Saturday, February 21, 2009

No Child Left Behind, Part 2

Why teachers (and others in education) hate NCLB:

When No Child Left Behind became law, it was decided that it needed “accountability.” I have come to hate that word. In this case, that meant that each state had to develop a test. Then they had to develop a level that was “meeting standards.” And, of course, if your school does not meet standards there has to be a punishment. If you know any teachers, you may have heard them say, “My school is a P.I. school.” This means that they are under many threats because their school didn’t meet their adequate yearly progress (AYP). At first, it involves horrible amounts of paperwork, but in the end, the state can take over the school. Here is what this all means:

1. We lose about 5 days of school due to testing. At some schools, hours and hours are lost teaching kids testing skills before the test. Teachers have to take down any posters in the class that have information that might help students. My favorite is that I have to cover up my giant periodic table and hand out the official test periodic tables to students. Administrators then have to go room to room checking to make sure that nothing is left hanging that might help a student.
2. The test is multiple choice. Although multiple choice questions can be well written and test some deep thinking, these are not those kinds of questions. In fact, what is tested most are the most basic facts. These are easier to test and easier to teach, but not what most of us got into teaching to do.
3. However, some of the questions are good ones, and I’d love to discuss them with colleagues so that we can improve our teaching each year. I can’t, because we sign an affidavit, which says we will discuss the questions with no one.
4. A school can exhaust staff and students preparing for the test, get great scores, and then fail because one sub-population didn’t meet their AYP, even though all the rest did.
5. The tests are very stressful for younger kids. Many schools make sure they’re stressful for older kids by threatening to put them into remedial classes for low scores. I know a teacher who had to rebubble a second grade student’s test form because the child’s tears ruined the form.
6. Does your school have a large population of new immigrants? Not to worry! They have two whole years to learn English well enough to be judged against all other students. How would that work for you in a new country?
7. Many middle schools have disposed of all elective classes. This, when kids are at an age where they are trying to learn who they are and what they like. Electives have always given kids a chance to shine when they don’t do so academically. The thinking is that kids who have trouble with reading and math need to spend more time with those subjects, instead of spending time in classes that interest them in which reading and math are used for a reason.
8. It is not unusual these days to hear about a district deciding to close down schools to save money or because of declining enrollment. Then the decision about which schools to close down is made and (surprise) the P.I. schools just happen to be the ones that close down. The students don’t disappear, but the threats to take over the school does, and schools leave the neighborhoods where kids most need help.
9. Our state is in a financial crisis. The tests cost a fortune. And it’s not just the tests. Districts have paid for programs that are supposed to raise these scores and they have administration positions that never existed before that involve crunching data and suggesting new expensive ways to raise scores. Meanwhile, my biggest class size has gone from 32 last year to 38 this year.
10. We get scores and we are encouraged (actually commanded) to look at them and plan ways to raise our scores. However, we can’t compare our students this year to the same students the year before because an 8th grade test is not calibrated to a 7th grade test. We can’t compare state to state because standards and tests are different. We can compare school to school in the same state, but:
11. This is what I know from looking at test scores: if your school is in an area with people with lots of education and money, then your school will have high scores. It has nothing to do with the quality of teaching or if it is a “good school.” But this is so consistently true that if I were a real estate agent, I would throw out all statistics about home prices, income levels, crime, etc. and just look up school test scores to determine where the “good neighborhoods” are.

Then there are the long-term, more subtle results:
I have noticed improvements over the last seven years in students’ ability to perform simple math functions. But most of my 8th graders can’t use a calculator and most are afraid to come up with a way to test an idea and jump in and try it. They have been trained in simple calculations and facts, but creativity doesn’t get tested, so it is not being taught.

I have noticed improvements in the mechanics of writing. Spelling has improved, along with punctuation. But we’ve lost kids’ ability to express themselves in writing well. As an example, a student of mine, who is gifted in many ways, is applying for a special pre-college program at the high school. He has to write a three paragraph essay. This has totally thrown him. He only knows how to write a five paragraph essay. Before standards, almost all students in my school would be up to that task.

I work with a lot of newer, very hard-working teachers. Because of that, I become aware of their training, which will continue to affect kids long after NCLB is gone. I have to use another term I hate (due to overuse), but NCLB has taken away the empowerment that teachers used to have to make decisions in their own classrooms. After watching a lesson, I will ask a teacher what their goals were. Teachers who were trained before NCLB will say something like, “I wanted my students to understand differences among molecules because it will help them when we talk about global warming, which they are interested in. I wanted them to state their understanding because I have noticed that they have trouble speaking publicly.” Do you see what happened there? The teacher had given thought to why he was teaching the lesson and he knows his students’ interests and needs and incorporates them. Ask the same question of a post NCLB trained teacher, and you’ll get, “I’m going to teach molecules because that’s the next standard we’re covering.” It’s not that they care any less than the teachers from before. In fact, they probably know their students well, too, but they don’t feel that they have the power to make teaching decisions based on their students’ needs and interests.
By the way, I know that NCLB will go away soon, or at least undergo major revisions. This is why: It is mandated that, in 2014, all students will be proficient when tested. Let me repeat the funny part: ALL students will be proficient. You can look up your local school to see how many are proficient now: ( At my school, for example, 31% of our students are not proficient in science. That group includes a lot of students who are fairly new to English and some who have learning disabilities. At a school in a neighboring lower income district, 77% are not proficient in science. In both cases, all kids will never be proficient. All kids can show growth; all kids can learn. But all kids are never going to be able to do well on a standardized test. Some have visual problems; some are new to English; some are late bloomers; some don’t care enough to try hard. That just isn’t realistic, and the fact that lawmakers made this decision strikes me as completely cynical. When they came up with this idea, they knew that it would never happen. Could they have predicted the pressure we would be under to make this unrealistic number happen? That administrators would be hired to make us set goals based on proficiency by 2014? Common sense has to come into play eventually.

And that is why I hate No Child Left Behind and the President who thought it was such a good idea.


Libby Fife said...

What did we do before this? I remember being tested in grammar school every year(what was the acronym for that test?). I guess I would like to know a few things. Who are we competing against-what educational system and what countries? Is there any merit at all to standardized testing for such basics things as math skills, reading, and writing? Lastly, is it all just about money? Actually, this is my last question. What is the point of standardized testing if you can't compare state to state or 7th to 8th grade results? Oh and one last observation. I did notice that when I lived and worked in Moraga that those kids seemed to have some major educational advantages that I never had. They couldn't balance a checkbook or figure out how to withdraw money without an ATM card but hey, they could really play lacrosse and "do" Europe.

Thanks again for the post-as always, information that I just don't get on a regular basis.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

The thing about the periodic table is my favorite of your many excellent observations and points.

Though I'd like to know why you think common sense has to come into play eventually. . .

Anonymous said...

You should send your article to the newspapers. very well written with many, many good points. I'm serious. Send it to Letters to the Editor.

vicmarcam said...

Thank you, Libby, PJ and anon. I actually didn't expect anyone to slog through all that. The great thing about blogs is that you may write something because you need to get it off your chest, not expecting anyone to read it, and then someone does.
So, Libby, you ask so many good questions that they may need another entry, but here are some quick answers:
1. If we're competing against anyone at all, it would probably be the countries that participate in the TIMSS:
The link is for the participating countries. It is a pretty well respected test that takes place every three years. We don't do too badly on it, but there's major room for improvement. Be very wary of any article that you read that compares California to other states, since our standardized tests can not be compared.
2. There is merit to standardized testing. Parents like to know how their kids are doing. Occasionally a school pops up that does way better than expectations and they get studied and we find out things that should be obvious, but that aren't: high expectations along with building relationships with kids and their families lead to better learning.
3. I'm afraid, to a large extent, it is all about money. It won't surprise you that the Bush administration was involved in some shady stories involving "scientifically proven" expensive remedial programs. Google "Department of Education scandal" for information on this. The Reading First program, which is so awful that many teachers left their jobs over it (administrators, desperate to raise scores, actually believed that teaching directly from a script would work and forced teachers who knew better to follow the script every day), is a good example. There were so many other scandals that this one slipped under the radar.

Your Moraga observations: do not underestimate the power of having had some travel coupled with having your physical needs met. Add to that parents who not only talk about the value of education but live it every day, and you have the ingredients for high test scores. That's not to say that kids there don't have problems and that teaching there is without obstacles. Also, I'm afraid that not being able to balance a checkbook is now universal.

vicmarcam said...

PJ: Yes, I love the periodic table thing, too. Every year, when I balance on top of my lab tables to cover up the periodic table, and to take down my posters of the solar system, I imagine myself falling and becoming NCLB's first middle-aged victim.
Good news, though! We are allowed to keep motivational posters uncovered. Students are allowed to read things like, "Keep Working!" and "Don't Give Up."