Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Drills propel kids but chafe some parents

Here is the dreadful subhead: Portland schools' low-income students thrive on regimented learning, but affluent families seek more flexibility. Oh, right: Those kids thrive on regimented learning. Indeed.

And the reporter insists: "But the drills work."

And thus we see the true results of NCLB: Race and class segregation of curriculum. Those kids get test prep drill and drill and more drill.

We manage to make the kids feel like they're having fun. This quote provokes a great metaphysical question, in the same category of the tree falling when nobody is there. Just what does it feel like to be managed into feeling like you're having fun? And do you want anyone you love subjected to this? Remember the great principle ignored by NCLB advocates: Don't do to "those" kids what you don't want done to your own.

And what's going on in this little put-down sentence: This is a scene that the nonconformists colonizing Portland say sends a shiver from the sleeves of their fleece to the soles of their sensible shoes. Is there a bias revealed here?

Somebody, please tell the reporter between reading and word calling.

By Paige Parker

Portland Public Schools students, especially low-income ones, are spending more time with their heads buried in books, learning to read in kindergarten, deciphering math and cramming in still more with evening homework.

Zeroing in on the basics has paid off: Low-income elementary students are doing better than ever. Who could argue with what it takes to make that happen?

Parents, that's who.

Specifically, middle-income parents whose children will enter kindergarten already reading, thanks to stellar preschools and evening story time. They look at the worksheets and the phonics drills and wonder: How could my child possibly enjoy this?

This time of year the district's top goals -- boosting the achievement of poor students and retaining middle-income families -- tend to collide. Elementary and middle school parents who've applied for transfers outside their neighborhoods learned this week whether their child landed a spot. Several say drills, skimpy art and music programs and overscheduled school days influenced their transfer requests.

Just as these parents pull for more flexibility, district leaders' obligation to ensure success for the poorest students tugs them toward more standardization.

As the district rolls out new curricula next year, lessons will look increasingly alike across the city, and it unsettles parents such as Wendy Radmacher Willis. As executive director of the City Club of Portland, she's acutely aware that Portland's reputation as family-friendly hinges on middle-income and affluent families' willingness to send their children to public schools.

But Willis is also a mother. Her two daughters attend Abernethy Elementary, which promotes character education and teacher creativity alongside reading and math. That factored into Willis' choice of it over a private school. She's raising creative thinkers and good citizens and doubts that look-alike schools can impart those values.

"It's the thing that's going to push me and others like me -- parents with choices -- out," Willis says.

Chrysanthius Lathan's wooden pointer taps at a chart covered with short words.

"Think," the teacher intern tells students. "Read."

"Are," the kindergartners say.

She repeats the instructions.

"Is," the students say.

This is a scene that the nonconformists colonizing Portland say sends a shiver from the sleeves of their fleece to the soles of their sensible shoes.

But the drills work. Nearly all of these students will end the year reading.

"Most know the letter sounds and can put them into words. We never would have dreamed they could all be reading in kindergarten," says Kathy Butler, a King teacher for 20 years.

King's staff grappled with low test scores for years. The school has the district's second-highest poverty rate, with 92 percent of students qualifying for subsidized school lunch. Now the school uses the federally funded Reading First program in kindergarten through third grade.

Not all Portland schools use the program, says Judy Elliott, the district's chief of teaching and learning, and the curriculum adoption won't extend it to those that don't.

But Elliott says, "If we're really serious about closing the achievement gap, then it's really the district's responsibility to put materials in teachers' hands. We're not advocating or proposing that this is going to become a very scripted district."

These days, Butler's students follow a strict schedule. Two hours of morning reading. An additional 40 minutes for strugglers. Writing practice. A quick lunch and recess, then silent reading. Thirty minutes of health, science or social studies; 30 minutes of math; 40 minutes to play with puzzles, art or computers. They get a weekly music lesson, gym class and library period.

Butler wondered whether 5-year-olds would wilt under the load. She also doubted she would enjoy scripted lessons.

But the results make it worthwhile, she says, and the mix of activities and teaching tactics beat back boredom. Students don't sit at a desk all day staring at the teacher. They read to one another, write, color, dance, sing.

"We manage to make the kids feel like they're having fun. They're not stressed," she says. "What do these parents expect? If they walk into my classroom they're going to see my kids are pretty good citizens and we're learning in different styles."

Getting parents inside King might be the biggest challenge.

The grapevine carried word of King's program to Daniel Sullivan. The Portland State University sociology professor lives four blocks from King. But his son will start kindergarten next year at the Metropolitan Learning Center, a K-12 alternative public school that follows the philosophy of his son's preschool.

"For kids who don't come from households where they're learning how to read and probably with parents who aren't highly educated, they said (King's) can be a very successful program," Sullivan says. "But I have a Ph.D., and my wife has a Ph.D. He's a high-energy kid. I don't want him sitting in a desk all the time."

Sullivan, who studies gentrification and other issues, acknowledges a certain conflict between his professional interests and his personal choices.

"I'm keenly aware of the cumulative effect of my decisions, but I cannot sacrifice my child," he says. "What kind of school would you need in a gentrifying neighborhood? If I were in control of the situation and I had the resources, I'd have a very flexible curriculum. You have to have the substance, because these middle-class parents are going to scrutinize your school -- or overscrutinize it."

Like Sullivan, Andrea Hills heard from friends that her neighborhood K-8 seemed regimented. That was enough to send her looking for another school for her daughter.

For Hills and other Portland parents, this spring passed in a blur of school tours and open houses, with an internal voice whispering that maybe they weren't doing enough to find the best educational match for their children.

Kindergartners bounce on rubber stability balls as they practice counting.

"That looks pretty fun. Better than counting by worksheets," says Hills, who watches from the back of Carol Arneson's Metropolitan Learning Center class.

Hills used a color-coded calendar to track school visits and deadlines. Now the choice has come down to MLC or Trillium, a North Portland charter. Her daughter is 12th on that school's waiting list. Hills leaned toward Trillium, and she hoped some time in Arneson's class would rule out the school. Instead, the teacher's easygoing manner and skill clouded her choice.

"What do you think synthesize possibly means?" Arneson asks.

"Make small," a child says.

"I need recess," says another.

Hills fears an overdose of order could kill her daughters' love of learning.

"Like how that kid could just get up and go to the bathroom," Hills said. "There's not a lot of emphasis on, 'We have to stand in a straight line.'"

— Paige Parker
The Oregonian


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.