called "immersion," we are led to marvel at the intelligence and accomplishments of this program called "enrichment." Why then, when children who are native-speakers in other languages, are placed in English "immersion" programs, are these children not clever or courageous? They are, rather, to be pitied, or even scorned, certainly when their learning rates don't automatically mesh with the artificial deadlines of NCLB testing protocols; often no particular provisions are made for these children and they are rushed, not encouraged to learn. It does not matter when they enter the system and certainly, it does not matter how. They have to get on the fast-track; they have to pass the test.

This reporter does not write the story about the immigrant or special needs child who, dropped into English immersion, or bound to standardized testing schedules, succeeds beyond everyone's doubts and accomplishes the demands of such a rigorous or academically astonishing policy. In someone elses story, it would be the child who is the hero. It is the child who has accomplished so much relative to time, relative to unconscionable demands, relative to mainstream theories in learning.

All of us Heros
The reporter, rather, fawns over the superintendent who, clamouring to follow NCLB policy, spent large portions of budget money on programs to boost the children of need; the children previously "left behind." So the reader is asked again to help pat his and each other's backs and feel saintly that "... children like Johnny, with special problems are being treated as if their parents were K street lawyers, not poorly educated immigrants or high school dropouts."

The implication is that for being treated as if their parents had money or power, these children and their parents are owned or indebted; indebted to the altruism and superiority of an elitist mentality that estimates that what they got, they got at everyone elses expense.

The Real Hero
In this report, the good guys are a commercial opportunity for political use. The teacher must be mortified that she, not the child, is heroized. And the moral of the story is foul; it is offbase and out of bounds to use this story to market NCLB.

The Conclusion
The Post has lost its way in a decades long journalistic obstacle course through the ever changing public school sytem and a changing American culture. The newspaper has lost its mission of balance and objectivity. To allow this reporter to contibute such ethnocentricty and bias of thought is demeaning to its readership, our nation, and itself.

No moral.

Anne E. Levin Garrison
Advocate for the survival of public education and gardener....


"What's wrong about teaching to the test is that life is not simply about deriving a "right" answer.

What is the right answer to being alive? What is the right answer to a Rodin sculpture, a Da Vinci drawing or a Picasso painting? What is the right answer to the existence of the universe, the language of whales, the process of entropy? What is the right answer to creativity, the emotions of opera, the love we feel for each other?"
--Peter Henry, Becoming Mr. Henry

A Boost Up
Montgomery County is helping its least-advantaged kindergartners close the gap

By Jay Mathews

Sunday, November 5, 2006; W26

Johnny was a dark-haired little boy with a lively sense of humor when he joined Kathleen Cohan's kindergarten class at Beall Elementary in Rockville last year. His parents did not speak much English at home, but then 10 of Cohan's 14 students were from families that were from another country or poor or both. American public school classrooms, even in affluent Montgomery County, are often like that, and Cohan loves the new rhythms and colors that the students' varying backgrounds add to her day.

What concerned her about Johnny, however, was that he seemed unable to understand or respond to simple questions, and he had trouble remembering the names of letters he had just learned.

Children struggling with English were not new to Cohan. Schools are deluged every fall with students whose low-income or foreign-born parents do not speak with or read to them enough, even in their native tongue. This has produced an unnerving language gap, with some 5-year-old children of affluent parents entering school knowing 13,000 English words and some children from poor or immigrant families knowing as few as 500. When Cohan began teaching 29 years ago, educators would try to correct these deficiencies, but if they failed they would accept this as the result of poverty and other factors beyond their control.

That still happens in many schools, including in upper-income districts that focus on the middle-class children whose parents pay most of the taxes. But many Montgomery County residents pride themselves not only on their financial success, but also on their social consciousness. Thus, the county was unusually receptive when Jerry D. Weast, one of the most ambitious and aggressive school administrators in the country, became school superintendent in 1999 and declared he was going to do something for kids like Johnny.

Weast and a very active school board, with the blessing of the County Council, have spent $21.1 million so far on their Early Success Performance Plan. They have reduced class sizes for the youngest students. Cohan had 14 students last year and has 13 this year. For the first time this fall, kindergartners in all 123 Montgomery primary schools go to school the entire 6 1/2-hour day, compared with no all-day kindergartens when Weast arrived. And children like Johnny, with special problems, are being treated as if their parents were K Street lawyers, not poorly educated immigrants or high school dropouts.

Within two months of Johnny's arrival, the school organized a strategy session with only one topic on the agenda: how to help Johnny. There were eight people there: Cohan, the principal; a speech pathologist; a special education specialist; a pupil personnel worker (a combined social worker and truant officer); Johnny's parents; and an interpreter.

They shared ideas. They worked out a plan. They marked their calendars for the next meeting -- there would be four strategy sessions for Operation Johnny that school year. Cohan placed the boy near her so she could make sure he finished the activities and games she had for him. She had made videos of some of her lessons to help Johnny's parents, and the parents of other struggling students, try them at home.

Other students receive similar treatment if they, like Johnny, are severely behind or disabled.

The school system set an unusually high standard for professional development, and has expanded its teacher training with more emphasis on reading instruction, according to Gene Maeroff, author of Building Blocks: Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School. Many educators are uncomfortable with the idea of pushing kindergartners to read. But Janine Bacquie, who directs early childhood programs and services for Montgomery, said that in the 16 years since she first taught students like Johnny, the research has made clear that the number of 5-year-olds who are ready for words, holding books tightly in their sticky hands, is much larger than anyone thought.

In 2001, 39 percent of Montgomery kindergartners passed a grade-level language arts test. Nearly all of the students who passed the test had middle-class parents who had been plying them with letters and words since birth. In 2005, 81 percent of kindergartners passed. A big part of the reason: The percentage of low-income kindergartners reaching grade level soared from 44 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2005. The effort has long-term effects, with the 2001 class that passed the kindergarten test at a 39 percent rate passing the fourth-grade test at an 86 percent rate.

The effort is expensive, but, unlike some other costly educational projects, it seems to work. Johnny is in first grade at Beall, having a wonderful time, and his teacher reports he is reading even better than he did when Cohan waved him goodbye last spring and got ready for another class full of Johnnies.

— Jay Mathews, with commentary by Anne E. Levin Garrison
Washington Post


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