Sunday, January 17, 2010

Time for No Child Left Behind to Be Left Behind But I’m Afraid of What They Might Come Up with Instead

When I started teaching about twenty years ago, a veteran teacher once told me when I elatedly said that I was glad our state government was changing some education regulation, “Be careful what you wish for. What they often come up with is often worse than what we have.” Twenty years later, that veteran teacher’s fear is alive and well inside my head as discussions heat up about the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. I have long suspected that the original motivations behind the No Child Left Behind legislation was to set public schools up so that they automatically fail. Why else would you set up the totally ridiculous and impossible standard of having all students proficient by 2014. It does not take someone with the intelligence of a rocket scientist to see that having ALL students proficient by that deadline is not going to happen, ever. In fact, you could set that standard deadline for 2050 and it will never happen. I realize to some idealists that statement sounds pessimistic coming from a school administrator who should have high expectations for all students, but as the discussion about NCLB re-authorization heats up, I honestly think this country is in desperate need of a reality check.

Let’s face it, education is an extremely messy process. Contrary to what all the politicians behind NCLB or its re-authorization think or believe, education is not a business. Education is not a factory. NCLB has a basic assumption that education can be a business or a factory. The discussions about the re-authorization of the legislation and this “Race-to-the-Top” rhetoric still have the same basic assumptions at their core. For example, the discussion of national standards and national tests to measure those standards is only extension of the same factory-model view of learning. The difference now is that states like Tennessee and Texas are going to directly tie teacher performance to test score performance. That should be a frightening prospect to all educators. Not because we do not want to take responsibility for our students’ learning, but because there are so many environmental factors about learning that we do not control. For example, we do not even control our own budgets which means we ultimately do not control the resource stream into our classrooms and schools. Yet, there are those who tie student performance on tests to teacher performance. That is clearly a sign of the delusional factory-model thinking of our political establishment.

I do think we must take responsibility for our students’ learning, and I am not just making excuses by pulling the environment card. But, instead of tumbling headlong into the next standards and accountability fad, we must also back up and critically look at the entire accountability and standards movement and what is has done to education as a whole, and to our teachers and students specifically. No matter what anyone says, we have an educational system that “teaches to the test.” Some might argue that this is not a problem, but anyone who has actually worked with these high-stakes tests know their many limitations. In a sense, we are basing a child’s entire future and a teacher’s on a test. That is frightening!

Where then is this current standards and accountability push taking us? Will we have national standards and a national test that determines the fate of both students and teachers in this country? Perhaps instead of “racing to the top” we need to walk for a bit to assess our ideas. If we do not do that, I am afraid what that veteran teacher told me long ago is true. “Be careful what you wish for. What our government and educational establishment develops to replace what we have is often worse than what we had before.”

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