Sunday, September 16, 2007

I'm not an NCLB hater, but...

I am not an NCLB hater. Considering the title of this blog, and considering how many teachers feel about No Child Left Behind, that might be surprising, but I actually believe the program has some value. And I say that as a teacher in a school that is somewhat under the gun as a result of NCLB.

Our school district in Warroad, Minnesota has now failed to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress goals in math two years in a row. When we missed it the first year, we made a lot of excuses. We said the test didn't matter to the kids, we said a lot of our kids weren't taking the higher maths, and we said the test was unreasonably hard. This year no one is hearing any excuses. What we are hearing is an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Despite the excuses last year, our administration and the people in our math department were scrambling to figure out what the problem or problems were so they could fix them, and those efforts have even been increased this year. Would that be happening if there was no NCLB? I doubt it, and there is no way that it would be going on with the present intensity.

I am not a knee-jerk critic of NCLB, but there are a couple of things that I absolutely hate about it, and they are basic to the program. The first thing I hate is the impossible goal that it sets for schools--that one hundred percent of our students should be proficient on state tests by 2014. One-hundred percent proficiency! If we were dealing with robots that might be possible, but we're not. We're dealing with real people with minds of their own and free will, and there is always going to be someone who just has no desire to learn. Maybe somewhere out there in suburbia there's someplace named Perfectville, and schools there have a chance of meeting that goal, but the most of us will NEVER have one-hundred percent proficiency.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have challenging goals. In 1961, President Kennedy pledged that the nation would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade. Many thought that was impossible, but President Bush's one-hundred percent proficiency goal is the equivalent of Kennedy saying that we would conquer the speed of light and engage in time travel. Had he set that as a goal, we probably would have never made it to the moon.

Even Jay Greene, a strong proponent of NCLB, concedes that it sets an impossible goal. In fact, he defends NCLB by saying that the one-hundred percent proficiency goal by 2014 is so ridiculous that everyone should know that no one is really serious about it. Therefore, he argues, it shouldn't be used as an argument against NCLB. If that is the case, then people like President Bush and Margaret Spellings should come out and publicly revise that goal--drastically. Instead they both continue to promote it.

I wonder if people like Bush or Spellings understand the effect of their defense of that ridiculous goal. First of all, it plays right into the hands of our complaint that non-teachers simply don't understand what actually goes on in real classrooms. It also feeds into the distrust that people in public education have for Republicans. Many of us suspect that what Republicans really want is to privatize education, or at least, to create a full-scale voucher system. When a goal is created that is impossible to meet, and a plan is set up to use vouchers to punish schools that don't meet that goal, it seems to confirm that suspicion. And Jay Greene's saying, "Ah, don't worry. They're just kidding!" doesn't make us feel a lot better.

I have one other major criticism of NCLB. I hate the name! I'm aware of the oft repeated criticism that public schools and teachers aren't accountable and they don't want to be, so I really am trying to be open-minded about No Child Left Behind. But that name makes it very difficult. The image it conjures up of uncaring schools with all those lazy, incompetent teachers leaving eager students behind makes me want to throw-up. School has begun again, and during the last two weeks I've been reminded just how "eager" some of those poorly performing students are. Although our school is far from perfect, there is no question in my mind that nearly every one of our so-called "left behind" students during the years I've been here were their own worst enemies. They weren't left behind; it was impossible to get them to come along.

I know that there are those who think the major problem in our education system is bad instruction, and although I disagree with them on the degree, I have to acknowledge that in many places poor instruction is part of the problem. Our school needs to improve it's math program, and right now, I'm less than impressed with my sophomores' reading skills. Maybe we've got a problem there, too. Nevertheless, I think all but the most die-hard critics of public schools would acknowledge that student motivation is at least part of the problem. And yes, better instruction, especially at the younger levels, would lead to fewer attitude and motivation problems as students get older, but anyone who thinks it would wipe it out completely is living in dreamland.

Schools and teachers spend more time and effort trying to bring along the "left behind" kids than anyone else. A good argument could be made that we spend too much time on them. I just spent half a Saturday preparing progress reports for my low performers, and I expect more paperwork, and phone calls and meetings to follow. There will be very little of that for my high and medium performers. I probably should send progress reports to their parents, too, but I only have so much time. And there is nothing unusual about the way I do things; nearly every other teacher will tell you the same story. Believe me, low performers are not doing poorly because teachers and schools are "leaving them behind."

Our public schools need to improve. I think NCLB is a motivating force in that, and that's a good thing. But students have to be an active participant in their own learning, and some refuse to do that. It is the parents responsibility to send their kids to school ready to learn, and some of them aren't doing that. So sure, go ahead and do whatever can be done to make teachers and schools accountable, and do whatever can be done to motivate them to improve. But please, change the damned name!


Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

Excellent post!

I'd like to see General Motors or Microsoft come out with products that are 100% perfect. Can't be done.

I've often thought that we aren't leaving these kids behind, but darn it, their parents are doing their darndest to drag them down and hold them back.

9/17/2007 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Cranky said...

I think NCLB also tends to push resources in the wrong direction. Imagine if your investment strategy was to take the poorest performing companies in each sector, and then pour money into them in hopes they'd do something great for the economy. It is an absolute crime that a tiny fraction of education spending is directed towards the bright and eager to learn, while the those basically unable or unwilling to learn are lavished with attention. This goes on at the classroom level as well--every time a teacher has to take time to motivate or harass a student who won't do his work is time taken from another student who could learn more. The educational establishment needs to understand that time, like money, is a finite and scarce resource, and trade-offs occur. All of this exacerbated by the ridiculous one size fits all curriculum that assumes increasingly that ALL children are college bound. Maine required the SAT of all students last year (driving down the national averages); Kentucky will do the same with the ACT this spring.

9/17/2007 5:20 PM  
Blogger Richie said...

Loved what you had to say about NCLB. So on target. Odd that my post this week was on the same subject ( from a humorous perspective and, of course, not nearly as eloquent

9/18/2007 7:01 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you Mrs. Bluebird. I know some get tired about teachers complaining about parents, but we really do need parents to do their jobs in order for us to be effective. Once in a while we can save someone from a crappy home, but we can't be expected to do that with any regularity.

Cranky, I think I do as much as anybody to make it possible for low-performers to be successful, but I basically agree with you. There was a post dealing with this type of thing at TMAO's recently, and the post and the comments made someone with this point of view look pretty bad. It seems to me that we do an awful lot to reward kids with lousy attitudes.

Richie, I loved your post. My wife runs the Weight Watchers program in our town, so I'm familiar with the frustration of the "large behinds," too. I think she does a great job, and Weight Watchers is generally considered the most effective weight loss program, but it's a good thing they aren't expected to have a 100% success rate.

9/20/2007 2:59 AM  

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