Sunday, February 15, 2009

No Child Left Behind, Part 1

Education, like most professions, has its own language. But our use of acronyms and other abbreviations can get so ridiculous that we inadvertently leave parents out of the conversation (though sometimes I think it is on purpose). Imagine you are a parent and hear a teacher say the following: “In core, when responding to a prompt, your child writes with more confidence than the NWEA assessment would have you believe.” Now imagine that you are a parent who did not grow up speaking English. Do you ask the teachers to use words that you understand or do you just smile and nod because you are embarrassed that you don’t understand? After sitting through many such meetings, I have yet to see a parent ask a teacher to speak more plainly.

I have to laugh when our language moves so fast we leave our own colleagues out. When No Child Left Behind turned into NCLB, it took me a few minutes to catch on. It took me months, though, to realize that when administrators were suddenly talking about Nickelbee, they weren’t talking about a Charles Dickens novel, but were again talking about No Child Left Behind. I don’t know why these things morph so much. Is it because saying No Child Left Behind to a teacher is like showing garlic to a vampire? Or is it an educator’s way of letting everyone know that they are on top of the latest thinking?

I’ve been thinking a lot about NCLB lately. Before I rip it apart, I have to say that I understand why it came about. When I became a teacher in 1992, nine years before NCLB, I was handed a huge binder full of Xeroxed lessons from different places. There were so many lessons that I couldn’t possibly get through half of them in a year. There were no standards for what the average 8th grade student in our district should learn. There was not even a list of lessons they should definitely do. There was not a list of what all kids in the state should know, just a framework with ideas about what was appropriate to learn at different levels. There were national science standards, but those were more about big ideas without grade levels.

People in education weren’t being insane or lazy. The thinking was this: kids learn best when they are interested in what they are doing. To give kids a lifelong interest in science, don’t worry about teaching them simple facts. Instead, work on projects that get them excited and interested. They’ll learn science that way. And they did.

On the other hand, this way of learning science could not be standardized easily and could not be tested easily on a multiple choice test. Furthermore, I could not assure a high school science teachers that yes, all students in 8th grade in our district will come to you having learned this or that. This let a lot of bad teachers slip through the cracks. It is understandable, then, that a lot of people thought that standards, where every kid in the state is supposed to learn the same thing, were a good idea. It is also understandable that science teachers, who probably knew best what interested and challenged their students, were less than thrilled to be given a list of mostly uninteresting things to teach.

This was not all bad. I remember going to my first statewide conference after standards were written. It was kind of exhilarating to go into a room full of other 8th grade science teachers where every single one of us had the exact same problem: how do we make density interesting to 8th graders. Around the same time, the internet became a tool we all started using, so teachers were sharing their lessons and speaking the same language.
I and others have worked hard to still make science exciting and interested. At our school, we build hot air balloons to help understand density and we make ice cream to help understand phase changes. And, to make our chemistry unit more interesting, we are about to start a unit on global warming. It can be done with a lot of work.

Why do I join all (and I do mean all) of my colleagues in hating NCLB, then? That’ll be in part 2.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

All things considered, I think it was probably immediately apparent that the administrators weren't talking about Charles Dickens. I would even doubt that most English teachers are talking about Charles Dickens.

I've always thought the purpose of most jargon and abbreviations is exactly what you suggest: to exclude and intimidate. This is true of most art criticism too.

I'm looking forward to Part 2. . .

Libby Fife said...

Can't wait for part 2 either. As for abbreviations and the like, don't most small children have their own secret language? Oh dear, I don't want to malign small children. Maybe it is just information overload and a way of coping? Maybe it really is designed to exclude?

Another great post-information that I wouldn't normally be privy to-thank you again.