NCLB, Las Vegas Part 3

Teachers did not design
No Child Left Behind.

  Part 3: For the next ten years or so, I continued to be involved with assessment and writing curriculum.  Beginning around 2004, 2005, the tectonic plates of my professional life began to shift, which had major ramifications for me personally.  Although No Child Left Behind, formerly referred to as That Which Shall Not Be Named, loomed large over public education, I don’t think anyone I knew took it too seriously. It was such a ridiculous law with obviously unattainable goals—100% of all students will read with proficiency by 2014— or how about the fact that there was no emphasis, no mention at all, of writing process in the mandate. The educators with whom I was connected assumed the NCLB would be overturned or radically changed fairly quickly. Obviously, after President Bush was reelected and Congress became even more divisive, it was clear the law would be around for quite some time. From what I can tell, it looks like President Obama’s Race To The Top is simply an extension of the No Child Left Behind law. Good intentions, unreasonable expectations, little to no teacher involvement in the development of either program.

My school district and that of my two daughters, both considered among the top public school districts in Missouri, seemed to suddenly become immersed in the mania of standardized testing. Perhaps they already had been since the inception of the law.  Maybe it was simply teachers like me who were just now recognizing that it would be directly impacting how and what we taught.  I did not have a problem with revamping the way we looked at student achievement and evaluating teachers in a more holistic manner. My frustration and anger were over the downright unattainable objectives of NCLB with an absurd emphasis on standardized testing. Any experienced classroom teacher would have immediately recognized that the mandates set forth by the law would mean that every school district in the country would eventually receive a failing score in trying to achieve Annual Yearly Progress. Every teacher’s job security would also be in danger if this were to become an evaluative tool to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. I guess I somehow thought we would remain immune, above it all.  No Child Left Behind finally had arrived on our doorstep three years after it had been enacted. At this point, I had been on the English Language Arts curriculum committee since the early 90’s, and I enjoyed being part of some very cool, innovative curriculum designs, revised roughly every five years.

So in 2005, a group of teachers representing all different grade levels were given the task of realigning our district’s curriculum to meet the state standards— GLE’s—that were directly in line with the Missouri state assessment, which is called the MAP test. After logging many hours and days spent on this realignment, I remember leaving that final day feeling dazed and confused.  It was a sad realization that we were stripping away significant aspects of our writing and literature program, all to better address the kind of test questions that might appear on the year-end assessment.

That same year, my wife and I received a letter from our third grade daughter’s school saying that her class was having an ice cream party. Kids could earn scoops and toppings based on how well they did on the pre-testing for the upcoming state exam.  We were informed that our daughter had earned one scoop of ice cream out of a possible FOUR, but alas, did not do well enough to earn any additional toppings having inherited her father’s dysfunctional math gene. My daughter did not really care about the ice cream or toppings, but she was terrified of being so visibly “outed” in front of her peers as someone who was crappy at math.  Not long after, there was a school wide pep rally to get kids “pumped” up for the upcoming weeks of state testing. My daughter informed us that she would not be cheering “for that dumb test.” Perhaps some of you also attended some of those rallies.

Although other school districts around the country were clearly dealing with the wrath of the NCLB law due to low test scores, the school district of my two daughters and the district in which I taught were now dealing with it head on. I felt angry and cheated. Kind of dirty, like I was a willing participant in something I knew was educationally, even morally, bankrupt. I wanted to do something that would light a collective fire to help strike a blow to the No Child Left Behind Act. I thought about creating a blog to vent to other people who felt like I did, and maybe, just maybe enough us would band together to incite some kind of positive change. Maybe I could write a collection of essays about teaching in an increasingly data-driven environment.  Just what the hell could I do? I wondered.

So, I took a personal day and went out to lunch with my wife.

We talked a long time about the state of education and how I could write about it. Her concern was that my idea of putting together a collection of creative nonfiction essays would end up never getting done, not unreasonable since I’d been piddling around with short nonfiction for years, never submitting anything for publication. The only genre of writing I was interested in was humor, but what could be funny about NCLB?  Well, the more I thought about it, I realized there really was plenty of funny stuff about No Child Left Behind, most it being the kind of funny that could just as well induce hysterical sobbing with cries of Why? Why? Why?

I had some ideas I’d been kicking around and decided to at least start jotting notes as soon as we got home.  I immediately began writing down all the things I had swirling in my head connected to NCLB. Okay, first we ran up to our bedroom since our kids were at school… okay I ran, and THEN I started writing. Here are just part of what became a long list along with a couple others I added later:

  • Forcing a corporate model of how to run a school and how its teachers should teach down the collective throats of all public school districts.
  • A subgroup’s failure to achieve AYP could land a school on the state’s dreaded Watch List, potentially ruinous to a school’s reputation and even the value of one’s home since housing prices are so closely aligned with the quality of a community’s school district.
  • The possibility of closing neighborhood schools, which are so essential in maintaining a shared history as well as building a sense of community and pride.
  • NCLB’s primary focus of using standardized testing as the most important gauge of a teacher’s effectiveness AND a school’s success. Why weren’t we looking more at the role that families, community and poverty plays in determining success— not just in school— but in life? To truly lift the educational quotient of our country higher, we have to do a better job of tackling poverty… Did I mention poverty?
  • Reading comprehension was parsed into 5 categories- vocabulary, phonemic awareness, fluency, phonics and comprehension, with all five being equal in emphasis. Seriously?
  • The diversion of public funds to charter schools, which had been unproven and still are unproven, to be a better alternative to public education.
  • Taking over so-called failing schools with state appointed school boards, robbing the community of their voices in who gets to serve them.
  • Threatening to take away funding of schools, which perennially underperform on the state test, as if that will make the situation better.
  • What about 70% of all public school districts in the U.S. decreasing the minutes students spend on social studies, the sciences, the arts and music?
  • Finally, here’s a direct quote from Diane Ravitch I added later: To lift the quality of education, we must encourage schools to use measures of educational accomplishment that are appropriate to the subjects studied, such as research papers in history, essays and stories in literature, research projects in science, demonstrations of mathematical competence, videotaped or recorded conversations in a foreign language, performances in the arts and other exhibitions of learning.

So, the list went on and on because, despite whatever good intentions our politicians had in passing it, there was a tremendous amount to not like about No Child Left Behind.

Okay, so I had a list of things I could write about. Teachers already knew the inherent problems they were facing with revised curriculums and the impossibility of NCLB.  I’d be preaching to the choir, not unlike what I’m doing now.

What exactly was I going to write that would both communicate a strong message and hold someone’s attention without boring them to death with a bunch of educationalese?  So, here is what I ended up doing.  I thought about the consequences if my one of my student subgroups failed the state assessment.  What if I was responsible for putting my school on the state’s watch list? What would happen?  I decided to write a five-page creative nonfiction essay about such a nightmare.  My so-called essay almost immediately morphed into a fictional short story. And no one was more surprised than me when six years later— my little work of fiction about a teacher who has a subgroup of students failing the state assessment, who gets put on academic probation and ends up being shadowed for an entire year by a retired Army general, an acrophobic Nepalese Sherpa and a hip-hop MC— a story with a soundtrack of more than 140 songs— no one was more surprised than me to have it turn into a published comedy called Teacher of the Year. It is the story of one teacher left behind.

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