Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We're Setting Our Schools Up to Fail

Whenever candidates start talking about education (which is, sadly, pretty rare), my ears perk up. As a teacher, I'm always interested in hearing what candidates have in mind for my profession, and I'm wary since the last time a candidate made education a priority, we were stuck with No Child Left Behind.

In theory, No Child Left Behind sounds beautiful. Who wouldn't want to make sure that our kids are being educated? What's my problem, then? Well, the real problem is that laws like NCLB are typically envisioned, created, and enacted by people with no teaching experience and who don't have a real understanding about how schools work, how teachers work, and how kids work. They tend to rely on measuring devices that those within the educational community recognize as being faulty or biased. They tend to carry an idealism that people in the profession know is most likely impossible. In the end, these types of laws tend to make impossible demands on people who are already working as hard as they can in an underfunded, underappreciated, overwhelmed profession.

Since its passage, NCLB has made the lives of teachers and students exceptionally more challenging. Put simply, NCLB requires students to go through a series of standardized tests throughout their educational career. Of those students, a certain percentage must meet or exceed a score which is considered acceptable. Each year, the percentage of students meeting those expectations must increase with the idea being that eventually, 100% of the students will meet those expectations.

In Illinois, high schools are evaluated on the basis of tests that all juniors take over the course of two days during the spring of their junior year. On day one, students take the Prairie State Acheivement Exam. On day two, they take the ACT. You read that correctly. In Illinois, part of what determines a school's "success" is the ACT, the same ACT you and I sweated over as we prayed for that magic score that would get us into the college of our choice. It was a rite of passage for the college bound student. It was tough. It was stressful. And now, it's taken by every single high school junior in the state of Illinois, whether they're college bound or not. It's a great idea to want every high school junior to be able to get a "passing" score on the ACT, but I think we all realize the impossibility of that -- particularly when you consider that we are talking about students with learning disabilities, students for whom English is not their first language (who take the test in English), and students who just aren't all that interested in going to college.

Another challenge with this testing situation is that, for the student, there are no incentives to do well. Even the college bound students go into it with sort of a shrug with plans to take the ACT again if they have to since this crack at it is free. I know many students who view this as their "practice run," figuring they'll retake it in the fall when it will "count." There is no grade attached to the test, so students feel no pressure to excel. For most of them, they just want the test to be over. While some students do understand that the test results affect the school, they either don't care, lacking the pride in their school to want their school to perform well, or they figure whatever repercussions come as a result of their low scores won't affect them since they'll be graduating in a year. (And yes, I have heard students say that.) Their worldview is so limited to that "it's all about me" philosophy that it's hard to convince them to look beyond that and consider the future. Of course, I'm not saying that all students are so selfishly motivated. There certainly are students who have the drive and self-incentive to do well, but the problem is that they are lumped in with the students who don't have that drive and those scores are the ones that can keep a school from meeting goals. Remember, that percentage has to keep going up until it reaches 100%, meaning that at some point, 100% of the kids taking the test have to care enough to do well. When it is ever possible to get 100% of a group of kids to do or agree with the same thing?
Remember, too, that it's a different group of kids taking the test every single year. As odd as this may sound to non-teachers, there are years when you have a particularly strong group of juniors only to be followed by a group that struggles more. I've found in my years of teaching that each class tends to have a definite personality. Right now at my school, we have a group of pretty apathetic seniors (who took the test last year), a group of pretty strong juniors (so high hopes for this year's testing!), a group of sophomores who are exceptionally low, and a group of freshmen who seem to be thugs. (We've had such an increase in fights this year -- almost all stemming from our freshmen and sophomores)
So a school fails to meet the goals -- what happens then? Well, initially, there is an increase in funding that comes with the stipulation that tutoring and other remediation be put into place to get those numbers up. At some point, though, when a school continues to fail, that money goes away and students get the option to go elsewhere for an education. Guess who's going to exercise that option to leave -- the students who excel. So we're taking these schools that are struggling (and it is rarely from a lack of effort on the part of the faculty) and stripping them of the students who could be instrumental in helping the school succeed. Do you think that school is going to have a chance in hell now of ever meeting those ridiculously unrealistic goals now?
I'm not saying here that there shouldn't be some sort of accountability for schools. I'm not saying we shouldn't be creating incentives for our schools to strive to make all of our students successful, but I also think we need to understand that the definition of success may be different for different students. It would be great if every student could get a 25 on the ACT, but it's not a realistic goal and it takes away the sense of pride and accomplishment that a special ed kid might feel in that hard fought for and earned 20.
I don't have the answers to helping our kids succeed. I do everything I can every single day to try to help my students become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers, but I also know that there are kids in my room who don't see the slightest bit of value in those skills I'm trying to sell them. I applauded Barack Obama's call Wednesday night for increased parental involvement in a child's education because I do think that is a huge factor in a child's success. I only have 49 minutes a day with my classes -- 49 minutes to share with them my passion for literature and to try to get them to wonder in the magic we get to share in when an author shares his/her creativity with us. If they go home, though, and spend 12+ hours with no access to books (you'd be shocked how many students tell me they live in houses with no books) and hearing messages that reading is stupid and pointless, whose message wins -- my 49-minute sales pitch or the 12+ hour immersion? Instead of no child being left behind, maybe we need to worry about making sure no family is left behind.


Peter said...

Folks, if you felt her concern and ardency in her words in this post, just imagine what it's like in person. I know, for I had the pleasure to hear Mel speak passionately about this in person when she visited on her birthday. The fact that she posted it makes me very happy. For people need to hear. I'm happy to say that many of my friends from college became educators. I'm proud of them. Obviously, it's not easy. I have a little experience with it, having been an intern at the Young Masters' Consortium for the Arts and a TA in college. It isn't easy. And then to have such weighty issues as Mel describes on top of the normal challenges? Good grief! Teaching is not in my blood, but thankfully it is in the outstanding people I have the privelege of calling friends.
Thank you, Mel. For this post. For being an educator. For caring.

Danielle Mari said...

From my seat in the classroom, I applaud the idea of pulling funding from schools that fail their students, and I have even less problem with firing ineffective teachers. The tough part of the NCLB equation, though, lies in the method of assessment- something you touch on here, Mel.

A famous quote derived from the corporate sector states that, "You get what you measure." NCLB's reliance on standardized test measures... what, exactly? Modern and progressive educational theorists posit that these tests measure nothing about a student's educational progress, instead measuring a student's ability to beat the tricks of the tests. Read any test prep book and note how few pages are devoted to academics and how many are devoted instead to testing strategy. In fact, more and more colleges and universities continue to eliminate standardized test scores from the admissions process, as studies show a less than 10% correlation between testing success and collegiate success (or for that matter testing failure and collegiate failure.) Does it seem obvious to anyone but us that while NCLB's intentions might be laudable, the methodology is all screwed up?

So, then, what to do? Personally, the answer seems pretty obvious to me. Authentic assessment. Assess each student's performance to the academic standards of the state (they're already there and usually seem pretty logical) by an analysis of the student's work in the classroom for, say, a week using standardized rubrics. Remeasure with the same tests at the end of the year and compare. Classrooms and schools that show trends of individual progress (measured against an individual's own results- not against some contrived watermark) elicit national recognition, grants, etc. Note that by measuring each student's personal progress, we come closer to eliminating bias against ESL students, LD students, and students from poorly funded areas with few resources. Theoretically, each student can show progress in comparison to where he started at the beginning of the year.

Even a school geared toward LD or ESL students can prove that its students finish the academic year with more knowledge than they had at the beginning of the year. Those schools have an opportunity to earn extra funding. With that success comes the responsibility of serving as an exemplary school, requiring that successful schools host struggling area schools for teacher-lead in-services, workshops, etc.

Schools not proving individual progress must visit schools that are successful and log x number of hours in professional development in order to obtain that extra funding.

I know, I know. Problems. Sounds like a lot of money. You'd have to pay teachers to either come in during vacations OR pay substitutes to manage classrooms during these teacher exchanges. More pay would have to be devoted to developing the workshops and funding the meetings themselves.

Sheesh. You're probably right. Much better to bail out Wall Street and to "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iraq." What was I thinking?

Mel said...

I agree that ineffectual teachers need to find another profession. According to NCLB, though, I'm probably an ineffectual teacher because our current crop of seniors did not meet NCLB's standards in reading.

Jen said...

Great post. I agree that NCLB creates an impossible situation, because even if we agreed that standardized testing was the best way to measure success (and I believe it does not), the goal is still not realistic. Kids are not widgets, and a good education doesn't turn out identically formed minds.

From a parent's perspective, I'd like to see less emphasis on the "Scantron" portion of education and more diversity in subject matter. Here in California the extreme emphasis on math and reading is driving out other subjects. I pity the students who might be strong in art and music but weak in the core subjects; when will they ever get a chance to feel successful during the school day? That feeling of competence in one area might help buoy them through a challenging math lesson, or even give a teacher a chance to draw a connection between a preferred subject and a less-preferred topic. This is not the situation I find my own kids in, thankfully, but I've seen their peers complain about "hating" school. My oldest is in 3rd grade! NCLB isn't leaving kids behind, it's running them over.