S. Valley educators fight federal testing law
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By Susie Pakoua Vang
VISALIA — A group of South Valley educators hope to take their grass-roots effort to stop reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2007 to the national level.
The federal law is limiting the art programs for students and the pressure for teachers to get students to pass tests is mounting, said Marla Reyes, chapter services consultant for Kings/Tulare Uniserv Unit, a division of the California Teachers Association.
"We're killing children's spirits and their souls," Reyes said. "We're going to produce generations of sad, unhappy souls. That's not what public schools are about."
The goal of No Child Left Behind — signed into law by President Bush in January 2002 — is to have every student reach proficiency in math and English language arts by 2014.
Under the law, schools that don't meet adequate yearly progress by all test groups for two consecutive years are considered underperforming and placed in program improvement status.
Program improvement schools that don't meet the yearly progress face sanctions, such as reshuffling of administrators and staff.
"No one wants to see their children fail," Reyes said. "Teachers don't want to teach at failing schools."
In the past five weeks, Reyes and a small group of educators have traveled to South Valley schools in areas like Avenal and Hanford to pass out postcards, urging support to eliminate No Child Left Behind. The group is targeting anyone who will support the cause — teachers, administrators, speech therapists, janitors and bus drivers.
The California Teachers Association board of directors voted about two weeks ago to take the campaign statewide next fall, board member Mike Green said.
"For me, it's giving the teachers an opportunity to be proactive and not reactive," said Green, who has taught for 39 years.
The Fresno Teachers Association and three other teachers groups in Bakersfield also will begin the same campaign today.
"We believe that over-reliance on high-stakes testing and narrow focus on multiple choice questions is counterproductive to the quality of education," Larry Moore said. "Children are more than a test score."
The goal is to reach the 4,000 Fresno Unified school teachers — and that's not even including administrators and classified staff, he said.
Reyes said about 3,000 South Valley teachers, administrators and other school employees already have signed the postcards since they started traveling to schools in March.
The message on the postcards was composed by a committee of 40 teachers, organizers said.
"Improvement in schools should be a positive, student-based movement, not a punitive process. It should be a journey, not a destination," state the postcards addressed to U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
Postcards also will be sent to Barbara Kerr, California Teachers Association president, and Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association.
The goal is to collect 5,000 signatures just from the Tulare and Kings areas by the end of May, organizers said.
Adair Vasilovich, a sixth-grade teacher at Veva Blunt Elementary School, signed the postcards when Karl Kildow, Visalia Unified Teachers Association president, stopped by the campus to chat with staff about the effort.
Vasilovich said teachers have been working with standards to teach children even before No Child Left Behind.
"I don't agree that this does or doesn't change how any teacher teaches," Vasilovich said. "We already knew our responsibilities. The law and the act didn't make us do it."
The success of students is a shared goal between schools, students and the community, said Carolyn Tinnin, who also teaches sixth grade.
But federal law puts too much pressure on educators.
"We have little control over it, but we're getting all the responsibility for it and teachers cannot do it all," Tinnin said.
But not all educators agree with overhauling No Child Left Behind.
The goal to have 100% of students be proficient is great but not a reality, said Craig Wheaton, administrator of curriculum and instruction for Visalia Unified School District.
"I think that the goal is great and I support the concept of closing the achievement gap," he said.
But getting rid of the law isn't the answer.
"We need to take what's a good concept and make it workable locally so teachers can feel good about all the good things they do," Wheaton said.
For example, Wheaton said one variable the law should consider is children who are learning English. These students, he suggested, should be given more time to master the language.
"I think it's unfair to the students and the schools, especially for our schools that have 30% to 70% English learners."
Veva Blunt Principal Sharon Suits didn't sign the postcards during Kildow's visit.
"I think there are some really good parts of NCLB," said Suits, whose school is not under program improvement.
"It's really given us the opportunity to look at data and look at our students and provide for our diverse populations."
She agreed with a list of suggestions to improve No Child Left Behind posted on the National Education Association Web site. One of the suggestions is to reduce the students in each subgroup who must take the exam from 95% to 90%. Under the existing law, if one subgroup falls 1% short of the required percentage, the schools fails its adequate yearly progress.
But backers of the grass-roots effort to stop No Child Left Behind say more has to be done, as the pressure to get students to pass tests continues to build and funding is limited.
The law, they say, is negatively affecting whole schools and curricula.
Last year, the administrative and teaching staff at Houston Elementary School in Visalia was reshuffled.
And at some schools, band teachers are asked to teach math and English, said Phillip Brown, executive director of the Kings/Tulare Uniserv Unit. Other campuses have "downsized" vocational classes such as wood shop.
Kindergarten classes are no longer what they used to be, Reyes said.
"It's rigorous academics — push, push, push," she said.
Audrey Friesen, a Veva Blunt kindergarten teacher, signed the postcards.
She said teachers are trying hard to educate children, but the law — written by politicians who aren't in the classrooms — isn't realistic and doesn't accommodate learning-disabled students or recent immigrants.
"They're not machines," Friesen said. "These are people we're talking about."
Friesen said classes are very focused on academics, leaving little time for students to socialize.
"They have to know how to get along. They have to know to share," she said. "If the behavior is not in place, kids cannot learn."
Beth Cochran, a Veva Blunt second-grade teacher, didn't sign the postcards.
"The idea to just say, 'Let's just throw out the standards,' is not good," Cochran said. "I would like to see the children be educated and I think we do need standards."
Cochran said she knows the reality of 2014: Not every child will be proficient in math and English language arts.
"But I think it's a goal that we should shoot for," she said.
Meanwhile, local opponents of the law will continue spreading their campaign nationally to eliminate No Child Left Behind, one school at a time.
Susie Pakoua Vang
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