The Great Neck Parks film at Great Neck house this weekend was “Beyond The Blackboard,” (2011), an amazing true story of a young teacher thrust into an impossible task of teaching homeless children in Salt Lake City in 1987 without the benefit of desks, textbooks or any other teaching materials.
All I could think about is that that teacher who was so brave, so dedicated, who turned these kids’ lives around, wouldn’t last a term – not because of the difficult environment or the challenge of teaching homeless kids of all grade levels in a one-room schoolhouse setting, but because she would be constantly monitored, her kids’ test scores would be used to throw her out. She wouldn’t have the luxury of experimenting with different projects or teaching styles to engage the students, who spanned the spectrum of abilities and background. Instead, she would likely be forced to keep to a script, a precise schedule so that at 9:43 am she would have to switch from reading to math, and at all times keep her “teaching point” to 7 minutes.
Isn’t it interesting that all the best (true) stories set in school have the teacher in defiance of the administration? Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase, Stand by Me.
All of these stories involved teachers who went into their own pockets to provide materials for their students, who came early and stayed late, who used unconventional methods to spark the learning process and ignite an interest in learning. They brought their passion and their personal concern for their students to put them on a right track.
I would bet each one of these heroes would be fired today, because of the mathematical impossibility of all the students making “substantial” improvements on the battery of standardized tests.
Just this week, Mayor Bloomberg said that the city would only give tenure to teachers who showed “at least two years of significant gains” in student achievement.
But the teacher doesn’t have the same students for years at a time, and to suggest that one year’s crop is the same as another year’s crop is to deny the reality that children are individuals, who each come with their unique issues.
In 2004, a Queens middle school principal, still reeling from his school being put on the NCLB watch list because the school was a few kids over the mark that made special education a category that missed the target, told teachers they were no longer allowed to refer students for special education, in order to avoid having that category. You see, a school could be succeeding in every other way, but even if it misses the target in just one of the categories, it can be designated as a “failing” school under NCLB,
The result in this school was that classrooms, already overcrowded, were under the tyranny of out-of-control students who should have been in special education settings and the teachers were blamed for being incapable of maintaining control. (The principal retired the next year, and was replaced by a businesswoman who went through Bloomberg’s fast-track principal program).
No Child Left Behind made Accountability, not learning, the crucial component underlying public education. And how do you measure accountability? With tests. Lots of them. In fact a multi-billion dollar industry was spawned by the Accountability movement.
Even here in Great Neck, teachers are unable to do the creative projects that so inspired generations of students because of the demands and time constraints of an endless battery of tests.
The teaching model now requires teachers to test as they teach, to determine if the student “got it” point by point.
And what if the student did not “get it”? How is there time to re-teach? And what is being taught?
We now have a crop of students who have spent just about all their school years under the thumb of No Child Left Behind. And you know what? The United States continues to fall behind other nations. The US now ranks 14th out of 34 countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.
Could the rising level of poverty in the United States be a factor? Nearly one in six Americans was living in poverty last year, and 22% of children, one million more children between 2009 and 2010, alone), the budget pressures on municipalities to raise revenues to pay for education, and the inability to expand, not reduce, early childhood education.
The only way results seem to “improve” is when, like New York State, the pass rates are lowered ( a yo-yo effect that seems to coincide with political campaigns).
And now, with teachers’ careers (involving hefty investment in earning the degrees needed for certification), and their livelihood increasingly dependent upon making the grade, why would a teacher put themselves “out there”?
They wouldn’t. In fact, as stories have reported, the so-called “miracles” in education, from Houston to Atlanta to Washington DC were all frauds. New York State is using “erasure analysis” to investigate cheating, according to a recent New York Times article.
Everyone else in the world knows the value of education, especially developing countries.
“Economists are always looking for a shortcut between developed and developing countries,” said Mhammed Abbad Andaloussi, Chairman and CEO, Injaz Morocco, who was just honored with a Citizen of the World Award at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative for fostering collaboration between businesses and school communities.. “I am convinced this shortcut exists: excellent education.”
It is notable that Morocco has a high rate of graduation, but graduates are ill-equipped for their jobs because of schooling that failed to teach the skills needed in the 21st century economy. As a result, unemployment among young people is now 40%.
We presently have a similar crisis in America, with extraordinarily high rates of unemployment among college graduates. There are many reasons – including the economic incentives for companies to move jobs abroad and the fact that people cannot afford to retire, so there are fewer openings – but we should be seeing more of the creativity, invention and entrepreneurism that made the United States a global leader and an economic superpower and provided an engine for jobs creation, has been stunted.
Increasingly, the demand on our students is not to be able to recite specific data, or find a solution that conforms to an expectation, but to know how to find information, process it, and apply information.
How do they test for that? How do you test for creativity, for out-of-the-box thinking? You can’t and they don’t.
New York State is increasingly forcing schools and teachers to teach a conforming curriculum, leaving little room for creativity, for subjects that excite students – like when our sons took on the role of a pioneer on the Oregon trail (how heartbroken I was when his son died along the way), or became Toulouse Lautrec (a project which taught research methods, biography, art, communication and presentation skills all at once), or created an imaginary country (geography, ecology, map skills).
Like it or not, the accountability movement pushes public education to a lowest common denominator of education, rather than a higher level of achievement.
It warrants a reminder that George W Bush, as Governor of Texas, blocked President Bill Clinton’s attempt to implement national education standards, insisting on state control. But once in the Oval Office, Bush pushed through No Child Left Behind. Why would that be? Because it was seen as the right-wing’s way of deconstructing public education, to push school choice, vouchers, provide a mechanism to divert public (tax) money into for-profit charter schools (remember KIPPS Academy at the Republican National Convention in 2000?), to destroy teacher unions, steer billions of dollars to Bush’s buddies at McGraw-Hill and the other test publishing companies, and a way to the grand prize, public funding of parochial schools.
NCLB is constructed so that even the best schools will fail: by2014, 100% of students have to meet or exceed standards – that is regardless of whether the student just entered the country and had never attended school anywhere (let alone in the US) before, whether the child has emotional, physical or mental disabilities.
What other enterprise can you think of that has that kind of accountability? Certainly not Congress. Not even the medical or legal professions.
The Obama Administration has not won many friends among teachers for furthering the Accountability Movement, which basically makes classroom teachers responsible when students do not make the mandated gains, no matter what the reason.
His approach has been a Race to the Top-style competition – the theory being that the best ideas will come to the fore. But think about it: the most successful schools get funding, and the neediest do not.
Still, Obama deserves credit for pushing to reform NCLB, and fed up with Congress’ refusal to act (what else is new?), he is acting unilaterally to give the Department of Education the ability to issue waivers to states.
“Now, it is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow,” Obama said last week. “But today, our students are sliding against their peers around the globe. Today, our kids trail too many other countries in math, in science, in reading. And that’s true, by the way, not just in inner-city schools, not just among poor kids; even among what are considered our better-off suburban schools we’re lagging behind where we need to be. Today, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t finishing high school. We have fallen to 16th in the proportion of young people with a college degree, even though we know that 60 percent of new jobs in the coming decade will require more than a high school diploma.
“And what this means is if we’re serious about building an economy that lasts –- an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle-class jobs -– we’ve got to get serious about education. We are going to have to pick up our games and raise our standards.”
Obama is trying to give public schools (and the municipalities that fund them) relief: the American Jobs Actwould put thousands of teachers back to work all across the country and modernize at least 35,000 schools.
“Congress should pass that bill right now,” Obama said. “We’ve got too many schools that are under-resourced, too many teachers who want to be in the classroom who aren’t because of budget constraints, not because they can’t do the job.” Good luck with that.
But that still leaves the draconian – and I would say misguided and punitive – NCLB, which undermines public education, rather than elevates it.
Obama has called upon Congress to fix the problems with NCLB, but, this Congress has been consistent on only one thing: failure to do anything to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
So Obama is acting unilaterally to give states more flexibility.
“The goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserves credit for that,” Obama said. “Higher standards are the right goal. Accountability is the right goal. Closing the achievement gap is the right goal. And we’ve got to stay focused on those goals.
“But experience has taught us that, in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them. Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test. Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out. And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom instead of a Race to the Top. They don’t want to get penalized? Let’s make sure that the standards are so low that we’re not going to be seen failing to meet them. That makes no sense.
“And these problems have been obvious to parents and educators all over the country for years now….Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far. I’ve urged Congress for a while now, let’s get a bipartisan effort, let’s fix this. Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will. Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting.
“So starting today, we’ll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards. Keep in mind, the change we’re making is not lowering standards; we’re saying we’re going to give you more flexibility to meet high standards. We’re going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future. Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee -– but every student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what state they live in.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability. In fact, the way we’ve structured this, if states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards, that prove they’re serious about meeting them. ..
“We can’t afford to wait for an education system that is not doing everything it needs to do for our kids. We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn’t have the courage to recognize what doesn’t work, admit it, and replace it with something that does. We’ve got to act now. We’ve got to act now and harness all the good ideas coming out of our states, out of our schools. We can’t be tied up with ideology. We can’t be worrying about partisanship. We just have to make sure that we figure out what works, and we hold ourselves to those high standards. Because now is the time to give our children the skills that they need to compete in this global economy.”
As I was writing this column, Great Neck Public Schools Superintendent Tom Dolan was in Albany listening to Commissioner King discuss what the opportunity for “flexibility” in meeting the requirements of NCLB would mean.
“I hope that the state does pursue it as I believe it will begin to create some long awaited flexibility for our schools,” he wrote back in an email response to my questions. “It also acknowledges the reality of our efforts at getting all students to meet standards, with appropriate deliberate attention.
“The first round of applications is due in Washington on November 15.I hope that the state will file their application in that first round. That would demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in this regard.”
Fran Langsner, the Vice President of the Great Neck School Board who has been our representative to Washington and Albany, reflected, .” I do expect [New York State] to seek a waiver, but I don’t know how much freedom will be given to the individual districts regarding compliance. I am hopeful that the requirement that all students be 100% proficient by 2014 will be modified, which will be good for Great Neck. You know that I have always been fearful of that impossible goal. I remain confident that the way we approach curriculum allows our students to master the content they will be tested on without too much reliance on “teaching to the test”, but I know that test prep takes place as well.”
The two essentials in my view are small-class size and great teachers, who are passionate and dedicated to their task and instill a love of learning in their students.
Making curricula more rigid, using stringent measures of accountability, and turning schools into a prison of the mind and body, are not the way to cultivate the skills or abilities that will be needed in the future.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stated, “Some of what the administration proposes is promising, some is cause for concern, and there are missed opportunities that could have enhanced both teaching and learning.
“We are pleased that the administration’s proposal includes more options prospectively for improving low-performing schools, recognizing that many of the remedies prescribed in NCLB were not flexible enough. The proposal also acknowledges the importance of adopting higher college- and career-ready standards, which could include the Common Core State Standards, to prepare kids for a 21st-century knowledge economy.
“However, after all we’ve learned about how to construct and implement meaningful teacher evaluation and development systems since Race to the Top was announced two years ago, we’re disappointed that the lessons learned are not evident in this package. Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused. Successful school districts in the United States and in the top-performing nations understand that teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it’s a missed opportunity not to follow their lead.”
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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