Can learning survive NCLB?

Published 6:40 pm Sunday, August 24, 2008

By Staff
We are days away from the start of a new school year.
Kindergarteners will be arriving for their first day of the “big school” while 12th-graders look ahead to their “last year.” Many, like my son, are somewhere in the middle of that 13-year stretch. What can they expect? Look at the Pirates: Skip Holtz has been watching how each of his team members respond to the challenges and opportunities they face in a game. Or politics: Obama and McCain face off answering an hour of questions about faith, politics and the issues that will face the next president. Now, think of our children: Will they meet an educational world that engages them directly and deeply in learning to observe carefully, think critically, question and surmise any best choice of action in a given situation? Or will it be more of what we have seen: Teaching to the test as teachers and schools fight against the unfair guidelines and requirements of No Child Left Behind?
Have you wondered why every candidate for president who has come across the national stage this year has promised to either change NCLB drastically or scrap it entirely? Our federal government has seized control of curriculum and teacher hiring in such a way as to disrupt substantially the processes of education and learning at the local level everywhere in the name of accountability, but it has refused to adequately fund the program, or think carefully through the actual consequences. These actions make the subsequent demands on teachers and students unfair and irresponsible.
At the same time, the testing aspect of this law has gotten out of control. The demand that within a few years everyone be above average is not only illogical, it is virtually impossible. That sort of talk used to be a joke on Lake Woebegone. Now, it simply causes our current president and education policy to look more and more ridiculous. Teachers, one of the most under-valued and under-paid professional group of experts, with our most precious possessions in their charge, must scramble for ways to get children’s test scores constantly rising, hoping against reason that either everyone will soon be above average or a new president with some intelligence will step in and take over this federal fiasco. Fortunately, November will bring change. No wonder Congress put a hold on revising the law until another session, most likely with a new president elected and a more sensible direction set. What do we, as parents and educators, do in the meantime?
In the years I spent teaching reading in two counties in North Carolina recently, I witnessed the increasing pressure on teachers and students to out perform from one test session to the next. As a result of this outside pressure, curriculum is becoming increasingly narrowed, “test prep,” a daily occurrence, “practice testing” with model tests (provided no less by our state education department), a regular fixture. Any test that is properly designed will give you a reasonable measure of your targets without specific preparation for the test itself. In fact, any professional knows that if a given research project involved teaching directly to the measure used, it would be thrown out as worthless. Why do we allow such worthless guidance for teachers in our classrooms?
We have already had the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests for many years, and, using a sampling procedure, it has done a fine job without being as invasive as current practices. Now, curriculum is growing unnecessarily more and more test-bound, tied tight with the hardening leather straps of Average Yearly Progress. Workbook companies are making profits. In-service professional development workshops include more and more test-prep directions, test score-growth expectations … manuals on “how to teach to the test.”
Why demand this waste of time for children and for teachers? Why do we allow such degradation of the excellent professional training and experience of our teachers that they are forced to use methods and materials that are against the best professional judgments? It is no wonder more teachers are choosing to leave the field, either in their first few years in the profession or through early retirement. How can we let misguided federal policy push out many of the best teachers for our children?
School begins soon, and with it return my fears about a road poorly chosen. Politicians and educational leaders tell us the No Child Left Behind law was established to make schools accountable for letting some children slip through without learning, but it has done little to support learning. While requiring schools to hire more specifically and better-trained teachers, the law at the same time ignores the professional qualifications of teachers and takes away their freedom to teach. The tightly controlled reading curriculum outlined by No Child Left Behind was created on the basis of a report by a Congressional panel of experts, not one of whom had any experience teaching children to read. Not one. They were mostly university professors, administrators, doctors and, oh yes, one teacher. When one professor resigned before the panel began work, another member requested that they replace that person with someone who actually taught reading. This request was denied. Now, if that is not an attempt to “load” a panel, I don’t know what is.
It was a political gimmick to change the name of the education title program providing federal funding for schools with children in need to No Child Left Behind. Remember identification of “Title 1 need” is based on low income, yet NCLB brought with it continuous testing but little funding. Will this change after November? There is confusion in McCain’s camp about whether the act is properly funded or not, but he would likely keep the program pretty much as is. Obama, on the other hand, will definitely take a good hard look at it and would likely change it for the better. He has made clear that it is not adequately funded as it is and, indeed, has achieved little more than guide curriculum into a test-prep mode.
Now we, parents and educators, should all agree that this test-driven approach to learning is outrageous. We should not be so easily cowed by an authoritarian and misguided federal authority. If we cannot address issues of our children’s learning intelligently and critically, what can we possibly expect for their futures? And what do you think our children will say to us when they are “all grown up” and find out? Let us not wait for that. Let us stand ready to challenge misguided pursuits of federal legislation against our children’s learning.
Thomas A. Caron, Ph.D., both parent and educator, is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, East Carolina University, and parent of an 11-year-old in a Beaufort County public school.