State schools on collision course with standards
By Anthony Cody
A few years, ago some people warned about the trouble we were headed for in the home mortgage industry, but we ended up waiting until millions began facing foreclosure to act. California schools are heading for a similar fate, and once again, we seem to be waiting for calamity rather than looking ahead to avert it.
This calamity is the full impact of the federal No Child Left Behind law on our schools. Up until now, the brunt of the accountability law has been felt largely by schools attended by poor folks and immigrants, so few have objected to them being labeled "failing schools."
But we're on the verge of a big shift. NCLB demands that all students be proficient in English and mathematics by 2014. Only 43 percent of the state's 6 million students are scoring proficient in reading and 41 percent proficient or better in math.
Student performance has improved slightly over the past six years, according to state test data, but most schools are about to start hitting a wall. That's because California's NCLB targets require proficiency levels to increase substantially in each of the next six years, so that all students reach proficiency.
The label "failure" is soon going to be attached to schools previously considered successful. Before every school in the state is condemned, perhaps it is time to raise some questions.
First, does it promote growth to label schools as failing and threaten to remove funding? In Oakland, we are in the second generation of reconstituted schools. The first round of schools that opened to replace those closed five years ago has hit the fourth year of missing achievement targets, and a number of them have closed. Some of the new schools are innovative and meeting the needs of their students, but even they are likely to crash into the NCLB wall soon.
As a teacher, I know my students respond when they are encouraged, but when told they are failing and threatened with dire consequences, they tend to shut down, rather than improve. We teachers are no different. We entered this profession to make a difference. We would be far better off if we tapped that passion in a positive direction, instead of operating as if teachers need to be threatened in order to improve.
Second, are the assessments used by the state accurate measures of student learning? Standardized tests are a snapshot, reflecting performance on one day in May. And what is worse, when teachers are afraid students might not pass, they tend to focus on preparing for the test itself rather than giving students a rich curriculum that delves deeply into subject matter.
Third, might there be better ways to measure student growth that would encourage good teaching and better reflect the values of our communities? Yes! The state of Nebraska responded to NCLB mandates by setting state standards but allowing each district to create its own assessments. The School-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System (STARS) has produced surprising results. Last year, 87 percent of Nebraska's students met proficiency.
The fundamental assumption underlying NCLB is that teachers cannot be trusted with assessing student learning and will not improve unless threatened. What if we imagine a different approach? How about a system like Nebraska's that assumes teachers can be trusted to measure student learning? This is a complex skill, but when teachers are given that challenge, we can do it. What is more, the assessments can be directly tied to classroom instruction and used to improve learning, not just measure it.
There is little doubt that California schools are on a collision course with NCLB mandates. We can wait until we crash into the wall ahead and then deal with the wreckage. But our students will be much better off if we take a deep breath and realize there might be a better way.
About the writer:
* Anthony Cody is a National Board certified teacher who taught middle school science and math in Oakland for 18 years. He serves as a science content coach in Oakland.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES