2007-06-22 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

No Bad Idea Left Behind: What To Do About NCLB!
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is the perfect example of a good idea that turned out to be an unfunded disaster for school districts and schoolchildren throughout the nation.

The landmark law has reshaped public education in such a way as to insure that test scores become the be-all and end-all to instruction.

What has happened in New York City defines what is wrong with the law: education in how to take a high-stakes test rather than education in content areas such as science and social studies; schools called "failing" even though the vast majority of their students are doing well, simply because special education students or English Language Learners are not up to snuff; forcing children as young as six and seven into the anxiety of taking tests that could literally shape their futures; and forcing requirements for teachers that keep many districts from being able to recruit teachers.

NCLB is now up for renewal, and there are many educators and members of Congress who want to take a long look at its impact before giving it another four years.

The debate over renewing the law is focused on a number of areas of controversy:

Is the law's "Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)" score the right tool for measuring learning and raising achievement in the schools, or does it punish successful schools that have a majority of very successful learners but small components of at-risk students such as special ed and English language learners (what we once called ESL)?

Is the focus on reading and math distorting and narrowing education?

Do the regulations for teacher qualification make sense and are they raising the quality of teaching or cutting out some people who could be great teachers?

What is the proper role for the federal government in fixing bad schools and, for that matter, in defining what is a bad school?

Should the federal government create mandates for the states and cities without funding those mandates?

At the heart of NCLB are its requirements for annual testing and proof that every student (from academically talented to learning disabled) is making adequate yearly progress, what the law calls AYP, and what school superintendents and principals call "hell on earth."

One of the biggest problems is that there are too many ways for a school to fail, even when the vast majority of students in the school are meeting standards and the others are moving in the right direction.

Witness the plight of a New York City high school with a sterling reputation. That school, which asked not to be named here, hit 25 of 26 of its AYP goals.

Attendance rose to new heights, minority students did much better, special education students began moving in the right direction and more students graduated than ever before.The school's English Language Learners (ELL's), however, missed their AYP goal by less than one percent.

That made the school a "failure" under the NCLB act and the school was put on the state's Schools Under Register Review (SURR) list as a "failing school," which has all sorts of ramifications, including allowing students who want to go, to transfer to more successful schools.

In addition, the AYP system has what some term a "perverse incentive." It forces schools to take money from programs with students who are already performing well, such as gifted and talented students and give that money instead to kids who are at-risk and may always be at-risk.

The plan gives no incentive for schools to fund programs for children at either end of the spectrum - those who are already high achievers and those with no chance of ever meeting standards. If you think that the idea that some kids may never make standards is somehow wrongheaded or racist, you haven't been paying attention. A child, for example, who is in the seventh grade but reads at a first grade level doesn't do a school any good even if he or she jumps four years to the fifth grade level - a prestigious jump. The student is still below grade level and therefore keeps the school from making its AYP goal.

What we really need is a way to measure annual growth so that a school and its students meet the goal if they show growth, whether or not that growth meets a sometimes unreasonable standard set not by the school, but by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

That would truly measure education, especially in a district such as New York City where so many immigrants arrive with little knowledge of English, and sometimes even little formal knowledge of their home language.

My pet peeve, however, is teaching reading and math along with how to take a test, at the same time that other content area subjects such as social studies and science are cut to the bone.

Of all the mandates that NCLB brings to the schools, the mandate that most of the educational emphasis focuses on English, mathematics and test-taking skills is the one that rankles educators the most.

Because the law holds schools ac.countable only in reading and math, there's growing evidence throughout the nation, and particularly in New York City, that schools are simply not adequately teaching the other subjects - such as social studies and science, physical education, foreign language, technology, art, music and other similar subjects.

In New York City middle schools, reading gets 10 periods a week out of 35. Mathematics takes another 10. Study skills and how to take a test get five more periods. That makes 25 periods out of 35. All of the other subjects combined, including "major" subjects such as science and social studies and electives such as art, music, PE and foreign language, get the other ten periods - usually two for physical education, three for Science, three for Social Studies and the remaining two for whatever is left over. That is not education, but indoctrination.

Schools have tried to find ways to "imbed" the other subjects into the literacy blocks of reading and math, but with little success.

What does that mean? Our students are scoring higher on standardized tests, but learning far less than they were prior to NCLB. That is a scary thought and one that legislators should think about before renewing the act.

Recently, Time magazine did a cover story on the problems with NCLB. Lynn Becker Haber, both a teacher and a parent from Connecticut, wrote a letter in response to that article that is instructive.

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