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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind: Legislated Censorship

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We will be stopped if we don't stop the Feds.

Rick Meyer, University of New Mexico

Most of us are teaching in schools affected by No Child Left Behind, a law that was passed with bipartisan approval in 2001. This law has had a profound influence on testing, programs that schools may use, funding, and other pragmatics in the running of schools. At a deeper level, the law, intended to serve the disadvantaged, has been successful in disadvantaging thoughtful seasoned teachers, new teachers, bilingual students, children in poverty, research on education, and teacher education.

Legislated Compliance Is Censorship
SLATE and NCTE are strongholds for the important work of addressing censorship and issues of academic freedom. Most of us would agree that this work is an extension of our commitment to multiple perspectives, points of view, and ways of making meaning with our students. Yet, as I write this article, a pernicious form of censorship continues to saturate our schools in the form of a law that created a strong sense of deferral. By "sense of deferral," I mean the ways in which administrators, teachers, and university professors yield to the federal legislation formerly known as The Elementary and Secondary Education Act and is now euphemistically referred to as No Child Left Behind. Here are some quotes that demonstrate deferring by teachers, administrators, and colleagues of mine at a large southwestern U.S. university:

I can’t do writers workshop because I have to do this phonics program. (Teacher)
* We don’t have time to read books and especially don’t have time to talk about them because we have to do [a phonics program]. (Teacher)
* We have to do these tests or we will lose state and federal funding. (Elementary school principal)
* I know that most of the day I do things that are not good for children and I’m seriously thinking about leaving the field of teaching. (Teacher)
* Our school library is rarely used anymore. I can’t figure out how to get books into children’s hands. (School librarian)
* The students are only allowed to read books that are in the AR program. (Accelerated Reader is a leveled-text program that involves kids reading "real" books and then taking short-answer tests on these books at a computer terminal.) (Teacher)
* Students don’t read good literature in school. We don’t have time. I tell them to read it at home. (Teacher)
* We have to teach the five elements of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, text comprehension) to teachers because most teachers don’t know how to teach reading. (State legislator/former teacher)
* The five elements of reading are what they expect our students to know. (College faculty)

The legislated mandates in curriculum and testing have resulted in a change in the ways teachers talk about teaching. One of the most offensive uses of language to which teachers have succumbed is the predication (making into verb form) of a test/noun. Instead of explaining that they administered a particular test to a child, teachers say, “I DIBELed my whole class.” Or they explain, “I DRAed my entire class; it took three weeks.”

In the era of NCLB, new teachers are enculturated into teaching as a place in which one complies. They began their careers when NCLB was operating and are quite accustomed to teacher "development" and inservice situations in which one person tells the "truth "about some program and no one is supposed to question. I have watched new teachers roll their eyes when seasoned colleagues question the "science" behind something presented at an after-school indoctrination into the teaching of a newly adopted reading program. One twenty-plus-years-of-experience teacher, questioning the usefulness of a phonics program for her students was told by the presenter, “Trust me, this is good for all students,” and when she persisted in questioning, was told that her job was not to create curriculum, but to deliver it. Further, if she did not like that, she was told that she might consider finding a job where she is self-employed and not held accountable to a principal and district. This type of example teaches new teachers a lot; mostly it teaches them that compliance and non-decision making are what constitute teaching. Not only are the teachers to comply with the program, the students are to comply as well. Any law that silences teachers and forces us to ignore research on learning to teach professionally and reflectively is a form of censorship.

Bilingual teachers and students are also silenced by the NCLB law, which legalizes the termination of bilingual programs by requiring that students be tested in English after three years of transition into an English-only curriculum. California, Arizona, and many districts that formerly had quality bilingual programs that afforded students the time they needed to use their knowledge of their first language to learn their second language are now forcing children to learn English in immersion or transition programs that run counter to the body of bilingual/English language learner scholarship (L. Meyer, in process). Any law that forces us to turn our backs on research about learning a second language is a form of censorship.

Quite simply and sadly what I am proposing is that the policies that have grown in tentacle-like fashion from NCLB are a form of censorship that may, at first glance, appear subtle, but it is far from that. We know that conservative groups do not want children to respond to literature in a genuine way (Spring, 1997) because such agency and instrumentality makes all texts vulnerable to scrutiny, a situation that threatens the controlling fabric of such groups. The conservative roots of NCLB have spread into classrooms across the country and, increasingly, across the world as basalized and trivialized reading programs become part of the globalized hunger for profit (Altwerger, 2005). These programs (under the guise of being scientifically based) control classrooms, teacher activity, teacher thinking about curriculum, and children’s experiences in school by limiting student and teacher choice. Some programs literally provide the words that teachers are supposed to say to students. This is action that far exceeds any fight for or about a single text (be it movie, book, magazine, etc.). The censorship that is legislatively imposed upon classrooms slipped into place as we fought it, ignored it, or hoped it would go away. NCLB is not about not leaving children behind. It is about controlling teachers and children by demanding teacher compliance as a systematic process that leads to demanding compliance by children.

Strauss (2005) suggests that compliance is the order of the day in a postindustrial world. He suggests that there will be an increased need for compliant workers that will perform the boring tasks needed for the information age, mostly this will consist of data entry in one form or another. But Strauss does not go far enough. Compliance is not simply a process for the derivation of compliant workers. I’d argue that the present systematic censorship, enacted in the broad brushstrokes of NCLB, is about a deeper and far scarier form of compliance. It is about compliance to policy without dissent, voice, or question.

There may be a need for compliant workers, but the need for compliant citizens and the realization of that compliant citizenry, will allow the passage of a litany of right wing agenda items. Here are some of the ideas and accomplishments at risk:

Women’s bodies
Children’s minds
Thoughtful and responsive citizens
Citizens that know that challenge and dissent are essential to democracy
Civil rights
Health rights

I find myself in a state of consternation-turned-to-rage as I consider the nature of censorship when it originates in law. Holding the law in one hand and slogans that are difficult to reframe in the other ("leave no child behind"), we are coerced and systematically forced to use language, programs, and materials that are offensive to our democratic sense. Teachers across the country know terms such as Open Court, scientifically-based reading research (SBRR), "phonemic awareness," and more. We twist what little good we have left in our professional repertoire to make it seem as though it fits into these terms, when in reality it does not. We take on the language of the oppressor to try to find spaces where we can continue the work of educating our students. But the language of the oppressor can not be used to dismantle the system that the oppressor has created; Audre Lorde said it this way, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” (in Gilbert, 1998). We feel as though we’re selling out in order to stay in the field, and in some ways we are.

Teachers and Activism
I wonder if we’ve become too comfortable or used to saying "this too will pass" or "I’ll wait for the pendulum to swing the other way." There are many education stakeholders whose motives are profit- and compliance-driven. They place the majority of the workload (for that profit and compliance) on children’s backs as classrooms become sweatshops for large corporations. Sound dramatic? Consider the child that labors daily to complete workbook after workbook page, worksheet after worksheet, and is denied recess so that he can complete the work. “Do your work,” one teacher admonishes her student whose eyes have strayed out the classroom window to the falling snow. One teacher confesses that during the state test she took a child out into the hall and told him to check his work carefully and then she spanked him. He cried. The teacher cried as she retold this event. The pressure teachers feel, passed on to their students and their students’ families, is increasing. Pressure-cooker classrooms have to give, the pressure must be vented. Yet, with the systemic censorship of quality books, conversations, and engagement in classrooms, the pressure appears to be venting as acts of violence, stress, fatigue, and burnout.

Historically, such venting has occurred in the streets, as we look back at Los Angeles, Newark, and other cities where issues became hot, pressure was imposed, silence was demanded, but people would not comply. Some people look at the situation in LA as a "riot" but others refer to it as an "uprising." This semantic difference has an urgency to it as we consider who has power and privilege, who does not, and how far people are willing to go to change things. This still has to do with "disadvantaged" as defined in NCLB and it has to do with at-riskness, except it is not the children that are disadvantaged or at risk. It is us, in our comfortable states of compliance; it is our way of living and being that are at risk because this pressure will vent. It may not vent tomorrow or next year, but children that are hurt in schools do not quietly disappear into the night. They scare the hell out of many of us because they are making choices as they respond to the meaningless work at school by seeking sense, meaning, and belonging in other places. We are the ones at risk and it’s a state of risk that we induced by choosing to remain silent. We are disadvantaged not only as silenced professionals, but in the greater sense of our society as talented and smart children seek ways to engage.

Each of us makes decisions about how to teach in the cracks, engage as activists, attend professional conferences, present at those conferences, organize, vote, and more. Each of us feels the weight of the professionally censored lives we are living; I feel it at the university knowing that the government will not fund my research on language use in the classroom or any other type of qualitative work because it is not considered "science." Anthropology, linguistics, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics apparently are no longer sciences because the definition of science (in education) has been censored and only includes experimental and quasi-experimental work. Let’s consider who’s on the "not science" list: Donald Graves, Ken Goodman, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and many more.

Historically, teachers in the U.S. have not been activists. We’ve participated in progressive movements (Shannon, 1990), but have not systematically organized to influenced the legislative process or other government impositions on our practice. However, let’s look south. Teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, have been engaged in a strike since May 2006. As I write this, they are well into their seventh month of striking because, originally, they were concerned about a globalized curriculum that they were being ordered to use. Oaxaca has a large percentage of indigenous students and teachers worked to develop local culturally responsive curricula. The new government-delivered programs, which mean increased profits for large corporations, deny teachers and students voice in their curriculum. Additionally, the teachers were not paid for months at a time. When they uncovered massive corruption in their union and in their state, they struck and continue to strike with one main goal: removal of the governor of the state, a man they believe was installed not elected, and one whom does not wish to understand the need for locally constructed curriculum, rich in teacher, child, and family voice. The imposed curriculum also disenfranchises the indigenous languages of the region, demanding all children learn in Spanish.

The teachers in Oaxaca have much support from families committed to the professional thinking of teachers. Teachers have been murdered, disappeared, and taken to maximum-security prisons in other Mexican states, but still the group thrives. They were removed (using gas and bullets) from the town’s square and they marched to the safety of the university (where police may not enter without university approval). Some marched to Mexico City to protest at the capital.

I’m not saying that we need to go to such lengths to regain our profession from the hands of legislators, corporations, and the censorship they’ve imposed, but I do wonder how far we are willing to go. While we are being severely censored, there is little room in official forums for dissent; and still we have not acted. At the 2006 Annual Convention, NCTE called for a reconsideration of some facets of NCLB. FAIRTEST is working to get the assessment sections reconsidered using research on evaluation that provides a more accurate and useful picture of students’ progress. But, fundamentally, the law is corrupt. It is corrupt because it censors teachers’ voices, children’s thinking, and serves the agendas of conservative groups and corporations, not students. That corruption has been corroborated by the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Education (2006) in a report on an audit of Reading First, the reading portion of NCLB. The report documents massive problems with the interpretation and enactment of the reading portion of the law, problems that most teachers have known about for a while. The report includes information on the selection of tests that do not inform teachers, programs that are poorly researched by "chosen" insiders, and programs that do not serve children well. The children being most poorly served by NCLB are the very "disadvantaged" children that the law was supposed to protect. Mexico has corruption as the government tries to globalize education, making the rich richer off the backs of children. The U.S. has the very same problem. In Mexico, teachers are screaming in the streets and demanding the resignation of their governor (in the state of Oaxaca). Overall, we remain silent.

Literacy for Dissent and Organizing
We are not hearing from the voices of U.S. teachers in public or legislative forums, even as we are witness to children squirming, cringing, and becoming emotionally and physically ill while they are forced into tests and programs that do not serve them well. Most teachers complained and then complied. But our only hope is not necessarily a seven-month strike, although such a dramatic statement across a state or country would send remarkably strong messages to our legislature in Washington DC. Just think back to thousands of people in the mall in Washington, D.C., listening to Martin Luther King Jr. These were people that gathered at their own expense to demonstrate their importance to legislators. Teachers in the U.S. have never stirred themselves to such action, indeed, I need to include myself: we have never stirred ourselves to such actions. We complain, write lofty articles, and, hopefully, become increasingly articulate about what it is that is occurring that is so harmful to the most fragile and vulnerable children—those that live in poverty, are new to this country, are second language learners, or have special needs. All of these groups take the same test, are increasingly using the same materials, and are increasingly underserved in schools that say they simply have no choice: they cannot risk not accepting federal money. Administrators and teachers cannot risk having someone say that they are leaving children behind because they did not take federal money, even though that money is damaging teachers and learners.

We remain hopeful and I’m glad that we do for if we gave up hope, we would be burned out. Van Manen (1986) said it this way:

Teacher burnout is not necessarily a symptom of excessive effort, of being overworked. It is the condition of not knowing why we are doing what we are doing. Burnout is the evidence of helplessness, of no longer being able to find a positive answer to the sigh, "What's the use?" (p. 29, emphasis added).

Alice Walker’s new book is called We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, a title that fits our present predicament. The book is a call to not wait for a dynamic leader, but to live (and I would add to teach) in a way that is constantly rooted in thoughtfulness, decency, justice, and democracy—a way in which we always are aware of the "use." The book and this article are calls to live our lives just a little bit differently by understanding that everything we do is an act of organizing. We might be organizing compliant, non-questioning future workers or we might be organizing thoughtful citizens that make decisions by being informed. Many of our pedagogical actions grow out of responses to the present environment in education; those actions are the soil in which the future grows. They are at the heart of organizing the future of our country and planet.

Our present situation is the most insidious and pernicious since the 1950s when McCarthy tried to clean house and rid our country of communists. Fifty years ago our country was faced with a situation saturated with fear, coercion, and intimidation. Now, for teachers, the same situation exists. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in economics, Muhammad Yunus said that, “Poverty is the absence of all human rights” (Yunus, 2006). In this sense, we are becoming more and more impoverished as our rights are being massaged away in the form of NCLB. We will, hopefully in less than fifty years, look back upon this era in education and from the distance and acuity that time provides we will ask ourselves, “How could we let that happen? Why didn’t we see where this would lead?”

I want us to be in a better place in that future time, but we won’t be unless we act. We might not strike, but we can teach each other, listen to each other, write letters to representatives, organize petitions, and, most importantly, engage with each other and with our students in the quest for voice and dissent that a democracy demands, indeed voice and dissent are the lifeblood of a democracy. They are what keep us from being intellectually, socially, and spiritually impoverished. Censorship, whether blatant attacks on a specific book or legislated madness that seems to permeate the fabric of our profession, is silencing and homogenizing. It seeks to, on a very superficial level, quiet the voices of dissension and make all things seem "right" and "equal." Our voices are our instrument. We will not be silenced and homogenized. Working with our students, we must make every issue with which we deal an issue of organizing for justice, decency, multiple perspectives, and action. We might deconstruct NCLB with our students or even their families, but we can also look at how a spider changes things in a barn, a Lorax speaks for trees, a man engages with the sea, a woman begins a movement, or a law changes the way communities look and act. We can teach children to challenge texts, show them how others have done so, and let them know that we expect them to do the same. We can learn with our students how to juxtapose creationism and evolution, abortion and anti-abortion; who gains and who loses when a country goes to war; and the use of language to influence the masses (Lakoff, 2002). Our children and our colleagues can and must write and speak the stories of being left behind to expose the lies that are being perpetrated upon us. We can share our thinking and mobilize virtually if not literally; just look at what’s happened because of the MoveOn website.

We will not be stopped. We cannot be stopped as long as we are thinking, feeling, and breathing. Our hope and our strength lie in a pencil and a piece of paper—those are the instruments of our organization and mobilization. They are the tools with which we reframe this picture, redraw the current portrait of teachers and children, and let the voice of dissent ring. We will not be censored so that private concerns can profit from children’s and teachers’ oppression. Freire (1985) noted the importance of naming our situation. It has been named. Now it falls to us to let others know what we see, to use what teachers of reading and writing know best (literacy), and to continue to educate a citizenry for the future we want by living it now.

Altwerger, B. (Ed.) (2005). Reading for profit: How the bottom line leaves kids behind. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power, and liberation. Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Gilbert, L.A. (1998). "The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house." Feminism & Psychology 8(1), 77-83.

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, L. (in process). No child left bilingual. Publisher undetermined at present. Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Education. (September, 2006). The Reading First program’s grant application process: Final inspection report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Shannon, P. (1990). The struggle to continue: Progressive reading instruction in the United States. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Spring, J. (1997). Political agendas for education: From the Christian Coalition to the Green Party. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Strauss, S. (2005). The linguistics, neurology, and politics of phonics: Silent “E” speaks out. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Van Manen, M. (1986). The tone of teaching. Ontario: Scholastic

Yunnus, M. (2006). "Poverty is the absence of all human rights.” Acceptance speech for Nobel Prize delivered in Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2006. Downloaded 12/27/06 from http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com/2006/12/poverty-is-absence-of-all-human-rights.html.

— Rick Meyer


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