Thursday, July 15, 2010

No Child Left Behind?

Who hasn't heard of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) in education? On paper, the idea of "No Child Left Behind" is hard to argue against. After all, the creators of this legislation ask, "Don't we believe all children deserve an education?" and "Aren't all children able to learn regardless of ability? And, since this is true, don't we have an obligation to teach them and provide them 'quality' teachers?" Asking these questions in this way doesn't really allow anyone to answer, "No." After all, which children would we choose to "leave behind" and not educate? None. We'd be monsters to suggest such a thing.

If you're not familiar with NCLB it's a noble-sounding attempt to hold schools accountable and improve education. Unfortunately, the only real measure for success are standardized testing, the results of which are arguably unreliable as a measure of teacher quality and student improvement. These standardized tests do give information, but it's incomplete at best and often can be skewed or easily misinterpreted.

If you look closely at the way these tests are administered and the information presented, you might be confused. For example, the test scores from a third grade class in year one give us an idea of what is happening in that classroom that year. In year two, the same third grade class is tested and these results are used to measure how well the students and teacher did. Did the year two students/teacher improve, stay the same, or decrease in test scores?

In case you missed it, there is a very important problem with this. The third graders in year one are DIFFERENT STUDENTS than those in year two. The scores from the year one third graders are not used to measure the same students (who would likely be fourth graders in year two). The test scores from year one third graders are measured against the year two third graders, an entirely different set of students.

Does any logical, reasonable person not see a problem with this? If you have a really low third grade class year one, and a "better" class year two, then your scores increase. "Isn't that great? What a wonderful teacher!" If the opposite is true, your "good" class is year one, and your "lower" class is year two, then the result is, "Bad teacher! You failed your students and should be removed from the classroom."

How do schools prevent this? They simply ship out the students who are likely to bring down their scores. This is illegal, but there are many "legal reasons" a student may be "encouraged" to find a different school. Where do they go? They go to schools that already have low test scores. The result? Those schools are labeled "poor" and they continue getting worse. "Bad school! Bad teachers! You're all doing a terrible job with all the students that no other school wants. You should be fired!"

Originally, NCLB said "failing" schools should get extra funding to help them. This never materialized. The climate quickly became, "Remove funding from failing schools. Why waste money on loser teachers and loser schools?" Thus, the problem is actually accentuated.

Another example of how NCLB failed is this: Let's say a teacher inherits a student in their class who is several levels below where their grade says they should be in reading, writing, you know, the essentials. This teacher connects with the student and helps this student improve their skills greatly. In fact, this student actually improves two whole grade levels in one year! Fantastic! Right? Hell no! When this student takes their test, they still fall below their grade level. Even though the student has made marked improvement and this teacher has done some amazing work, the teacher is labeled a failure by the standard measure.

As a teacher in this environment I am either unmotivated to work, or I'm extra motivated to find one of those "legal reasons" to get rid of that low student. After all, my very job is being evaluated on how well these students do on these tests.

And, when teachers started complaining that NCLB was unfair not only to them, but to students, these teachers were accused of wanting to get rid of a needed accountability system and just keep being the slackers that they are.

Makes you want to be a teacher doesn't it?

Two news items caught my attention today. As a K-12 educator, my senses are naturally tuned to pick up information about our schools and about children/students in general.

The first news item was that teachers in Colorado will now be evaluated on how well students perform in their classrooms. Like NCLB, it sounds good on paper. Here's a quote from the article:

"Colorado was at the forefront of an effort to reward teachers who boost student achievement and to get rid of those who do not. After a bitter fight in the Legislature, the Colorado branch of the American Federation of Teachers helped broker a deal. Brenda Smith, president of an AFT local union in Colorado, says her members recognized it was time to stop resisting an idea whose time had come."

Just to be clear. Teachers like assessments. They see the value of assessing students and giving them feedback. That is the learning process. Teachers are not averse to reasonable, well-constructed assessment of the jobs they're doing. They want the feed back too. They're just averse to ridiculous measures that can get them fired even though they're doing exemplary work. Who wouldn't oppose that? The measure of "student achievement" is still somewhat hazy in this new legislation, but will likely include the same NCLB standardized tests.

The other news item that caught my attention was a radio interview with Dr. Richard Friedman about a study he did regarding "bad children" coming from "good parents". What?? The parent is always the reason a child turns out "good" or "bad", right? Not always. Sure there are terrible parents out there producing "bad" kids, but this study suggests that there are also at least adequate parents doing all they can with the result still being "bad" kids.

This topic obviously got lots of reactions, from all sides. There were those who said this type of study just gave bad parents a good excuse to continue being bad parents. The other reaction was relief from parents who really thought they did all they could and still felt guilty over their lack of success.

Why did this second story catch my attention as an educator? If parents are being recognized as "not always the reason" that children end up "bad" then shouldn't that same consideration be extended to teachers?

No training, no licensing, no anything is needed to become a parent. It's easy to argue that many parents are completely ill-suited to do the task well. Still, they can be parents. The results are what they are. Society takes no responsibility.

However, as soon as that child enters the school system that all changes. Suddenly, the teacher is held responsible for all that that child becomes.

Parents are abdicating their parental responsibilities more and more each day. Children go to "school" or "preschool" or "pre-preschool" at younger and younger ages. They go to school longer each day with before and after school programs growing exponentially. Parents are spending less and less time with their children. Teachers are spending more and more time with these same kids. If students don't do well, then parents get up in arms about the education system and the failure of these teachers. If kids don't learn or if their behavior is unacceptable, the failure belongs to the school. The parents take little ownership of any of this.

For some reason, our government has accepted this situation and agreed that teachers should be accountable for what students become in these scenarios. However, there has been no training nor funding to make these additional responsibilities reasonable. (Many would argue that no amount of money for schools nor training of teachers should allow the passage of parental responsibility from parent to teacher. I agree.). What has happened in actuality in schools is that teacher responsibilities have increased while funding has decreased.

Once again, what logical, reasonable person sees this as a good approach? No wonder our education system is in crisis! We've created a system that has no chance of winning.

I'm confused. I'm alarmed at these state of affairs. I'm now qualified to be labeled as one of those whining educators who want to wallow in their cushy jobs without accountability. After all, I probably became a teacher because I didn't have the skills to do anything else. I wanted an easy gig with a ton of vacation. Yep, I'm the slacker that you're mad at for not raising your children the way you think I should.

"Bad teacher! I should be fired!"