Posted by: schooleducator | May 4, 2009

NCLB – Keep Your Hands Clean

Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling congratulates the work of No Child Left Behind in today’s Washington Post (No Child In Action), noting an increase in test scores since the law’s inception in 2002. This is like schools that pat kids on the back for washing their hands after going to the bathroom. It is a fundamental expectation, though one that rarely gets lauded in schools. Even when kids show their hands for inspection, with clear evidence of cleanliness, the response of teachers is not to pull out a gold medal to wrap around the child’s neck. Instead, teachers acknowledge the positive behavior, and encourage more of it.

Spelling balks at the notion that policy makers should shift their focus to higher standards and international benchmarks, and instead urges more attention to “turn around the schools that don’t meet minimal standards.” Again, that’s like focusing on the child that doesn’t wash his hands in the bathroom. Schools need to install corrective measures, but they also cannot lose sight of the kids that are doing the right thing. The same applies to NCLB. Spelling mistakenly links accountability with teachers and principals who adhere to and comply with the strictures of No Child Left Behind. Of course, all educators want students to be able to read and write, and perform basic math, but the pooling of resources to shore up lagging school and teacher performance premised on standardized testing aimed at the lowest common denominator only further cements a middle child syndrome in education. Teachers grow fearful and feel strangulated by the test benchmarks, when in some cases, a child might have a bad day or even implode the test on purpose. In one case, a student wrote poetry in place of essays on an Advanced Placement exam just to spite his teacher. The student received a “1” on the exam. Should that teacher be put on probation? No. The problem with testing is that it is one small snap shot of a child, over a few hour period, instead of a complete picture of their daily activity in the classroom over the course of ten months. The more effective way to combat dwindling school performance is to devise a comprehensive teacher evaluation system, with multiple visits in the classroom, comprised of teams of colleagues and principals. The teams observe the teacher at work, but also gauge the level of student engagement and learning, through the course of a lesson or unit of study. The teacher’s ability to motivate and construct meaningful learning through careful questioning instead becomes the metric by which teachers are judged in their ability to bolster student achievement.

In the movie, “Teachers,” starring Nick Nolte, one of the classrooms depicted highlights the challenges of measuring teacher efficacy. Ditto, the nickname of the teacher famous for having handouts lined up on his desk in the classroom, runs a well-oiled machine in that students enter class each day, pick up the handouts, work on and complete them in class, and then return them at the end of class, while Ditto reads his newspaper. The students know exactly what they are supposed to do and they do it. He has created independent learners. Finally, after several days, a student notices that the handouts have not changed and the piles have thinned, yet Ditto remains in his desk chair reading the newspaper. One of the students approaches Ditto, only to learn that he has died.

In one major way, Ditto is a great teacher. He has cultivated a classroom of independent learners, with clear expectations, and accountability. The students know they have to turn in the handouts at the end of class and that Ditto will mark them up. Maybe Ditto’s students would ace the NCLB metric for achievement. They are doing desk work, learning how to fill in sheets, and recognizing that they will be evaluated on their ability to follow directions. Higher order thinking, reasoning, debate, and writing are not part of Ditto’s repertoire, but dutiful obedience is. Sadly, that’s what NCLB dictates.

What NCLB needs is a good hand-wringing to wash away the germs of standardized testing.

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