Figting an Uphill Battle
By Alis Headlam
Working in education today is a little like trying to push an elephant up a hill. The elephant, as it turns out, is accountability and the overwhelming reliance on standardized testing. The elephant isn't going to go anywhere without help. Students aren't going to be able to push him up that hill much longer even if they are endowed with exceptional strength.
Unfortunately, with the current focus on meeting higher and higher levels of proficiency, as measured on the NECAP test, we have become enamored with the notion that all children should perform in the same way under the same conditions. The result is a focus on the technical aspects of teaching, including highly structured instruction and scripted programming that largely ignores the individual differences of the children we want to serve. As schools continue to look for a publisher program or a specific approach that will raise test scores, they forget the human nature of students.
In my mind No Child Left Behind has done more to harm education than any other attempt to reform schooling in the nearly 40 years I have been in education. Instead of pushing us forward to address the concerns of the 21st century, NCLB has created a battlefield mentality in our schools. When nearly 40 percent of the schools in Vermont are labeled as "failing" because they did not meet the benchmarks set by the federal government, almost everyone involved in education takes up a defensive stance and tries to protect their territory.
The April 29 Burlington Free Press quotes a principal who said his first step will be to research what other schools are doing with low-income students. Another principal complains about the way test results are analyzed with a view of education that uses a very narrow lens. Placing blame on one small group of students creates an atmosphere of discrimination and recrimination that is biased and misleading.
The problem isn't that schools aren't improving test scores and meeting their annual yearly improvement as defined by NCLB. The bigger concern should be that schools have been reduced to institutions where children are viewed as objects and instruction is relegated to a production-line state of mind. The result is that schools, teachers and children are becoming more and more stressed out as the testing demands increase. Instead of motivating a more humanistic approach to instruction, which would actually encourage learning, schools are forced to teach to improve test scores. This has a boomerang effect of creating an environment where learning is more difficult and students are less successful.
When schooling dehumanizes students, it creates a war zone that often places children at cross-purposes with teachers and learning. A child enters school looking for approval and acceptance but instead faces depersonalized instruction. The child feels unloved and confused. This results in an inability to learn at his or her highest potential which decreases achievement and lessens the chance that test scores will increase.
Even when achievement is increased, the demands under NCLB for higher and higher test scores place children at odds with tests that require each succeeding class to be better than the pervious one. According to the Rutland Herald on April 29, Education Commissioner Richard Cate admits that he expected more schools not to make the goal this year, but he also said, "For any school to turn these numbers around in a year is a very, very difficult struggle ... We certainly hope that they do, but we'll have to wait and see."
We should no longer "wait and see." Schools and children should not have to suffer the inevitable consequences of being labeled failures. It is time for Vermont to step up to the plate and refuse to accept the NCLB labeling. Instead we need to address the humanistic issues that have been placed on the back burner in lieu of testing mandates. Vermont has a progressive history in education. In 1968 the Department of Education produced a document reflecting a humanistic approach to learning called the Vermont Design. We could use this document as an entry point to move us out of the destructive NCLB era into a brighter future. We don't need to wait for the federal government to finally wake up to the fiasco it has created. We need to act now for the good of our children.
Schools, teachers and children are fighting an uphill battle. They can't move the elephant because the incline keeps increasing and the hill keeps getting taller and taller. More and more schools are finding the climb to be too much. By 2014 it is predicted that there won't be any schools in the entire nation, let alone Vermont, that will be able to make it to the top of the hill. The elephant will block the path completely. I wouldn't like to be behind that elephant when he finally loses his footing and begins to slide backward.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES