Saturday, September 24, 2011

Revised-No Child Left Behind

     A couple of days ago, President Obama issued revisions to the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation from the Bush Administration. This was sold to Congress and the public as a way to force schools to teach to rigorous standards, and to pay attention to all subgroups, especially minorities and the learning disabled - both noble goals.

     I have always asserted that the actual goal of NCLB was to force states to opt out of receiving all federal money, especially Title I, so that they would not be labeled as "failing" and risk takeover when scores did not reach the impossible goal of 100% proficiency in math and English for all subgroups by 2014.  This mass opt-out would enable the Republicans to get rid of the department of education and shrink the federal government.  I stand by that assertion today.

     NCLB has forced schools to pay attention to their subgroups, and that is its one positive effect, but it has also fostered a culture of test prep mania that has pushed creativity and critical thinking (neither of which can be measured on a multiple choice test) out of public education.  

     Private, parochial and home-schooled students can be as creative and think as critically as their instructors want them to.  They can explore larger ideas, without worrying that they will not be able to bubble the correct answers on some generic skills test, while public school students are relegated to the role of drones.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Colors

     The two young men enrolled within days of each other.  The first wore a little blue.  In any other school, that blue might not have been noticed. In mine, it was enough to make him a target.  The second young man wore a profusion of red, far more than the rules permitted, but sufficient to proclaim his status in the local 'hood.

     On the day "First" arrived, a few weeks into the semester, I welcomed him to class as he handed over his program card for signature.  After writing his name into my rollbook, I looked up and my eyes met his.  I had read at least one account of the Holocaust in which the writer described some of the camp inmates as walking dead, men whose souls had died and who were just waiting for their bodies to catch up.  This is what I saw in "First's" eyes.

     Many students in urban, inner-city schools carry an enormous amount of pain from the poverty, drug abuse, violence, and death they have witnessed. You can see it in their eyes.  Not in "First's."  In the few short weeks he attended my school, he came to class most days.  Each day, I made a special effort to speak to him, to transmit a small amount of care and kindness.

     One day, he was gone, and I learned that he had been transferred back to his previous school, where it was safe for him to wear blue.  About two weeks later, riots broke out, and on that first night, as the names of those killed scrolled down the TV screen, one name popped out: "First's."  He had been standing outside, near his house, when a stray bullet killed him.  His body had finally caught up.

     "Second's" eyes were even scarier.  I had read a news article about a teen who killed and then went out for a hamburger.  At his trial he referred to his victim as "the dude who got shot."  That was "Second's" affect.  Every day he came to class, I went out of my way to greet him politely.  If I called on him and he did not wish to answer, I moved on to the next student.

     Finally, the day before my birthday, "Second" stopped coming to class.  I would see him on campus almost every day, and each time would greet him by name, tell him how glad I was to see him, and express the hope that he would come to class later.  He never did, and I did not report him to security, who finally caught him wandering around, up to no good.  He was "transferred."

     I still think about both of them, how they ended up in my class at the same time, or how either would have hurt or killed the other based on the colors they each wore.  It makes no sense to me, but I do not inhabit their universe.  The question for the larger society remains how to pull these alienated young people back into a larger, more coherent community.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Real skills or fake praise?

     John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach said, "Never mistake activity for achievement."  When my students say, "But I'm doing my work," in a half or full whine, while patently not doing much if any work at all, I wonder what they must be thinking.  Do they really believe that they are accomplishing the task at hand, or are they so accustomed to being praised for just showing up that they believe it to be sufficient?

      When I conferenced with one student recently to explain how her response to an essay prompt measured up against a rubric used statewide, she became agitated at even the gentlest explanation of how her work only scored 2 out of a possible 6.  "Why are you hating on me," she complained loudly, even though the conference took place at my desk, out of earshot of the rest of the class.  

     Earlier in my career, I taught at a high school where most entering ninth graders had a reading level that measured between third and fifth grade.  A counselor explained that the students all thought they read well, because all their peers read equally badly.  When the state mandated an exit exam for high school graduation, a test normed at an eighth to ninth grade skill and reading level, students complained bitterly about its difficulty, because for the first time they were faced with a reality check that they could not tune out or ignore.

     I watch the students every time the exit exam is given, and I see the frustration and the despair on their faces as they realize they are going to fail, some for the first time, some yet again.  I know the solution, and tell them over and over how the kids who've completed my curriculum have all passed the big bad test.  We had that reality check today.  It will be interesting to see if it has any effect.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Teachers in Wisconsin are in open revolt, trying to prevent the governor and his minions from stripping away in one bill all the rights that public employees have won over the past 50 years. Why are they under attack by the Republicans? Now that the Supremes have ruled that corporations are people and can donate unlimited sums of secret money to political causes, those who stand to benefit most from those corporate donations are trying to shut off any funds that might be donated in opposition to corporate PACs.

It seems unlikely that the voters of Wisconsin knew what they were voting for when they handed over the entire state government to the Republicans. Or perhaps this election turned on the apathy of those who could not be bothered to get out and vote, and who are now shocked, shocked that their government has shown itself to be so radical and vindictive towards teachers and other public employees.

One of the provisions of the bill strips teachers of any participation in the decision making process in local schools. As practitioners, they will have no say in curriculum or anything else. They will be relegated to the role of factory workers.

As a comparison, consider an example cited in the film "Food, Inc." which looks at the meat packing industry over the history of this country. Meat packing was at first an extremely dangerous occupation, but through organizing and unionization became much safer and well paid - a true step into the middle class. Now, due to union busting by the meat cartels, it is once again horrifically dangerous, with low-wage workers risking life and limb while cutting meat on a fast moving line.

Before unions, teachers had no rights, could be dismissed for no reason, and did not earn much in salary or benefits. Today, teachers have protection from arbitrary dismissal, due process rights, better compensation, and health and retirement benefits.

Why are teachers targets now? One reason may be that we are dangerous because we try to teach children to think. How does one eliminate that type of teaching? Put in place a testing system that labels schools as failures if their students do not do well on exams that have nothing to do with creative or analytical thinking. Brilliant. Then target teachers, keeping them in such fear for their jobs that they will fall in line.

How is this good for education? It's not, but perhaps those who are engineering these changes in public education do not have open or honest agendas. Which children in this country attend public schools? Which ones are home schooled or attend private schools? Is there some correlation between the latter two and those who wrote the punitive testing laws and who now want to attack teachers? I think the answers might be surprising, and not in a good way.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts on Testing

The state test scores arrive, and most correlate to the level of work I've seen from the students who took the test. Three very low scores seem out of whack. I check the state exit exam results and find that all three students have easily passed, so I decide to investigate. After discussing the discrepancies with my administrator, we decide to call the students in one by one to find out why they scored at the lowest level on a test that politicians want to use to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

The first student arrives in a foul mood, admits to "being bored" and deliberately tanking the test, bubbling whatever, then taking a nap. Since her score will have no impact whatsoever on her ability to pass her classes and graduate, she feels no need to make any effort during the annoying state testing season.

The second student had been out sick before the test, but dragged herself in to take it, with negative results. Schools can be punished if not enough students show up for testing, but can also be punished if students that come to school ill score poorly, a lose/lose situation.

The third student breaks down in tears, saying her mom had thrown her out of the house right before the test and refused to speak to her. She had been an emotional wreck, and unable to focus on the test. Nor had her life improved, as she was still staying with relatives.

Now if I were being judged on test scores, theirs would have lowered my ranking considerably, no matter how hard I worked or what curriculum I used. Did I have even an ounce of control here? Obviously not, but neither the press nor the educrats are looking at students as individuals with problems to match, so the cold hard data rules.

I'm all about the story. If a teacher can raise scores, despite the hidden hells that overwhelm some students' lives, then good for that teacher. If not, we need to take the time and make the effort to truly understand why that student or those students did not or could not succeed on that test before we plaster labels on their teachers.

Hold me responsible for that which is within my control, but do not vilify or demonize me for what is not. Yes, teachers need to be evaluated, but there has to be a better way, one that does not treat students like widgets, but which honors their individuality.