The destruction of our schools
Here is a spirited call to arms from a longtime educator.
by Alis Headlam
The unraveling of all that has made our schools strong, our teachers shine, and our students thrive is a tale that unfolds before our eyes but remains uncovered in the media. This hidden story is being carefully kept under wraps even as more and more people jump on the bandwagon complaining about education in our schools. At the center of this controversy is federal legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This single law has put our schools, teachers, and children in jeopardy of a complete meltdown.
Already in Vermont, half of the high schools are failing to meet the annual yearly progress standards. Many of our middle and elementary schools are either failing or in danger of failing as well. With the added pressure of testing, accountability and reading curriculum mandates, this bill in one grand sweep has undone years of professional development.
In Vermont the struggle to maintain a positive image of education is further exacerbated by local uproar over increased taxes. Who is talking about the increased pressures caused by NCLB as related to increased expenditures by the schools? No one except Rutland Northeast Superintendent Bill Mathis, whose expertise on the subject has put him in a prominent position nationally, but caused him to be criticized in his own backyard.
Who is telling the story of the parents and children who are being seriously damaged by the misuse of high stakes testing and poor reading programs? There is Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, whose national recognition has put her in the spotlight for criticism and personal attack from those who would keep the secrets hidden. One has only to go to her Web site at http://www.susanohanian.org to read stories that will curl their hair.
Who is taking up the challenge to get this message out to the people? Certainly, one doesn't find it on the front pages of the media. But if you look at the Web sites of organizations like the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, you will find plenty of information that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. What is more amazing is the difficulty that everyone has in gaining the media's support to tell the story. It feels as if there is a giant conspiracy to dismantle the public schools so that they can be turned into business ventures where financial gain will become the primary engine. The danger in this is that children are not products and teachers are not machines. There is a human element that cannot be ignored if education is to be successful. The real danger is that instead of making sure that no child is left behind, we will increase the potential for poor, learning-disabled, and underprivileged children to be excluded from educational opportunity.
Walk into most any school, even in Vermont, and it is possible to see and feel how the human element of education is changing. The tension is evident. Attend a school meeting and you will find teachers and administrators straining under the pressures of the imposed curricula, standardized testing and threat of government labeling. Problem-solving has been replaced by playing it safe. Many teachers and administrators are more pressed by the need to look good than with the need to find solutions to problems that address individual needs. Schools that once were joyful places have turned into factory-like venues where teachers are required by law to turn out classes of students who can respond to test questions like little robots. Many teachers whose laughter once rang cheerfully in the halls struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether to keep their jobs or provide the best education that they know is possible for all children.
Talented young people who are training to be teachers struggle with the dilemma of whether to complete their training or concede defeat. When they learn about the strict impositions of NCLB and they read the negative reports about education in the media, they wonder if they will be able to use their newly gained knowledge and skills in their profession. They worry about having to compromise their integrity by accepting curricula that impose so much structure they will not have time to consider the needs of their children. They worry about behavior problems and learning problems. When they are student teaching they see that schools face more challenges now than in any time in the past. Many children come to school with anxiety and with emotional needs that require special attention. On a day-to-day basis student teachers see more of the teacher's time being spent dealing with troubled, angry children than with creating rich learning environments that meet their needs. They wonder if this is a job worth the effort with only minimal rewards and threats of punitive results if the children they teach fail on a single standardized test.
Thousands of teachers and parents around the country are calling for a complete dissolution of NCLB, but their voices are not being heard. They realize that qualifying education by standardized tests ignores most of what constitutes good teaching.
It is time to put education back into the hands of expert educators who can lead the way towards a brighter future of public education. We could start by revisiting a document created in the late 1960's called the Vermont Design for Education. We could further amend this and challenge the increasing demands in today's schools as they are addressed in professional standards and ethics of the most widely known educational organizations of this country. Much of the necessary work needed to replace NCLB is already complete.
Now is the time for all of us to take a stand against government imposed regulation under No Child Left Behind. For those who are interested, a petition is being circulated calling an end to this legislation. It has been signed by over 20,500 individuals including leading educators and is still accepting signatures. You can add your name by going online at http://www.educatorroundtable.org.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES