Thursday, December 28, 2006


We Are Leaving Children Behind

As the No Child Left Behind act comes up for renewal in 2007, we are likely to hear a lot of misleading rhetoric concerning its effectiveness. We will be told about rising test scores and across-the-board improvements. But if there's one thing we can all be sure of it is this:
We Are Leaving Children Behind

And it's happening across the board.

As I'm sure you know, my wife and I are both teachers. I teach music to fifth through twelfth graders in a small rural district of about 3,000 and my wife teaches mathematics to high school students in a moderately diverse university town of 20,000 people. Despite our different fields and very different working environments, we are both seeing the effects of high-stakes testing.

My story first:

For those of you that were/are in band, you are probably familiar with state contest. If you weren't a band geek, contest is when the entire band performs for a panel of judges and is evaluated according to a standard rubric. It's the music equivalent of sports playoffs.

Last year, my junior high band was one of only two in our district of fourteen schools that was able to attend contest. The other twelve schools were unable to attend due to test preparation. Luckily, my district treats music classes as part of the curriculum, but the other districts aren't so fortunate. Consequently, students are pulled from their music classes to cram for the exam. Some teachers hadn't seen their students for over two weeks prior to the contest date. And it's not looking any better this year. We've already had a number of schools state that they will be unable to attend this year and the district is on the verge of cancelling the event altogether. Without the recognition that comes from a successful contest showing, districts may be inclined to eliminate the program. As superficial as it sounds, classes that aren't required must produce tangible results like plaques and trophies in order for the school to see the benefits. No contest - no hardware for the trophy case. No hardware - no need for the program. If you were one of those band geeks, you know what that can mean to millions of students all across our country. Thank you NCLB.

Now on to my wife:

As I said, my wife teaches mathematics. To be more specific, she teaches algebra. Last year, her district cut one of the other teachers in the department thereby increasing everyone's class load. She currently has over 160 students in six classes (you can do the math to find out how many that puts in her class each period). This creates multiple problems, not the least of which is paperwork. As you may recall from your own high school days, math involves a lot of daily practice resulting in homework and worksheets. As a student, we were only responsible for completing our own work. But as a teacher, my wife is responsible for grading all 160 of them. Assuming she only gives three assignments a week (which is a low assumption), that still equals almost five hundred papers that she has to grade each week. And this is on top of planning lessons, writing exams, attending meetings and staffings, etc., etc., etc. She also has to prepare each lesson separately for her visually impaired students as well as making sure that her hearing impaired students are getting the necessary information. Oh, and don't forget about all of the accomodations for the two dozen students with IEPs and 504 plans. But because of NCLB, there is a certain amount of information that must be covered prior to the testing date. So basically she is left with two options:

  1. Forget about her family and give up eating and sleeping, or
  2. Modify the way she treats homework

Luckily for me and the kids, she has chosen option two. Homework is optional and the students take a daily quiz for each lesson. This way, she only has to grade two or three problems from each student as opposed to ten or fifteen. Needless to say, this lessens the workload considerably. But it also leads to its own set of issues.

Due to NCLB and its rigid test schedule, there is very little room in the curriculum for things like reteaching. Teachers are forced to choose between quantity and quality. If they choose quality (which would be the ideal choice), they run the risk of not covering enough material to prepare the students for what they will face on the test. However, if they choose quantity (which is what most school districts require) they run the risk of students not understanding the concepts even though they have been covered.

Here's the kicker: Due to the homework choices my wife has been forced to make in order to keep her sanity, some of her students have opted to not do the optional homework. This leaves them unprepared for the quizzes and ultimately the exams, not to mention the NCLB mandated test. And she doesn't have the time in her schedule to go back and reteach. Naturally, this is a choice that the students have made, but the consequences of that choice will be paid by the teacher and the district. So my wife is forced to choose between her sanity and her district's success. True, the district bears some responsibility for the situation because it was budget cuts that created her workload, but it's also due in part to the high-stakes testing required under No Child Left Behind. To call it frustrating would be an understatement.

So there you have it: the true effect of NCLB. So when you here the rhetoric and you see the numbers, don't forget: We Are Leaving Children Behind. By. The. Truckloads.

Call or write your congress members. Our children deserve better.


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