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NCLB Outrages

Teachers feel left behind

Comment by Yvonne Siu-Runyan, Ph.D., Professor Emerita: The intent of the NCLB Act was designed to leave teachers behind and make them puppets who deliver scripted lessons written by those far away from the class. By the way, those in charge of this insanity are making huge sums of money from this horrible act.

The NCLB Act was designed to control, not educate. After all, if a group of people can control education at all levels, then a facist regime can be in charge. And of course, telling teachers what to teach and how to teach are key in controlling a citizenry. The sorting, labelling, and ranking of our students because of some high stakes test by instilling fear and punishment are key in control.

If the tests remain the same, then giving teachers more flexibility will be a "lose-lose" situation. If the teachers teach to the needs of their students, then how can they insure that their students will pass the high-stakes test?

Then one more time the designers of the NCLB Act can say, "See we gave the teachers and schools flexibility and they still can't do a good job of helping our students learn." The NCLB Act was designed to privatize public education to control education.

The NCLB Act has direct influence on whether or not we have an informed citizenry who can think. This is why I am concerned about the fragility of democracy in this country.

By James Joyce III

Christina Meeks remembers wanting to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl, despite efforts by her family and mentors to persuade her to pursue another field. She received two master's degrees in teaching, earning extra credentials in special education, teaching foreign-language speakers who are learning English, and early childhood education.

Now in her 10th year of teaching, the special education resource room teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School in Yakima wonders whether she wants to stick it out in an educational environment increasingly focused on students meeting test-based performance standards.

Meeks and many other local educators blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act for causing powerful discontent and demoralization among teachers. She said she never thought the politics of public education would affect her job so much. And she never thought she would consider leaving her beloved profession.

'I never realized how political education could be," she said after classes concluded for Christmas vacation. "I never realized how political I would end up having to be as a teacher to be able to do my job, to be able to help my students. But as time goes on and as I see the stakes rising, and as I see more frustrated teachers, more frustrated parents, and see the students get so frustrated, I don't know if this is going to be my last career."

The discontent of teachers like Meeks is a major reason Congress is seriously debating the future of the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 law, pushed by President Bush and supported at the time by key congressional Democrats, aims to hold schools accountable for educating all children equally, including low-income and minority students, and to force low-performing schools to do better.

Schools receiving federal funds must meet specific academic benchmarks for all students on reading and math measures. The intent was to have all students proficient in those two subject areas by the 2013-14 school year.

The law expired in September because both Republicans and Democrats in Congress expressed major concerns about some provisions. Many lawmakers want to substantially overhaul it, against the wishes of the Bush administration, which lauds it as a success. The law was extended for one year.

Now, the leading Democratic presidential candidates -- at the urging of teachers unions and professional organizations -- are making reform of the law an issue in their campaigns. Both Republican and Democratic governors across the country also seek changes, contending that the law interferes with local control of public schools. But most state-level leaders want to maintain the increased standards and accountability, and many classroom teachers agree.

In Washington state, Yakima Valley school superintendents and others are pushing to ease state law requirements mandating that students pass state accountability assessments in order to graduate from high school.

The proposed revisions in both the federal and state law could significantly change the environment in which Washington teachers and students work.

Under the current federal rules, schools are measured on whether they are making "adequate yearly progress" based on a number of factors. The academic indicators are gauged by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in third through eighth grade and 10th grade, along with other indicators such as attendance, graduation rates and progress among categorical demographic groups.

The annual progress marks must be hit regardless of the challenges many schools face that are associated with poverty, non-English-speaking students and students with disabilities.

One size fits all?

On a recent afternoon, Eddie Brown was working with students in his ninth-grade civics class on a reading assignment accompanied by written questions. He walked around the class, checking with individual students and helping them as needed. A group of seven students, who were behind in the lesson, gathered around a table sharing several books.

Brown did not spend much extra time with the students he knew were behind.

"I will not sacrifice my class of 35 for three or four students," said Brown, who has been teaching civics and history at Davis High School for 17 years and serves on the executive board of the Yakima Education Association, the local teachers' union.

The No Child Left Behind Act, he said, "has taken away my ability to modify my classes as I see fit because we have those cookie-cutter approaches right now."

The concept is that "one idea will work for all kids," he said. "They all have to be tested the same way, at the same time, and that's assuming that they all learn the same way and at the same speed. And that's not necessarily true."

Students must pass the WASL tests in various subjects to determine whether they have mastered the standards. Under state law, starting with this year's high school senior class, Washington students must pass the 10th grade reading and writing WASL tests to receive their diplomas.

Students who don't meet the standards are usually offered targeted interventions, such as extended instruction in the subject area to help them pass the tests. These extra efforts require more time and effort by teachers, and take teachers away from working with other students and teaching nontest subjects that could enrich their students' education.

State and local education officials say "they want you to be an individual and try to meet the needs of each individual student," Brown said. "But then in the back of your mind, you know (the students) have to take this test. So I find myself teaching more to the test."

Both Meeks and Brown say "teaching to the test" takes time away from building meaningful relationships with students and teaching them to solve problems. That can be detrimental to students both academically and socially.

"If you can teach a 6-year-old how to work out 6-year-old problems, chances are, when they are 12, they will be able to work out 12-year-old problems," Meeks said. "When they're an adult, hopefully they can work out adult problems. But we've got to teach this lesson. We're kind of creating kids who don't know how to solve their own problems."

Meeks said she sees how this affects students' behavior in and out of the classroom.

"They look to an adult or a teacher or a parent to solve (a problem) for them, or they don't know how to communicate to solve it," she said. "So they solve it with fists or name-calling or sticking their tongues out."

Some teachers feel they don't have the opportunity under No Child Left Behind to incorporate more exploratory activities into their lesson plans. These may seem to outsiders like play or art. But they make the class more interesting and fun for students, Meeks said.

For instance, prior to the federal law, Brown said he would occasionally take his students on impromptu trips to an area park to stimulate learning. Now he's less likely to do that, at least partly because it takes time away from teaching to the scripted curriculum handed down from the state to the school district and then to the individual school.

Appeal to Congress

These are some of the issues that teachers unions and professional organizations, parents and some lawmakers are urging Congress to take into account when it considers reauthorizing or revamping the law later this year. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, wants the revised law to support good teaching, give credit to schools where students are showing documented progress, and offer more help for struggling schools.

Rep George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House education committee and a supporter of reforming and reauthorizing the law, said in a New York Times interview last month that "No Child Left Behind may be the most negative brand in America."

Cec Carmack, a literacy coach at Selah's Robert Lince Elementary School and a writing consultant for the Sunnyside School District, agrees with Miller's view.

"No Child Left Behind left us with an urgency to improve scores, which kind of has a negative effect," she said.

In her work to improve students' performance in writing -- which is not directly assessed under No Child Left Behind -- Carmack has noticed that teachers feel less confidence in their ability to teach writing. Parts of the state reading and math tests require that students write essays or explain their answers.

Carmack said just the name of the No Child Left Behind Act offends many teachers. The name says "we are not going to let kids slip through," she observes. "Well, that was never an intention in the first place for teachers. If we could get them to a 100 percent standard, we would have."


Despite widespread complaints about the law, the U.S. Department of Education says more students than ever are meeting standards in reading and math.

Nationwide, fourth-graders' reading scores last fall were the highest on record. That also was true for math scores in the fourth and eighth grades, according to the latest Nation's Report Card, which is administered by an arm of the Department of Education. Black and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in a number of categories, according to the report, which was released last fall.

That trend holds true locally as well. For instance, at Ridgeview Elementary School, during the 2001-02 WASL administration, 36 percent of fourth-graders met the reading standard and 16 percent met the math benchmark. Those numbers jumped to 66 percent in reading and 48 percent in math for the 2006-07 school year.

But some teachers grumble that it would be better to hold schools accountable for making progress rather than for meeting an established benchmark, because of the acknowledged fact that not all students start at the same academic level.

In its proposal to reauthorize the law, the Bush administration has recommended letting states and local school districts tailor academic interventions for schools that are not meeting the benchmarks and measure individual students' achievement growth over time. That's an idea supported by Rep. Miller, who has proposed an accountability model that rewards progress.

Diana Comini, who retired as principal of Lince Elementary last year after 14 years in the post, generally defends the law, saying it's been mostly good for public education. She said the idea of accountability is valuable and the law prepares students for the world of work, where they will be held accountable for meeting standards.

Comini said increased standards brings greater uniformity in what and how lessons are taught in the classroom. But she also recognizes that the increased demand to document teachers' effectiveness creates a fear and loathing among teachers.

"Prior to No Child Left Behind, we evaluated how teachers taught," she said. "Today, it's what have kids learned. Now, time is taken from teachers to go back and make sure the child has learned, and teachers are held accountable for that."

But Meeks worries that some children suffer from the one-size-fits-all approach to standards.

"Trying to make sure no kids slip through the cracks is a good thing," she said. On the other hand, she said, "instead of kids sinking through the cracks, we are just sweeping them to the side."

Proposed changes

The Bush administration has sent Congress several proposals to help strengthen the No Child Left Behind Act:

* Increase flexibility for states and school districts to help them turn around struggling schools.

* Allow eligible students to transfer out of low-performing schools to private or out-of-district public schools or to receive intensive tutoring. The transfer options would include parochial schools.

* Help more students take advantage of free tutoring.

* Increase the federal investment in the Teacher Incentive Fund to reward teachers for success in raising student achievement in low-income schools.

* Increase accountability in high schools, expand access to Advanced Placement courses, and strengthen math and science education.

* Allow math and science professionals to bring real-life experience to the classroom as part-time teachers.

Source: White House news release

— James Joyce III, with comment by Yvonne Siu-Runyan, Ph.D.


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