"No Child Left Behind" Leaves Behind Thinking

Sunday, January 15, 2012

            I’ve had over a decade of classroom experience.  I’ve taught fourth, fifth, and seventh grades, college, and even done some corporate training.  When I was working full-time in a classroom, I was so busy planning lessons, grading papers, meeting parents, etc. that the limited time I had left for reflection was usually spent dealing with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, in the trenches sort of stuff. Since I became a mother, I’ve been able to swing some part-time gigs, which keep my feet wet, but also allow me the luxury to reflect on my practices, curriculum standards, classroom methodology, and educational outcomes.  And I’m concluding that our education model is out-dated.  That we are in fact training a generation for success in the 20th Century and then tossing them into the 21st Century. 
            Today, I’d like to take on a few of the unintended realities of No Child Left Behind.  First, over time the standards themselves have been revised and watered down, and even more blatantly the tests have been “dumbed” down. Several years ago, I served on a committee that put together one of the state tests.  In that role I was privy to conversations where committee members would reject questions that required higher-level thinking.  They argued that the test was supposed to be a basic competency test, that too many students wouldn’t be able to answer such questions, and that schools shouldn’t be held accountable for a student’s inability to think.  So, the exam evolved into in a basic recall test that the committee felt reflected the standards, and fairly assessed whether teachers had covered the curriculum and students had memorized the content.  Whoopie-do-dah.  Tests scores went up.  But not, I argue because teachers were doing a better job, but because they’d learned to teach to the test.  And the classroom became a place where random information is jammed down throats and then regurgitated by students.  And multiple guess tests became the determiners of success.

            I think a brief segway is in order here.  I don’t mean to imply that I think all teachers are doing a bad job.  Like any other profession, some teachers are all-stars and some should find a new line of work.  My point here is that I don’t think that testing encourages teachers to do a better job.  In fact, I’d argue that it forces them to focus on an out-dated skill set (more on that in another post).
However, I do mean to say that the inordinate amount of time spent taking multiple-choice tests to assess student growth, would be better spent fostering creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking.  Multiple-choice is perhaps the worst format for assessing real knowledge or thinking processes.  Its appeal is in the ease of grading and the equity of evaluation.  Unfortunately, if the state tests are multiple-choice, then the teacher tests will be too.  Why?  Because NCLB encourages educators to teach to the test.
            In teaching to the test or the standards (however, you choose to phrase it), I found myself focusing on the curriculum rather than the students.  The result of which is a teacher-centered classroom with an artificial pace.  Weak students are in fact “left behind” and the strong ones are bored. The teacher is the holder of all knowledge and the student is the vessel.  This model allows for too much passive learning, but ensures the curriculum is covered.  Most (not all) attempts I’ve seen at differentiating are bogus. Attempts to track students into smaller groups in one classroom often fail because most teachers don’t have the training, time, and/or skill base to manage such a scope in a teacher-centered classroom in any way that makes in real difference.  Separating the students results in some improvements, but if the teachers are still expected to teach the spectrum in separate classes, then the teachers are still not able to specialize.  When I worked in public schools, I taught regular students, gifted students, ESL students, and special education students.  I did not have the time, resources, or expertise to truly differentiate for all of these needs.  So I took a lesson, added a component for the gifted students, structured it differently for the special education students, and added visuals and a more accessible vocabulary for the ESL students.  That sort of modification took time and thought and helped, but in the end no one really got what they should have because I was pulled in too many directions. I wish now that I had worked to create more of a student-centered classroom, but that is scary in a climate in which my competence was measured on students’ ability to spit back specific facts, rather than to find information, evaluate it, and then use it to create new relevant learning.
            Finally, NCLB encourages schools to focus on the bottom rung.  When a school’s success is based on passing a test, the curriculum, the methodology, and teaching practices center around helping “at-risk” students pass.  This is good for “at-risk” students, but it means that high achievers are often ignored.  One school administrator suggested to me that he didn’t care which teachers taught the advanced classes because those students were going to pass the state tests anyway.  If our brightest students are left to fend for themselves, instead of pushed to excel, create, and think, what does that suggest about our future?
            The intentions of NCLB are good, and I’m certain that the program has led to some real improvements in some schools.  However, it would be foolish not to look past the intentions of the bill and address some of the unintentional problems it has created. 
            So dear readers, do my observations ring to true with your reality in the current educational climate?  I’d love your comments.


Kathryn said...

Mary, I can't remember if we've had this conversation or not...but if we haven't, then it's eerie how much you and I are on the same page. I have espoused these views--some of them almost word for word--during my [short] but eye-opening time as a teacher.

My biggest complaint is the "nobody fails" mentality. You mentioned the fact that you taught a whole melange of students in one class, and that is my current situation--and yet I'm supposed to get all of them to be "equal." I have classes of 30 students, and in any given mix I'll have a few IEP's, about 5-10 gifted students, and then a bunch of people in the middle. There is no way I am reaching all of them, because what I'm TOLD to do is to get ALL of them to pass. The kid with the 70 IQ (I have one of those) is supposed to be able to pass just like kid with the 140 IQ (I have one of those in the same class). The tests I give are supposed to be "passable" by all students--and, get this--if a student scores less than a C, I have to "reteach" the material to them and then let them retake the test. I admit I have often lowered the standards on my assessments because it's just too complicated to isolate only the students who fail, remediate that specific group AND keep all the other kids engaged enough so that they don't burn down the classroom while I attempt to remediate the kids who failed--many of whom could care less if they pass a test anyway. I wish I could spend more quality time with the kids who need and want it, but it's not realistic in a class of 30 students. And any test/assignment I make that will challenge my gifted students will be impossible for my special ed kids, and the tests/assignments I end up giving are often a breeze for essentially anyone who can read. There's an insane pressure on teachers to make sure everyone passes, but neither me nor the students are given the proper environment to ensure that each individual learner's needs are met. And that's just the problem--the emphasis is on passing, not on meeting each student where he/she is.

In my opinion the inclusion model, more than anything else, is dragging down our education system. Like you said, differentiation is pretty much a joke. I don't care how many workshops I go to that train me in differentiation--at the end of the day, it is not possible to teach 30 learners with EXTREMELY different learning needs in the same classroom at one time in a one hour block. And let's be honest: why should the gifted kids be "punished" for being smart--meaning, no matter how many "extension" activities I create, why on earth should they be required to do them? Because they learn faster than others? I was a gifted learner and if my teacher had slapped extra work on me just because I finished faster than the kid who couldn't spell "the" (yup, I had one of those in 3rd grade), I would have refused to do it. I do my best to keep my gifted kids engaged but it only goes as far as their own motivation.

We are so afraid of hurting anyone's feelings and letting people fail that we are letting the entire system fail. Forget the "common standards" and let's meet students where they are. Kids need to be divided based on ability and/or learning needs, not to make them feel extra-stupid or extra-smart, but because we cannot realistically expect several dozen kids to be thrown into a room together and magically learn in the same environment. Like you said, the slower learners are falling behind and the gifted ones are bored out of their minds. It's not working for anyone. I agree that education needs to be student-centered and not so focused on everyone passing the same stupid test.

Why can't you and I just be in charge of everything, Mary? :-P

Mary said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I was especially interested because you are seeing the same thing in a different state. I also think you bring up a great point that gifted children should receive different work not more work. Several years ago I taught a student with an IQ of 80, which is too high to receive any special education services in VA. She was sweet and worked hard, but was failing every class because she couldn't do the work. The faculty questioned whether or not it really mattered whether she could identify foreshadowing, give the date that Pearl Harbor was attacked, figure out the area of a circle, or identify the parts of a plant. Wouldn't she have been better off learning a trade? Only in our system, seventh grade was too young for vocational education (even though she'd failed at least one grade). And so then the question was asked, what's the value in failing her? We didn't think another year would lead to mastery, and instead she'd likely get frustrated and drop out by 16. But if we could get her to 9th grade she'd be able to focus on learning a trade in which she could potentially find great success. So she passed seventh grade through a series of test retakes and extra credit opportunities, etc. What a sad state of affairs. One size doesn't fit all.

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