Last month, Massachusetts joined 10 other states in applying for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, rejecting a flawed education reform program that a paralyzed Congress can't seem to figure out how to fix. As someone looking to make a career in education, I applaud the Commonwealth's decision; NCLB's laser-thin focus on standardized tests as an education reform cure-all is more snake oil than remedy.
In its current state, NCLB should be unworkable, as it focuses on raw test scores, rather than student growth. When schools make strides in meeting state levels but do not meet adequate yearly progress levels, their improvement is ignored; when schools fail to meet AYP levels in a given area for two consecutive years, students are given the option of transferring to schools that do meet AYP requirements. While parents should not be penalized for wanting a better education for their children, this transfer arrangement creates a brain drain and further depresses those scores. Rather than improving schools, this side effect often hastens their shuttering and pushes more students into fewer classrooms -- and larger class sizes often mean lower test scores.
Quality of instruction and education also suffer under reform that's supposed to improve both. A quick dispatch from my own experience: I'm substituting for a middle school history teacher, who left a fun writing assignment that asks her students to come up with their own society and make up a culture, form of government, and location. It's the type of assignment most middle school-aged kids would jump at -- a chance to make their own world -- and from prior assignments, I know these students are very intelligent. We go over the assignment as a class, and I answer questions (“Can I be the king?” “You can hold any position because it's your society.” “Can I make it so you only have to go to school for a month?” “If you want to.”).
And then we hit a roadblock: Virtually every student is stuck on how to begin writing without the prompt they've drilled in English class -- a class that, thanks to high-stakes standardized testing, often resembles the Korean cram schools my friends taught in than an actual English class. This strangulation of creative thought in favor of drill-and-kill is symptomatic of NCLB's emphasis on the failed policy of the "one size fits all" standardized test as the metric of effective education. It's a policy that fails students by undermining a love of learning and critical thinking (essentially the foundation of education we've carried since the gymnasia of Ancient Greece) while also failing teachers by often making them ciphers for test material, with the threat of unemployment if they actually teach. And as the rest of the world shifts to emulate the creativity American schools once fostered, NCLB is paradoxically retrograde, dragging our pedagogical methods back to the Gilded Age.
NCLB also creates a success-at-all-costs culture that's led to district-wide cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., public schools. What made Atlanta and Washington's scandals so troubling is that they're not the product of students trying to make up for lackadaisical studying, but rather desperate administrators and teachers trying to avoid NCLB's punitive measures. That's not to say Massachusetts' alternatives are perfect (MCAS still carries far too much weight), but it is heartening to see a significant number of states recognize the folly of NCLB.
I hope the waiver results in further emphasis on local reform solutions, given that our schools are filled with great administrators. Those teachers who know their students as if they were their own children are endlessly resourceful in creating arresting lesson plans and are the finest evaluators of their students' progress. NCLB effectively short-circuits these connections, nullifying creative lesson planning and replacing the understanding forged from working with a class over an entire school year with a few hours-long tests cooked up by people who will likely never meet our students.
Photo by Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Flickr)
About Janssen -- I'm a public school teacher and music critic. I also teach adult ESL classes through a volunteer organization in Boston's Chinatown. So right off the bat you can guess my progressive bent in areas of education and immigration policy. Beyond the political, I've been attending DIY shows since I was 14 or so, getting heavily involved in Boston's metal scene. I've also been a subject of a 'Village Voice' cover story, which was sort of fun in a "through the looking glass" sort of way.
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