Creative Leadership Under the Thumb of NCLB
The University of Georgia
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Reading Association
May 8, 2008
“The intellectual always stands between loneliness and alignment”
(Edward Said, 1994, p. 22)
Isn’t this the precarious location of the literacy coach? A person negotiating the treacherous fields between classrooms and administrative offices, between children and teachers, between teachers and administrators, between a school and community, between theory and practice. It is within this very precarious and powerful position – the never complete insider, never complete outsider – where I believe literacy coaches can use their multiple perspectives and deep understandings of different contexts to stand up and be the important intellectuals we so desperately need today.
But Said is clear that it is not simply in the physical and social location between loneliness and alignment that makes one an intellectual, but rather how one thinks, speaks, and acts within that location. Therefore, we mustn’t assume all literacy coaches are indeed the intellectuals we need them to be, but rather, each one has tremendous potential for stepping in and stepping up to engage themselves as intellectuals.
In his provocative essays about the intellectual, Edward Said writes:
There is no question in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented.
My plan today is to talk with you about three people who might be considered weak or unrepresented in the high-stakes testing environment we find ourselves in under No Child Left Behind Mandates. As I narrate these stories, I hope we will all ask ourselves whose side we are on and whether our thoughts, language, and actions align with our commitments.
Laura is a thirty-one year old White woman who grew up in a working-class family largely supported by the hourly wages of a factory-working father in an industrial town in the Midwest. She is the mother of a ten year old, and she was one of the first of a generation to suffer from stringent high-stakes testing in the state of Ohio. During Laura’s junior year in high school, Ohio passed a law stating that every student must pass the Reading and Math sections of the statewide tests in order to receive a high school diploma. Laura worked hard for an entire eighteen months and took the Math section of the test numerous times, only to fall short within points each try. Instead of a high school diploma, Laura, who had excellent attendance and average to above average grades throughout high school, currently holds a “Certificate of Attendance” for her twelve years in the institution we call school.
This certificate of attendance does not open any doors for Laura, and without the social networks that might be available to middle-class and more affluent students for getting their foot in the door of employment, she was forced to find positions in the service sector paying minimum wage, offering horrible hours for a young mother, and including no sick leave, health benefits, or continuing education. On job applications she cannot check the box that states “high school diploma” for highest level of education. She does not have a diploma. She has a certificate of attendance. Doors don’t open for her as the economy tightens and jobs that offer opportunities for continuing education look, at least, for high school graduates. She is not one. She is the first generation of collateral damage done by high-stakes testing in Ohio.
She is now a single mother, and though she receives support as much as possible, she is forced to make do with what she can earn in 40+ hours per week at minimum wage.
Laura is 31 years old. A loving and responsible mother, hard worker, caring person, and hand-cuffed with the stigma of not having a high school diploma.
In today’s U.S. context with punishments and sanctions as well as salary raises and bonuses tied to a select few indicators such as test scores and graduation rates, Laura might actually be considered one of the lucky ones – at least she did attend high school through the 12th grade, even if only rewarded with a certificate of attendance. High school push-outs and drop-outs have escalated since her time, and we are facing an epidemic of decreasing graduation rates, especially for poor and working-class students across race and ethnic boundaries, that are considered to be at “historic highs” (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). States, under the punitive thumb of No Child Left Behind, often report different numbers related to graduation rates excluding students who have been withdrawn from school by officials for things such as “lack of interest” or pushed out by school officials promoting local GED programs instead of the traditional high school trajectory.
I remember Laura sobbing when she learned she had still not passed the math section of the test, her chin quivering, her body shaking. And I remember hugging her, having only recently graduated from a teacher education program and realizing that she had experienced a terrible failure of the system even while she blamed the failure on herself.
At the time I could not have imagined that such practices would continue, nor would I have ever dreamed that eight year olds in third grade would experience the same heart-wrenching, demoralizing, devastating effects of high-stakes tests. But Ohio was only one of the frontrunners in “rolling out” graduation tests and with the onslaught of mandates from No Child Left Behind, all states are now using tests in high-stakes ways, beginning in the earliest grades.
For the last several years I have been working in schools in an urban city in the Northeast where it’s sometimes impossible for children to tell when the “real” test is because they have “practiced” so much. Somehow, however, teachers, coaches, families, and administrators managed to set students straight and ensure they knew when the “real” test was. I know because on those days young children could be found crying in the hallways, vomiting in the bathrooms, and falling asleep face-down on their test booklets. And on the late spring day when the real test scores were received in one particular school with near 100% free and reduced lunch and more than 40 languages spoken across the building, elephant tears streamed down round, ebony cheeks when silent student after silent student was told he – and she – would not be promoted to the next grade because of a failed test.
I remember Tyler in particular, a fifth grade boy who had recently immigrated from Africa with his family. He was in an inclusion classroom where special needs children worked alongside those without IEPs. It was a classroom where all children read novels and debated their responses to them; where all children wrote self-selected narratives, essays, poems, and songs; and where all children were respected and valued for who they were. The two teachers in this classroom created a small slice of paradise in a place where unemployment and underemployment afforded poverty-level living conditions. But that paradise was slashed to pieces when numerous children were retained in the fifth grade for not passing both the Reading and Math sections of the state test.
Tyler was silent after learning of his fate, but his big brown eyes rimmed over with enormous crocodile-like tears and his body slunched into his chair. The dignified, proud young man of the day before melted into a hopeless pool of clear liquid streaming down his face.
An entire year of rich educational experiences, tremendous academic and social progress stripped away by one test score.
And now I live in the great state of Georgia where recently kindergarten classrooms located near test-taking rooms were required to be silent for two and a half hours each day. Children sat on blue-carpeted floors and watched videos or they drew and colored in silence, quickly and aggressively shushed if they spoke or made too much noise with materials. Actions completely out of character for their teachers…but this is what these tests have done to us all.
One of them my own, Hayden, who came home from school for a week talking about the ‘big test’ and how quiet they had to be, and how it was really important, and how kids were getting in trouble for talking.
Kindergarteners weren’t being officially tested during this week of school, but they were also absolutely being tested. We all were.
And we’re failing.
We’re failing miserably.
Some people say that this is the most oppressive time to be a teacher, and by extension, a literacy coach. They say this because curricula is narrowing; the teaching of reading and writing has been progressively restricted to discrete, isolated skills; and teachers – and children – are under more pressure than ever to achieve high test scores.
This is a dull time for teaching they say.
Nothing to do but move through the motions of scripted curricula and test preparation booklets. Nothing to do but work with the “bubble” students and shake our heads and sigh at the leaving behind of children who have test scores too low to be a realistic goal for this coming year.
But I completely disagree.
It is in these historic moments where we must use our most innovative minds and practices to fight the systems working against us;
it is in these historic moments when we must be most creative in the use of our professional knowledge and our classroom experiences to educate children to be engaged citizens in a democracy just as democracy is eroding;
it is in these historic moments when we must brilliantly remake a society that is quickly losing an entire generation of children to the special interest groups of test makers, test scorers, test preparation materials developers, and those who may prefer to see public education for all fall to the wayside as a social experiment gone completely wrong.
You are in leadership positions and yes, you might have to hold those tests under lock and key and make teachers and children follow a lock-step regiment of test-taking in the fall and spring, but you do not have to be a warrior for the system.
We have many options and I’ll share mine with you.
My personal plan: Collateral Damage (Nichols and Berliner) in the fall – as many people gathered to read this as possible and come up with an action plan for what we can do.
http://www.susanohanian.org (for $71.40 plan – fabulous ideas that can work)
http://www.nea.org (for Code of Ethics – study the Code of Ethics for Education Professionals, print them, highlight passages, and ask administrators and politicians if they are asking you to break the code of ethics)
Our country is at war outside our national boundaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps other places not well publicized. Here in this room we don’t find ourselves in fatigues, in positions where we might actually care enough, know enough, or work hard enough to stop the violence outside our country.
But just as the war in Iraq is largely the territory of military folks in military uniforms and the politicians supporting or opposing the war – the war for public education that is just, equitable, and democratic is the territory of education folks and the politicians supporting or opposing us.
We cannot afford to wait for someone else to fight this fight.
“At the bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.” (Said, p. 23).
You have cultivated relationships with your teachers and their students, you have cultivated relationships with your principals and the central administrators, you have cultivated relationships with one another. You have walked into classrooms where questionable practices were taking place and you still found a way to compliment a teacher while giving her the support she needs to improve her classroom. You have knelt down on one knee to look a child in the eyes who is learning to read a bit more slowly than her classmates to tell her how brilliant she is.
You do not have to be a warrior for the system.
You can be a warrior for the children, families, and teachers who are living more stressful and anxiety-ridden lives because of the No Child Left Behind mandate of high-stakes testing.
We can behave in the way intellectuals are expected – and needed – to behave. Our society depends on this. Our schools depend on this. Our teachers depend on this. Our families depend on this.
Our children depend on this.
I say that this is an exciting time for literacy education leaders. There aren’t many opportunities in one’s lifetime when one is faced with a society-threatening injustice and when that person can see concrete ways each day to fight against it.
It is time for us to use creativity like never before. We can let our minds soar with the possibilities of how to serve as leaders to build the morale of teachers, administrators, children, and families and to provide them with opportunities to understand better that their school is not the only place where horrible things are happening. Together you can decide what actions you will take.
As you are doing this work, I urge you to think about Laura, Tyler, and my little kindergartener Hayden and her classmates. Each of them, and many millions others, are depending on you.