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Archive for the ‘NCLB’ Category

Senator Tom Harkin submits a draft to overhaul NCLB – very different from Duncan’s approach

In Education Policy, NCLB on October 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

From the NY Times:

A senior Senate Democrat released a draft of a sprawling revision of the No Child Left Behind education law on Tuesday that would dismantle the provisions of the law that used standardized test scores in reading and math to label tens of thousands of public schools as failing.

Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg News

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, at the White House in February.


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The 865-page bill, filed by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate education committee, became the first comprehensive piece of legislation overhauling the law to reach either Congressional chamber since President George W. Bush signed it in 2002.

Mr. Harkin made his draft bill public 18 days after President Obama announced that he would use executive authority to waive the most onerous provisions of the law, because he had all but given up hope that Congress could fix the law’s flaws any time soon.

Like Mr. Obama’s waiver proposal, the Harkin bill would return to states some powers taken over by Washington under the Bush-era law, including the leeway to devise their own systems for holding schools accountable for student progress.

“We are moving into a partnership mode with states, rather than telling states you’ve got to do this and this and this,” Senator Harkin said in a call with reporters. The bill is a product of more than 10 months of negotiations with his committee’s ranking Republican, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Mr. Harkin said.

Mr. Harkin’s bill would keep the law’s requirements that states test students in reading and math every year in grades three through eight, and once in high school, and make the scores public.

But for about 9 of every 10 American schools, it would scrap the law’s federal system of accountability, under which schools must raise the proportion of students showing proficiency on the tests each year. That system has driven classroom teaching across the nation for a decade.

States would still face federal oversight for the worst-performing 5 percent of schools, as well as for the 5 percent of schools in each state with the widest achievement gap between minority and white students. Districts in charge of those schools could lose federal financing under the Harkin plan if they failed to raise their student achievement.

“Harkin’s bill would return control to the state departments of education and the local school districts, and they’re the ones that got us into the mess that No Child was designed to fix,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who headed the Department of Education’s research wing under President Bush. “Districts and states have not been effective in delivering quality education to children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so why should we think they’ll be effective this time around?”

Several advocacy groups for minority students and the disabled also criticized Mr. Harkin’s bill, and on similar grounds. By eliminating the law’s central accountability provisions, the bill would represent “a significant step backward,” returning the nation to the years before No Child’s passage, when many states did a slipshod job of promoting student achievement, they said.

Under the Harkin bill, “states would not have to set measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals,” six groups including the Education Trust, theChildren’s Defense Fund and the National Council of La Raza, said in a letter to Mr. Harkin on Tuesday. “Congress, parents and taxpayers would have no meaningful mechanism by which to hold schools, districts, or states accountable for improving student outcomes.”

Asked about that criticism, Mr. Harkin said that to round up backing for his bill from Republicans in his committee, he had been forced to make compromises.

“I’d like to have federal targets, but that’s one of the compromises,” he said. “I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

The chances of Mr. Harkin’s bill becoming law are murky, even if it were to gain Senate passage and evolve considerably as a result of Republican amendments. He said that he intends to open the bill up for amendments in his committee next week, and to get it to the Senate floor for consideration before Thanksgiving.

In the House, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the House education committee, is seeking to rewrite parts of the No Child law in a piecemeal process. One of Mr. Kline’s bills, promoting the growth of charter schools, passed the House on Sept. 13, but four others, including one dealing with teacher evaluations, face an uncertain future. The House leadership has appeared unwilling to move toward a full rewriting of the law, which could give Mr. Obama a domestic policy triumph going into an election year.

“If we get a good, bipartisan bill to the floor, that will be instructive to the House in terms of rewriting this legislation,” Mr. Harkin said.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2011, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Bill Would Overhaul No Child Left Behind.

End NCLB – don’t try to fix it.

In Education Policy, NCLB, social action, Standing up for Kids on October 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm

The reauthorization of the ESEA is under way, but most of us know this thing called No Child Left Behind is not worth trying to “reform” – it has destroyed children, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and the integrity of an entire profession and U.S. enterprise (public education) as it openly required that corporations (e.g. testing corporations) take over control of curriculum and assessment in every public school in America. Diane Ravitch writes below about why it should be ended:

Posted: 25 Oct 2011 06:32 AM PDT
Dear Deborah,
Have you been following the evolving story of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind? I have, and it is disheartening. Instead of ditching this disastrous law, senators are trying to apply patches.
Most people now recognize that NCLB is a train wreck. Its mandates have imposed on American public education an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing.
  • It has incentivized cheating, as we have seen in the well-publicized cheating scandals in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
  • It has encouraged states to game the system, as we saw in New York state, where the state tests were made easier and more predictable so as to bolster the number of children who reached “proficiency.”
  • It has narrowed the curriculum; many districts and schools have reduced or eliminated time for the arts, physical education, and other non-tested subjects.
  • It has caused states to squander billions of dollars on testing and test preparation, while teachers are laid off and essential services slashed. Now we will squander millions more on test security to detect cheating.

Because of NCLB, more than 80 percent of our nation’s public schools will be labeled “failures” this year. By 2014, on the NCLB timetable of destruction, close to 100 percent of public schools will have “failed” in their efforts to reach the unreachable goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math. Has there ever been a national legislative body anywhere else in the world that has passed legislation that labeled almost every one of its schools a failure? I don’t think so.

Despite the manifest failure of NCLB, the Obama administration proposes not to scrap it, but to offer waivers if states agree to accept the mandates selected by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The secretary has a great fondness for teacher evaluation, having decided (in concert with the Gates Foundation) that the key to better education is to tie teachers’ jobs and tenure to their students’ test scores. This, of course, will raise the stakes attached to testing. Mr. Duncan has already used the billions in Race to the Top to bribe states to impose his unproven policies on their schools.
Happily, the latest version of the NCLB reauthorization does not include the teacher evaluation provisions that Mr. Duncan wants. That’s good, but not good enough, because many states are already well down that path, not only the 11 that “won” the Race to the Top, but others that wanted to make themselves eligible. Tennessee was one of the “winners.” NPR did a story about Tennessee’s teacher evaluation program, which explained why the program is so thoroughly disliked by that state’s teachers; see this article, as well.
When, if ever, will policymakers realize that they should find ways to support teachers, not to demoralize them? I just don’t see how it is impossible to “improve” schools without the active engagement of the people who do the daily work of schooling. There is just so much top-down beating-up that can go on before teachers and principals rise up in protest, especially when so many at the top are not educators.
Lawmakers in D.C. and in the state capitals are not competent to decide how to reform schools and how to evaluate teachers. In what other profession would this kind of interference be tolerated?
The federal government does not know how to reform schools. Period. Congress doesn’t, and the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t.
The fundamental role of the federal government should be to advance equality of educational opportunity. That’s a tall order. Congress should revive the commitments made in 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed: To use federal resources on behalf of the neediest students; to protect the civil rights of students; to conduct research about education; to report on the condition and progress of American education.
So long as Congress tries to breathe life into the moribund NCLB legislation, its members are wasting their time.

Does jotting down a checkmark every 2 minutes all day long every single day for the school year constitute teaching/learning?

In Education Policy, high-stakes tests, kindergarten, NCLB, politics, Standing up for Kids, teacher education, Teaching Work on October 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm

This is a terrific piece written by a kindergarten teacher in Michigan, a state that did not receive Race to the Top funds but is implementing all the “assessments” RttT districts would.

I would surely be fired if I was required to do all these things with children. This is, as the teacher-author writes, lunacy.


And here’s a response from Deborah Meier:


Posted: 20 Oct 2011 07:25 AM PDT
Dear Diane,
I loved Nancy Creech’s piece from Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog last summer. Thanks, Diane, for sending it along. It’s a vital reminder as the nation faces a new federal Race to the Top demand: Start testing at age 3. Or else.
Creech’s detailed minute-by-minute counting of what it means to pursue the latest early-childhood “Reform Agenda” is mind-boggling! Thanks, Nancy, for writing it. I’ve done something similar to show the absurdity of most homework policies. Designing, assigning, reading, thinking about, and responding to 20 to 30 students’ homework accounts for a staggering amount of teacher time—if it’s taken seriously and conscientiously. Not to mention that one cannot observe how homework is actually “getting done,” nor who is doing it!
For these reasons we decided, at Central Park East and Mission Hill, on a different approach—certainly for 3- to 7-year-olds. We made an agreement with our children’s families: You don’t tell us what to do during the hours a child is with us, and we won’t tell you what to do during the hours the children are with you. But we can both make suggestions! We promise to take your advice seriously, and we hope you will accept ours in the same spirit. Taking children’s parents seriously as their child’s first teacher requires collaboration not mandates.
Nancy Creech quotes a distinguished educator who says that teaching what one already “knows” is a waste of time. I disagree. We’re constantly re-learning; it’s how things that we have “learned” get consolidated, and sometimes revised. It’s why I found teaching 4- and 5-year-olds so intellectually fascinating—because I was rethinking facts and concepts I thought I “knew,” but had barely scratched the surface of, or had—in fact—misunderstood. My (frequently retold) story about 5-year-old Darryl convincing his peers that rocks were actually alive neatly captures this idea for me. In looking at the concept of living vs. nonliving he naively he picked up on “the wrong” clues. My scientist neighbor noted that he was therefore actually “on the cutting edge of modern science.”
In fact, of course, as with a lot of instruction, just re-teaching something may only entrench the confusion rather than expand understanding. Watching children “in action,” one learns the most about what they “know” (and don’t know). It’s in organizing the environment so that children are driven by curiosity to make sense of the world that they learn to drive themselves. It’s in organizing the environment and then carefully observing each of those 20 children’s response to it and to each other that we learn the vital stuff—the stuff to “teach.”
If we carefully observe children at play we realize how enlightening their ignorance is if viewed respectfully and nonjudgmentally. They grow dumb (silent) when we fail to acknowledge it because it’s our job to correct mistakes.
Jean Piaget had a big influence for a time on American educators. But mostly by giving labels to stages of development. I found, especially after reading Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, something more fascinating. She reminded me that we, as adults, all get stuck at an early stage with respect to ideas that either don’t interest us much or where simplistic theories serve our purposes well enough. My amazement, over and over, at the light rays that came directly to me—and only me—across the lake is perfectly natural and obvious and only rarely requires realizing that it’s an “illusion.” That the ray of light is also coming straight across the water to you—standing 100 feet to my right—is absurd. Who cares? But, once you do ….
Teachers have never figured out how to teach more than 10 new words a week—some of which are soon forgotten, but meanwhile children between birth and adolescence actually are learning more than 10 words a day. Some more and some less, but no normal child doesn’t do better teaching themselves, so to speak, than their teachers do. To turn the education of 3- to 7-year-olds into planned, deliberate, step-by-step “instruction” is to retard their intellectual growth.
The whole idea of prepping for standardized tests as a model of teaching/learning goes against not only what is most amazing about human learning, but especially the part that engages us in the work essential to our modern world. To accept, as young children do, the fact of uncertainty, and to tolerate this state of mind, grows increasingly rare as we “grow up.” Asked constantly to choose: a,b,c, or d—Which is the one right answer?—is bound to retard growth even further.
I’m stuck on the form of accountability that says “throw the rascals out.” Democracy in its many forms is the answer to accountability, if practiced close to where we all live, work, and think about the world.
P.S. I have spent some time observing Zucotti Park, and watching it with my kindergarten teacher eyes and ears helps me see how they have hit upon some very novel but powerful educational tools. Spending time there was fascinating. More on that next week—maybe.

Occupy EDU – The Education version of Occupy Wall Street

In communities, creativity, democracy, economics and economies, Education Policy, high-stakes tests, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, social class on October 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Excellent piece here about how Wall Street and trends in corporate America impact public schools, teachers, children, and the institution of public education.

Take a read!

Can Non-Authoritarian Education find a space in Occupy Wall Street?

In institutions, justice, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, social action, social class on October 17, 2011 at 12:53 am

Thanks to Teri for sending this along!

With this amazing grassroots movement emerging against corporate power, corporate greed, and economic inequality – where might education find its space within it? If, for example, people in the U.S. are sick and tired of the corporate model of running a society, then people are likely also sick of the corporate model running schools. If that’s the case…what kinds of schools would be responsive to the needs and desires of the people?

Perhaps a non-authoritarian model where children/youth work individually and collectively toward socially responsible ends?

This might be the perfect time to insert educational goals in OWS!



Should progressive and critical educators support corporate-oriented politicians in opting out of NCLB?

In NCLB on October 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Paul Thomas at the daily kos says, “yes:”


The 2010 state elections in South Carolina struck a disturbing blow against progressive and critical supporters of public education with the election of a governor, Nikki Haley, who strongly supports school choice, and a superintendent of education, Mick Zais, without experience in public education and who endorses vouchers, expanding charter schools, teacher accountability linked to merit pay and student test scores, and reducing government spending as a matter of policy.

Yet, Zais has pursued two policies I strongly support—cutting funding for a self-defeating pursuit of raising both SAT participation and scores and rejecting the allure of funding promised in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top—and seems poised to embrace a third—opting out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—that could prove to be one of the most important moments in public education in the state and the nation.

NCLB, it seems, proves Shakespeare right once again: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”


NCLB as powerful but misguided federal policy superimposed on the traditional responsibility of the states in public education has created misery for progressive and critical educators who reject bureaucratic and corporate templates for public education as well as libertarian-leaning conservatives who seek to reduce federal government as a de facto Big Brother menace in all public and private matters.

Few aspects of the education discourse and policy coming from the Obama administration and personified by Secretary Duncan have given advocates for genuine public education reform hope, but the recent opening to opt out of NCLB is an important moment for making a transition away from a corrosive and failed accountability era begun in 1983 with A Nation at Risk and accelerated in 2001 with NCLB—although the strange bedfellows this has spawned requires that all actions and stances include intent as well.

So should progressive and critical educators support education policies also endorsed by advocates with whom we disagree? In short, should progressive and critical educators encourage their states to opt out of NCLB (or reject the funding offered under Race to the Top [RttT]) even if the political machine in that state has motives unlike our own?

First, the short answer is yes.

Over the past three decades, the high-stakes accountability and testing movement has produced the exact same discourse politicians have been shouting for over 150 years—education is in crisis and we must reform our schools.

But the ever-increasing faith in tests, standards, and accountability has ironically produced a growing body of research that proves these policies are failures. [1]

Next, however, progressive and critical challenges to the accountability movement must build on the weight of evidence by unmasking the corporate intent of partisan politics—which aren’t evidence of inherent flaws in government or social policies.

The Obama administration is continuing what was misguided in the education policies under George W. Bush—using federal policies and funding to coerce states into implementing corporate policy. As Adam Bessie has warned about NCLB wavers: “NCLB has not beenrevamped, but rather, rebranded.” For example, RttT is political blackmail just as the Reading First scandal [2] was eventually exposed to be.

Yes, NCLB should be dismantled and the role of the federal government in public education must be reconsidered, but not for the reasons many libertarians/conservatives claim.

While we have been forced into what appears to be an allegiance with strange bedfellows, we must reject NCLB, RttT, and other failed bureaucratic approaches to education reform while also clarifying why; for example, holding up to reformers all along the political spectrum more evidence from a favorite of politicians and the media, Finland.

LynNell Hancock has recently asked “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” and Anthony Rebora has outlined Hancock’s conclusions at an EdWeek blog:

• There is very little emphasis in Finland on standardized tests or data-based comparisons of any sort. (“Americans like all these bars and colored graphs,” one Finnish educator says bemusedly.)• Finnish teachers, who are selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s college graduates, command a level of professional respect comparable to that of doctors and lawyers. (And the required master’s degree in theory and practice is fully subsidized by the government.)

• All public schools in Finland follow a national curriculum that has been boiled down to “broad guidelines.” (“The national math goals for grades one through nine,” the author notes, have been “reduced to a neat ten pages.”)

• Mixed-ability student groupings are the norm (indeed, apparently required), with special educators playing a large and valued role in helping struggling students stay on pace.

• There is a major emphasis, including among differing political parties, on equality of resources and access across schools.

The successful policies of schools in Finland refute every aspect of the accountability movement currently being expanded in the U.S.

But this is not the full picture, since even this evidence evades once again a powerful fact distinguishing Finland and the U.S., childhood poverty rates (3-4% in Finland, over 20% in the U.S.). [3]

In the each state in the U.S. and in every nation of the world, educational outcomes are reflections of social realities and not proof that schools alone can produce a new social order.

Progressive and critical educators who seek the promise of universal public education that we have never fulfilled are standing at a pivotal point in the history of school reform, faced with outcome allegiances with strange bedfellows and a complex challenge to communicate the intent of those allegiances to a public misled by the political elite and the careless media daily.

As Stedman (2011) concludes in his examination of the failures of the standards movement:

“Educators who seek fundamental reform, therefore, should dedicate themselves to critical-historical analysis and comprehensive social change. To succeed, we will have to join forces with those seeking social justice, democratic voice, and new forms of community, institutional, and economic life. As Counts (1932) expressed it so well so long ago, it is finally time we dared to build a new social order.”


[1] Amrein, A.L., & Berliner, D.C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved 1 November 2009 from…

Hout, M., & Elliott, S. W. (2011). Incentives and test-based accountability in education. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved 23 June 2011 from…

Kincheloe, J. L, & Weil, D. (2001). Standards and schooling in the United States, vols. 1-3. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.

Stedman, L. C. (2010). How well does the standards movement measure up? An
analysis of achievement trends and student learning, changes in curriculum and school culture,
and the impact of No Child Left Behind. Critical Education, 1(10). Retrieved 2 October 2011 from…

Stedman, L. C. (2011). Why the standards movement failed. An educational and
political diagnosis of its failure and the implications for school reform. Critical Education, 2(1).
Retrieved 2 October 2011 from…

[2] U. S. Department of Education. (2006, September). The Reading First Program’s grant application process: Final inspection report. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General.

[3] Adamson, P. (2005). Child poverty in rich countries 2005. Innocenti Report Card (6). United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre. Florence, Italy. Retrieved 17 August 2011 from…

Adamson, P. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries. Innocenti Report Card (7). United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre. Florence, Italy. Retrieved 17 August 2011 from…



Obama’s move to change No Child Left Behind

In Education Policy, NCLB on September 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm
NYT September 23, 2011
Obama Turns Some Powers of Education Back to States
With his declaration on Friday that he would waive the most contentious provisions of a federal education law, President Obama effectively rerouted the nation’s education history after a turbulent decade of overwhelming federal influence.
Mr. Obama invited states to reclaim the power to design their own school accountability and improvement systems, upending the centerpiece of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, a requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability,” the president said. “If states want more flexibility, they’re going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards that prove they’re serious about meeting them.”
But experts said it was a measure of how profoundly the law had reshaped America’s public school culture that even in states that accept the administration’s offer to pursue a new agenda, the law’s legacy will live on in classrooms, where educators’ work will continue to emphasize its major themes, like narrowing student achievement gaps, and its tactics, like using standardized tests to measure educators’ performance.
In a White House speech, Mr. Obama said states that adopted new higher standards, pledged to overhaul their lowest-performing schools and revamped their teacher evaluation systems should apply for waivers of 10 central provisions of the No Child law, including its 2014 proficiency deadline. The administration was forced to act, Mr. Obama said, because partisan gridlock kept Congress from updating the law.
“Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” Mr. Obama said. “Starting today, we’ll be giving states more flexibility.”
But while the law itself clearly empowers Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to waive its provisions, the administration’s decision to make the waivers conditional on states’ pledges to pursue Mr. Obama’s broad school improvement agenda has angered Republicans gearing up for the 2012 elections.
On Friday Congressional leaders immediately began characterizing the waivers as a new administration power grab, in line with their portrayal of the health care overhaul, financial sector regulation and other administration initiatives.
“In my judgment, he is exercising an authority and power he doesn’t have,” said Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota and chairman of the House education committee. “We all know the law is broken and needs to be changed. But this is part and parcel with the whole picture with this administration: they cannot get their agenda through Congress, so they’re doing it with executive orders and rewriting rules. This is executive overreach.”
Mr. Obama made his statements to a bipartisan audience that included Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an independent, and 24 state superintendents of education.
“I believe this will be a transformative movement in American public education,” Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said after the speech.
The No Child law that President George W. Bush signed in 2002 was a bipartisan rewrite of the basic federal law on public schools, first passed in 1965 to help the nation’s neediest students. The 2002 law required all schools to administer reading and math tests every year, and to increase the proportion of students passing them until reaching 100 percent in 2014. Schools that failed to keep pace were to be labeled as failing, and eventually their principals fired and staffs dismantled. That system for holding schools accountable for test scores has encouraged states to lower standards, teachers to focus on test preparation, and math and reading to crowd out history, art and foreign languages.
Mr. Obama’s blueprint for rewriting the law, which Congress has never acted on, urged lawmakers to adopt an approach that would encourage states to raise standards, focus interventions only on the worst failing schools and use test scores and other measures to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness. In its current proposal, the administration requires states to adopt those elements of its blueprint in exchange for relief from the No Child law.
Mr. Duncan, speaking after Mr. Obama’s speech, said the waivers could bring significant change to states that apply. “For parents, it means their schools won’t be labeled failures,” Mr. Duncan said. “It should reduce the pressure to teach to the test.”
Critics were skeptical, saying that classroom teachers who complain about unrelenting pressure to prepare for standardized tests were unlikely to feel much relief.
“In the system that N.C.L.B. created, standardized tests are the measure of all that is good, and that has not changed,“ said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, an antitesting advocacy group. “This policy encourages states to use test scores as a significant factor in evaluating teachers, and that will add to the pressure on teachers to teach to the test.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union favored evaluation systems that would help teachers improve their instruction, whereas the administration was focusing on accountability. “You’re seeing an extraordinary change of policy, from an accountability system focused on districts and schools, to accountability based on teacher and principal evaluations,” Ms. Weingarten said.
For most states, obtaining a waiver could be the easy part of accepting the administration’s invitation. Actually designing a new school accountability system, and obtaining statewide acceptance of it, represents a complex administrative and political challenge for governors and other state leaders, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which the White House said played an important role in developing the waiver proposal.
Only about five states may be ready to apply immediately, and perhaps 20 others could follow by next spring, Mr. Wilhoit said. Developing new educator evaluation systems and other aspects of follow-through could take states three years or more, he said.
Officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and in at least eight other states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin — said Friday that they would probably seek the waivers.

Stand up and speak – it’s never too little too late.

In discourse, Education Policy, high-stakes tests, NCLB, Standing up for Kids on September 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Fabulous letter from a superintendent in Georgia about his insights and regrets regarding NCLB and the high-stakes testing mania that has been and continues to ruin children’s sense of what is possible for them through education:

(From Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog at AJC)

10:11 am August 31, 2011, by Maureen Downey

Jim Arnold (Pelham City Schools)Jim Arnold (Pelham City Schools)

A while back, I ran a piece from Jim Arnold, superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Mitchell County. Several of you commented that you wished you worked for such a straight-talking school chief.

I think that sentiment is going to be even stronger after this piece, which I plan to run on the Monday education page that I assemble for the AJC. But I can’t fit all of it in the newspaper, so here is the full version.

By Jim Arnold

We’ve done it now. Eleven years we had to educate the public, to register our protests and do everything in our power to warn people what was coming, and we blew it. We knew the moment would eventually come and we hem-hawed, looked at the ground, kicked at the dirt with our shoes and failed to look the opposition in the eye and face them down. All of us saw this coming, but very few took a stand and now we – and our students – are paying the price. We could have been prophets but failed the test.

We allowed the proponents of NCLB to control the discussion from the beginning. They wrote the language, sent out the media notices and explanations, wrote the definitions of AYP, Highly Qualified and leaned heavily on the fact that none of us would dare protest anything to do with a name that implies we would be providing a high quality education for every single child in America. They were right. We chose not to speak out, not to fight against a system we knew from the beginning would set us all up for failure, and instead, in our best Dudley DoRight impersonations we set about to change the way we taught and measured and tested and graded and thought.

We knew from the outset that NCLB and its goal of 100 percent  – every child proficient in every area as determined by a single test on a single day each year – was patently, blatantly and insidiously absurd, but we took no concerted action. We knew Adequate Yearly Progress was a sham, and we literally and figuratively rolled over and tried our best to meet whatever impossible goals they set for us and our students. We knew that Federal law in NCLB was a violation of Federal law in IDEA but we went along with the insanity of testing Students with Disabilities based on chronological age rather than by IEP.

We learned very quickly and much to our chagrin that some student scores – usually the lowest ones – were counted not once, not twice, but often as many as three times, but we went along to get along. All of us were aware that Highly Qualified, for all the high rhetoric that went along with it, only served to make certification as much of a barrier as humanly possible for Special Education teachers regardless of degree or experience. It seems the teachers we needed most were subjected to the greatest roadblocks to reaching the nirvana of HiQ certification.

We tried our best to play the game but the game was rigged from the start. When the AMO’s were low it was pretty easy for most schools. When the AMO’s went up and more and more schools were labeled “failing” we looked around in a panic for help. Surely nobody believed a school deserved the failing label because two or three kids in a subgroup didn’t pass a test? Yes they did. Yes they still do. We let them make the definitions and apply the labels, even when we realized the absurdity of it all.

We actually pretended to believe that it was important for us to make sure that every child was tested on those all important test days so none could escape the trauma we inflicted upon them. We even learned in some places to game the system and hold back those kids we feared might not pass the test or might raise those student numbers to create a subgroup in areas we really didn’t want to see a subgroup or, God help us, to cheat or to make sure that we could hold out two or three or four  of “those kids” on test days so their poor scores wouldn’t have a negative effect.

Oh sure, some of you stuck your necks out and said something to the effect of “NCLB forced us to take a closer look at ourselves, and we are better off for that” in spite of the fact that it was our students that were suffering the consequences. What balderdash. What hubris. Our kids were the ones whose education was stilted by our submission to the belief that one test could effectively distill and determine the depth and extent of an entire year of a child’s education. They are the ones whose time was wasted by “academic pep rallies” and “test prep” and by the subtle and insidious ways we told them the test was “important” and put pressure on them to “do their best because our school is counting on you.”

They were the ones that did without art and music and chorus and drama because we increased the amount of time they spent in ELA and Math. They were the ones that had time in their Social Studies and Science classes cut back more and more so schools could focus on the “really important areas” of ELA and Math. They were the ELL’s that couldn’t speak English but still had to take the test. Their teachers were the ones that were told “your grading of the children in your classes doesn’t count any more because standardization is more important to us that the individual grades you provide.” This told them in effect that their efforts at teaching were important but only if they taught using “this” methodology or “this” curriculum, then, when things started to go badly, they were the first to be blamed for the failure of public education. They were told to teach every child the same way with the same material but make sure to individualize while you’re at it. Hogwash.

After a couple of years of this insanity, the “NI” status began to take its toll. Someone somewhere invented the term “failing schools” and, unsurprisingly, the label stuck. Students were given the opportunity to transfer to more test-successful schools, but at a price. Schools that did not meet AYP standards, oddly enough, were often those with high minority populations and high poverty. Nobody seemed to notice the zip code effect that left predominantly white schools meeting AYP standards and minority schools caught by the “failing” label. Oh surely, we reasoned, our government would not want to put public education in a situation it could not win………..or would they?

I struggled with the rest of you as to why NCLB would go to such great lengths to make public education appear to be such a failure, to set up a system that would guarantee failure for practically every public school as we advanced toward that magical 100 percent level and provide no tangible rewards for success and such punitive actions for not meeting arbitrary goals. On top of all of that, I failed to recognize why our nation’s legislators so nimbly avoided even the discussion of reauthorization to change what everyone knew was a failed policy. One day it finally hit me.

They didn’t want to change the policy, because the policy was designed in theory and in fact not to aid education but to create an image of a failed public school system in order to further the implementation of vouchers and the diversion of public education funds to private schools.

I am not usually a conspiracy theory guy, but this was no theory. These were cold hard facts slapping me in the face. We failed in our obligations to protect our students from one of the most destructive educational policies since “separate but equal.”  We did not educate the public on the myth and misdirection of Adequate Yearly Progress, and we allowed closet segregationists to direct the implementation of policies that we knew would result in our being the guys in the black hats responsible for “the failure of public education.”

Now we are paying the price. AYP is here to stay in one form or another, and the vast majority of our parents and public really believe the propaganda that it actually measures a school’s educational progress. If we try to convince them otherwise we are “making excuses.”

Vouchers – especially for private and charter schools exempt from the same restrictive, destructive policies we are forced to endure – are a part of every legislative session in almost every state. High stakes testing for all public education students is considered a necessary reality and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Student test scores will soon determine teacher pay in some places even with no data to support the correlation. Students that do not graduate high school in four years are labeled as dropouts, even if they graduate in nine or 10 semesters.

Only first-time test takers are considered in the grading system for schools regardless of how many students ultimately pass the test. It will take years to undo the damage done to science, social studies, fine arts, foreign languages and other academic electives. Generations will not be enough to rid ourselves and our students of the testing mania neuroses created by our attempts to quantify the unquantifiable.

I hope the generation of teachers and administrators that follows has learned something from the failure of our generation to ward off those determined to destroy public education. We didn’t stand up to be counted, we didn’t stand in the schoolhouse door and tell them they couldn’t do that to our kids, and we didn’t educate the public about what a gigantic failure another one size fits all education policy would be. In the words of that great educator and philosopher Jimmy Buffet: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

We have all been left behind.

– From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

This is fun too! Is your school too focused on the state test?

In high-stakes tests, NCLB on August 10, 2011 at 3:14 am

I love this song – “Not on the Test”

In high-stakes tests, NCLB on August 10, 2011 at 3:09 am

Thanks to a friend for passing this along – I had heard it and should have posted it before now:

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