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Killing the mockingbird: Educational “reform” in Napa

Ohanian Comment: No Child Left Behind means no child will read "Romeo and Juliet." First, cut out three acts. Next, just hand out Cliff's Notes. What the hell? The purpose of school now is to pass the tests devised by Harcourt and McGraw-Hill. Nothing else. It's called school reform. It's called high standards. Just ask the Business Roundtable. And Ted Kennedy.

By Reg Harris

Last March, a consultant hired by the Napa Valley Unified School District came to Vintage High School to meet with our English department.

She had bad news: We were failing our students. We were shocked. Vintage has a strong record of academic success. How had we failed our students? According to the consultant, not enough of them are scoring at a proficient level on the tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Napa Highâs English department, despite its fine record, faced the same situation.

As a result of our âfailure,â the district is imposing a standardized curriculum on the ninth- and 10th-grade English programs at Napa and Vintage. Other than its cost â $175,000 for Vintage alone â this program impacts our schools in two important ways. First, it weakens our curriculum as we replace depth with breadth. Second, it destroys teacher morale as teachers are subordinated, devalued and ignored.

The new programâs first impact, weakening our curriculum, results from NCLBâs great deception: that standardized testing improves learning. In one of the most extensive studies of standardized testing ever done (13 years of test results in 25 states), the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University found that there is no evidence that standardized testing has any impact on student learning. In fact, the study found that high-stakes testing may actually hurt education because schools must sacrifice in-depth curriculums to teach to the tests.

This will be the case in Napa. Our language arts curriculum will be âdumbed downâ as we sacrifice the comprehensive study of novels (essential for college) for an expensive anthology designed specifically to help students pass the tests. Next year, ninth- and 10th-graders cannot study themes and motifs in âOf Mice and Menâ and âThe Old Man and the Sea.â They cannot explore racism and human nature in âWalkaboutâ and âNight.â They write no essays on the death of innocence in âBless Me, Ultimaâ and âTo Kill a Mockingbird.â These books, and others, will disappear from the curriculum.

Also disappearing will be several other powerful units, including the mandala project, which teaches symbolism and archetypes experientially, and the heroâs journey, which provides students with a framework for understanding literature and applying it to their own lives.

Even Shakespeare will not escape the ax. The new ninth-grade anthology contains a unit on âRomeo and Juliet,â but the teacherâs guide suggests that if there is too little time to teach the entire play (and there probably wonât be), we should teach only the first two acts. This, according to the guide, is enough for the students to pass the test.

This standardization has another impact: the destruction of teacher morale. Teachers are not merely facilitators. We are professionals. Learning emerges best through the relationship between teacher and student. Children are not standardized; each is unique, bringing his or her unique understandings into the classroom. Because of this, we must constantly adjust our teaching to fit student response. As professionals, we have the knowledge and skill to do this.

But we are not treated as professionals. For example, in the districtâs reckless rush to implement this standardized curriculum, teams of teachers are being pulled from their classes to âidentify and unpack essential standards.â When we request more time to implement the program carefully and wisely, that time is refused. When we ask how this standardization process will work, the consultant answers our questions vaguely or not at all. Our own administrators canât give us clear guidelines, and we wonât even have our instructional calendars until just three days before school begins.

Adding insult to injury, we must undergo 40 hours of training in which a publisherâs representative will teach us how to teach the textbook (costing $1,250 per teacher). One teacher who must undergo this training, Sushanna Ellington, received the National Council of Teachers of English award as the outstanding language arts teacher in the nation. Personally, I have 32 years of experience, a masterâs degree in psychology and am the co-author of a literature curriculum being used around the world. Many other teachers have similar resumes. Yet, we all must comply with this corporate curriculum. Otherwise, we will be labeled âinsubordinateâ and, presumably, be punished.

Despite what NCLB and the consultants say, we are not failing our children. We have excellent teachers and schools in Napa, yet the myth of failure perpetuated by these tests and their corporate minions threatens that excellence. Yes, our schools do need some reform, especially for second language learners and students with special needs. However, a corporate takeover is not the answer. We cannot allow consultants, politicians and publishers to gut our curriculum and plunder our resources. If we allow that, then we will indeed fail our children.

Reg Harris lives in Napa. He teaches language arts at Vintage High School.

— Reg Harris
Napa Valley Register


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