Monday, July 14, 2008

Teacher, I Have a Question.

I have an honest question for those of you with interests in public school whether it be as a teacher or current, potential, or past parent of elementary school children. There's a lot of verbage flying around about the "infamous" No Child Left Behind Act and most of it is negative. As I understand it, the NCLB Act basically makes schools accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests and those that underperform or don't show "adequate yearly progress" are in jeapardy of losing their funding.

Most of the criticism I've heard from teachers is that the year becomes so test focused that there is little time or budget left to do anything else. They say that PE, Music and Art classes, and even field trips are being eliminated to prepare for the tests.

So my question is, what is classroom time being spent on that is so important but doesn't help students pass a test of the most basic of academic skills?

My elementary school, and beyond, experiences of standardized testing are essentially the-relaxing-week-where-we-take-a-ridiculously-easy-test. There are bubble sheets and test booklets and the teacher brings a novel to read while we work the day away. No, I'm not some kind of genius child, nor did I go to a magnet school or prep school (not until my senior year, anyway). Everyone thought it was easy. I honestly remember a question on a third grade test where we had to identify "which one is a picture of a dog who is angry?"

So where is the problem? If schools can't provide a way for students to learn these fundamental skills, why is our hard earned money going to pay for them?

As I hear people shout that NCLB is unfair, ineffective, or unnecessary, it sounds like people demanding their right to be remedial. "Don't MAKE us do well in school! Just call what we're doing GOOD!" I don't know of any other industry where the management, employees and customers alike seek all sorts of excuses for why business is bad and fight against attempts to make it better.

I saw the most pathetic thing on a "news mag" show where a highschool boy struggled to read. (that's not the pathetic part) There was a meeting with his teachers, some school administrators and his mother and they "discussed" his needs. Afterward his mother expressed her frustration that for all these meetings, her son still struggled to read. So the news mag sponsored him to go to The Sylvan Learning Center for a month after which he jumped 3 grade levels in his reading skills. For all those "action meetings" someone just needed to sit down and TEACH THE BOY TO READ! (that's the pathetic part - the school, the teachers, the parent, no one could figure out how to teach a student to read)

My humble opinion - that school needs to lose it's funding and the students given the opportunity to attend a school that actually teaches. What a waste.


Kristine said...

NCLB is the devil for a lot of reasons...

Yeah, those fill-in-the-bubble tests were cake for most of us, but for a lot of kids in Special Ed or ESL, or just came from a non-academic family background, they're not so easy. And while the laws make some allowances for kids qualified in Sped or ESL, those kids still seriously drag down the school's averages. Schools with higher populations of these needy kids suffer. Then when the funding is cut, everybody suffers.

NCLB assumes that schools and teachers are lazy and trying to avoid accountability, so it punishes us for bad behavior. Truth is, very few teachers are in the profession to be lazy. Anybody who came into it with that mindset quickly gets a wake-up call and leaves of their own accord. Most of us are VERY aware that our kids are under-performing, and we WANT to fix that. But the answer isn't to take away our funding!! We need more teachers, we need better trained teachers, we need differentiated instruction, we need smaller class sizes, we need better resources, we need access to better technology, we need field trips... (I was pretty amazed at the effect of our 8th grade field trip on some of students' motivation last year. Suddenly I have a testimony of field trips!) We don't need threats and punishments, we need support! And it's the low-performing, high-risk schools who need it the most.

I don't think Sylvan has any top-secret teaching strategies that the kid's public didn't know about. Sylvan has one-on-one tutoring. As a teacher, I'd love to see each of my kids get showered in individual attention, but I just don't have it to give, and I don't know anyone else in the school who does.

And then, of course, I could go into a rant about how the kids KNOW when they're getting the crappy, low-budget version of an education, so then they rebel and act out and don't take school seriously, because they don't feel like the school's taking them seriously, so then teachers spend more time managing behavior than worrying about instruction... but that's another rant. :)

Kristine said...

(I just wrote a novel on your blog... sorry. :)

ray said...

Kristine, I knew I could get a great answer/response/rant from you. Thank you for your perspective.

I don't think teachers are lazy, in fact, I'm very grateful they are not. I do think that those that go into teaching, on average, are not as academically capable as those that go into other fields - you are an exception, of course, (I have seen first hand how you spank a calculus or physics test), as are others. But the sad truth is, an Education Weekly article showed how on average teachers scored in the bottom third percentile of college grads on tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE. Teaching just doesn't pay enough to attract those intelligent enough to make money elsewhere. So pay the teachers more, you say? Sure, but fire those that can't teach. Paying an idiot more doesn't make them not an idiot. (Nathaniel came home with an assignment to discover how much Venus weighed. You see the little problem with mass vs. weight.)

As for funding, class size, technology, etc. There are nations around the world that have bigger class sizes (Singapore's average is 36, ours is 25), spend less money and have much more limited technology - and their students STILL outperform ours. In fact, in your home state of Oregon they tried the "small highschool" idea and grad rates after 4 years were unchanged. Programs that have poured money into low-income schools have also failed to raise test scores.

The thing I like about NCLB is that it's results oriented, not factor oriented. It doesn't try to solve everyone's problems by zeroing in on any one factor like money, class size or any particular curriculum. It focuses on the desired end result - student performance, that's the bottom line - and lets each school make the necessary adjustments and focus on their particular needs as they see fit. And they are motivated by negative consequences to make sure they find what works. (Rule 1 in parenting, don't reward negative behavior. If a child is throwing a tantrum, he gets a spank, not ice cream.)

I'm so glad you care, Kristine, because I have seen, first hand, teachers that just ignore and pass along those students who struggle, and they reach highschool lacking the most basic academic skills and then struggle for the rest of their lives.

And feel free to leave a novel anytime on my blog. I have a serious vested interest in education, if you couldn't tell, and I need your insider input.

Kristine said...

Yeah, I felt a little obligated to respond, and I knew you'd know I'd feel obligated! (Huh?) :)

About teachers being less academically capable... I don't need any stats to know that one. :) I loved my classmates at the good ol' Mckay School of Education dearly, but oh my gosh... I'm not sure how some of them even made it to college. My education classes were full of nonsensical busy work. Getting a teaching degree is all about jumping through hoops and takes a lot of perseverance, but not a lot of cognitive ability. (Although, to be fair, teaching ability takes a very different set of skills than academic ability.) Unfortunately, our country's teachers definitely do not represent the best and brightest of our professional work force. The best of our teachers don’t spend much time in the classroom, because they end up getting pulled out for a million different committees and conferences and projects, and then they move on to leadership positions, or university, or whatever. Those are the teachers we need to be keeping in our classrooms. And with the abysmal salaries, given the amount of work and responsibility that comes with it, we're never going to attract a more intelligent crowd. We both know that you can't go around firing people who don't understand weight vs. mass. But if teaching becomes a more competitive field, then natural selection will take its course.

Comparing our education system to Singapore's is like comparing Earth apples to apples on Mars. (not quite apples and oranges :) The culture is completely different. You know the stereotypical Asian family better than I do, and while stereotypes are generally exaggerations, they do come from somewhere. I have a room full of kids who illegally crossed the border with half their family, while the other half stayed behind in Mexico. My kids are the first generation in their families to have any level of literacy. Their parents can't sign their own names on school forms. They weren't read to as kids. They didn't watch Sesame Street. Their parents are never home, because Dad left 12 years ago, and Mom is working 2 jobs to be able to feed her kids. That whole parent/school involvement thing? Not happening. Even if they can get the time off work for Parent Night, they can't drive, and public transportation is a pain. These parents, who love their kids very much, don't know how to help their kids be successful in school, even if school were happening in a language they understand, which it isn't. The kids look around, and they see their fellow Latino friends joining gangs, getting pregnant, and definitely not going to college. Academics is for the white kids. My kids are just waiting for our evil president to kick them our of the country, and our evil school administrators to suspend them (again) from school. They don't feel like they're wanted or accepted in our society, and they don't feel like playing the cultural games we set up for them, even if they could figure out the rules. (It doesn't matter if this sounds rational; when were adolescents ever rational?)

And you can say, duh, Kristine, you're an ESL teacher, those are the kids you're going to work with. But at my school, they make up almost a third of the student population. And the numbers are only going up. Now you spread those kids around a classroom with everyone else, at all levels of academic achievement, and the teacher hardly knows where to start.

And American parents tend to end up on one extreme or the other. You either have the uninvolved parents that we work with, or you have the Summa parent. Summa is our program for "gifted" kids, and their parents are always harassing their teachers and alleviating all responsibility from their kids, believing the kid's word over the teacher's every time. American parents don't have a great track record for showing respect to teachers, and shocker, neither do their kids. Americans don't push their kids to work harder and be better; they reward their kids for breathing.

NCLB is looking at results, but it doesn't care about symptoms or causes. Of course, throwing money blindly at schools isn't going to help anything either. Those budget decisions need to be research-based and deliberate. School districts love to jump on whatever shiny bandwagon is passing by, and throw money at different programs that are supposed to be a magic fix-all, then when the results aren’t there in a year, they try something else. Not helping. Small high schools sound awesome in theory, but I kind of hate the way I’m seeing Oregon enact them. That doesn’t mean the principles behind the idea are bad, though, just that our methods need some major refining.

So. My novel now has a sequel. :) This is me figuring out what my opinions actually are. I don’t think in my head, I think through my fingers. :)

Ambie said...

I certainly agree that different countries have different values that start in the home and reflect outwardly from that particular nations schools.I don't think this nation values education as a whole as much as many other countries do. I came from a middle lower class family and no one ever breathed a word about college ever. Of course I have realized how crucial it is to teach my children how important it is to further ones education and it makes a difference in their grades and overall attitude about their school work now even my little 2nd grader.

ray said...

Kristine, I totally agree with the "intellegence doesn't equal good teacher" thing - my dad being a great example of someone who is quite intelligent but can't teach beans. But of course, you can't teach what you don't know. There has to be some standards.

I don't think we should mimic other countries, although corporal punishment in the classroom could go a long way toward solving discipline issues. I'm just saying we can't use such factors as technology, poverty, or class size as an excuse as to why our students are dumb. Every nation has those issues. We just can't seem to figure them out.

I still think results-based legislation is better than a huge government bureaucracy trying to determine each schools needs and granting money likewise. The local administrators know best how to deal with their needs and they should bear the responsibility for their choices. Not just sit back saying, "we have lots of ESL students and we don't get enough money" and continue to let the kids fail.

Someone needs to take responsibility here. Not teachers pointing fingers at parents who point fingers at the administration who point fingers at the government who get the picture.

I see your frustration with students and parents who just don't care. You can lead a brain to knowledge but you can't make it learn. A great fix to this would be, eliminate public education altogether. Let people keep the portion of their taxes that goes to education, or give them vouchers, and let them choose whatever private education they want. Schools will be motivated to provide quality education or risk losing students. And you can bet parents will care about their child's performance if they are paying for it.

my two (thousand) cents, anyway.

Kristine said...

Definitely true, you can't teach what you don't know. Gosh, I remember sitting in my math ed class, watching a lady from my cohort teaching a practice lesson about multiplying fractions. I still wonder if I was the only one in the room screaming in my head, "You're doing it wrong! You don't find the least common denominator when you're multiplying fractions!” People like her going into education scare me. But I also know a lot of people who may not be qualified to teach algebra or chemistry, but they make great elementary school teachers. A teacher most essentially needs to know their own content areas. In my mind, elementary school is about learning strategies and cognitive skills more than anything else. A good elementary school teacher teaches kids how to learn, how to think, how to read, and piques their interest in learning. If the teacher doesn’t know everything there is to know about science, yet successfully taught her kids about the principles of scientific inquiry, and got some of them interested in learning more about astrology or botany or whatever, then I think she’s accomplished a lot.

I wish some of these other smarter countries out there would send over a few representatives to teach us their secrets. Because we’re obviously missing something here. And I still don’t believe that threatening our already tight budgets is going to make the answers magically appear. If the government is looking to motivate teachers and administrators, then that seems to imply that we’re not already motivated. It might be effective if there really were a bunch of teachers/administrators doing nothing more than sitting back, making excuses, and pointing fingers, but I haven’t come across those people yet. Sure, we all like to play the blame and complain game, but at the same time, I truly believe that the vast majority of educators are already doing everything they know how, given their sphere of influence, resources, capabilities, etc. We’re constantly looking for better answers, but if we knew what they were, we’d be implementing them already, with or without NCLB.

Maybe the whole idea of increasing accountability should be shifted more toward the students? It’s pretty ridiculous to watch teachers putting on their song and dance every day, trying everything to reach the unmotivated students, and then at the end of the year, even though a kid failed every class, they still get promoted to the next grade. I’m not sure what it takes to get held back a grade any more. For a lot of kids, I don’t think the idea ever occurs to them to care about their grades, until 6 months before high school graduation, when they realize they don’t have nearly enough credits to graduate, so they drop out. I don’t know, just tossing an idea out there.

The idea of NCLB is to focus more on student achievement, but I see it stealing the focus away from student achievement, and now everybody’s worried about making it LOOK like our students are achieving. I can tell you how ESL is accomplishing that. A few months ago there was an article in the local papers about how Oregon is doing such a great job teaching ESL that we’re exiting students from our program at exponentially higher rates this year. The article glowingly praised ESL teachers and our newly adopted curriculum for making all the difference. (Ha! The new curriculum is atrocious. Next year I intend to let my kids build forts out of the grammar books, because I have no other use for them.) The real reason we’re exiting kids faster? Because the state lowered the bar. It used to be a more involved process for a kid to exit ESL services, involving standardized tests, classroom achievement, and teacher approval. Now the state administers a computer-based test, gives us back a number, and everyone who scores a 5 leaves our program, no questions asked. We can all tell you about kids who are far from proficient in English who accidentally filled in the right bubbles, and now they’re considered mainstream. And I would imagine that ESL isn’t the only department that’s manipulating the numbers to make ourselves look successful.

Dude, making me think about these things during the last week of my summer vacation… just not nice! :)

ray said...

Hey Ambie, you know a thing or two about kick-starting unmotivated students. But I suppose your methods would be considered "inappropriate" for the classroom.

Wow, accountability on the student - great concept - how in the world to apply it? Community service hours for those who fail? Early driver's licenses for those who achieve (oh wait. In my experience the smarter the person, the worse the driver.) I know some highschools have tried having monetary rewards for grades, but I don't know how that affected overall performance. Incentives are not nearly as effective as consequences.

In Alaska they implemented an exit exam - a standardized test you have to pass to get a highschool diploma no matter what your GPA is or what classes you took. This was designed to identify those students who were passing each grade without actually passing. (You take the test every year starting your freshman year and if you don't pass you take special classes to help you study.) And you should hear the opposition! A lady in our ward actually moved to Washington DC to lobby against it. I think this is a pretty good example of putting some responsibility on the student.

Of course, there are still many who just drop out and opponents say the exit exam drives them out. But what is a diploma worth if you're still an idiot. That's what just kills me about people who oppose setting standards for our students. Instead of finding a way to meet them, they just list excuses as to why they can't.

But anyway, we're hitting records for longest comments. Sorry for ruining your vacation with thoughts of work. Oh, I love your new blog layout, BTW. So cute. Where did you get it? Our blog needs a serious face lift and unfortunately, Ambie and I are new generation tech-communications idiots (although Ambie does talk in text).

Kristine said...

Cool. So, in conclusion, accountability on the student sounds like a reasonable idea, and we’ll leave the details of implementation for another time and place. Because really, what if we did stumble on the secret to education here, and then clumsily left our insight lying around on the internet for anybody to find, steal, and take the credit/fame/fortune for?

And thanks! My blog layout is making me pretty happy at the moment. :) I got it at You have to wade through a sea of creations by the Hannah Montana loving segment of the population, but there’s lots of good stuff in there too. Just don’t go to, because while their layouts are pretty cute, you’ll look like one of those newlywed Mormon couples, and before you know it, you’ll be incessantly posting videos of your kids sitting and blinking. And then, I’m not sure we could be friends anymore. Unacceptable.

(By the way, have I already told you that you need to read Go, read, laugh! Ambie-who-talks-in-text needs one of their LOLOMGWTFLDSBBQ tshirts. :)

I’m not nearly as tech-savvy as my year of birth says I should be either. I gave up even trying to fix my blog on the Mac. And it still took some angst and agony to get it the way I want on my PC. I’m lame. Don’t tell.

Unknown said...

My children were home-schooled because of the state of our public schools when they were kids. They are both in college now and doing very well.
The NCLBA has made things worse.
Sure schools should be held accountable, but so should students.
Stripping schools of funding is not the answer to creating better performing schools. The education system does not work like the market economy, hence, supply and demand do not apply.
Not every child will succeed in school. Why? Because some people just are not as smart as others. Harsh, but true nonetheless.
"Teaching to the test", as it has become known, has closed our children's minds to what true education is...the ability to apply stored information outside of the framework in which it was learned. Abstract thinking skills are being lost.
The standardized tests we took were easy because we were given information in the classroom, not practice for "the test".
Once presented with a test we were able to use the knowledge from the classroom.
Teach a child mathematics and she can pass a standardized math test and then some. Teach her the test and she may pass the test but be unable to understand how to apply math skills in daily life.
Hiding privatization of the educational system behind "new-speak" (1984, George Orwell) like "parental choice" is yet another example of the wool being pulled over our collective eyes.
There are only so many seats available in the choicest of schools. Hand out 1000 vouchers if you like, but if there are only 400 seats available 60% of vouchers are worthless.
The more frightening scenario is that schools eager for all of that lovely government money will increase class size to squeeze in more students and as a result their performance as teaching institutions will suffer even as their bottom lines get healthier. Another scenario is the creation of "schools" whose sole purpose is to make a profit. Underperforming students are systematically removed from such schools because they lower the schools' all important stats.
Let's get back to the basics of teaching the basics. Let's stop unrealistically expecting equal outcomes for unequal students. Let's stop enforcing a median score on our children and allow the prosperous to prosper. Let's get back to offering vocational paths to those student who are not, academically, college material. Let's focus more on high expectations from the students in our schools because schools cannot teach students who feel entitled to good grades.
Let's get back to failing students who fail rather than marking "needs improvement" on their report cards. Let's get away from this self-esteem driven education model, it has proven to be a failure, turning out poorly educated students with undeservedly high self-esteem.

ray said...

Let's get back to failing students who fail rather than marking "needs improvement" on their report cards. Let's get away from this self-esteem driven education model, it has proven to be a failure, turning out poorly educated students with undeservedly high self-esteem.

agreed. This is where student accountability is getting lost and what things like standardized testing is exposing. NCLB hasn't made the schools worse; it has exposed this downhill slide education has been on. It's only been around for 5 years and most schools have shown an improvement over those years even if they still do not meet all standards.

There are only so many seats available in the choicest of schools. Hand out 1000 vouchers if you like, but if there are only 400 seats available 60% of vouchers are worthless.
The more frightening scenario is that schools eager for all of that lovely government money will increase class size to squeeze in more students and as a result their performance as teaching institutions will suffer even as their bottom lines get healthier.

disagree. one of things that makes a school "choice" is small class sizes so a school that crams them in will lose their desirability. What vouchers will do is motivate schools to provide the things that parents want, like a particular curriculum, emphasis, size, religious affiliation, specialized instruction, etc. Different parents want different things and public school is a one size fits all with no choices.

Let's stop unrealistically expecting equal outcomes for unequal students. Let's stop enforcing a median score on our children and allow the prosperous to prosper.

how machiavellian. I guess this plan would be called the LTWB act -Leave The Weak Behind. Standardized tests don't require much. really. Call me an optimist, but I really think that all mentally-abled students can and should be able to pass these tests. We're not looking for a median. We're setting the minimum, the very least of the requirements to earn a US highschool diploma. Without a clear, distinct minimum, the diploma is meaningless.

I see the distinction between teaching and "teaching a test". My question is, why are teachers "teaching the test"? It obviously isn't working and what are they teaching otherwise if it's not the fundmentals that will enable them to pass? Someone's missing the point here.

Goldie said...

Sorry I'm late to the party, but I have to comment. I freakin hate NCLB. First of all, it doesn't require that the kids *learn*; it requires that they *pass the test*. So schools end up training kids for the test the way we train a dog to sit, stay, and roll over. Where's the academics in this?
Second, some of the requirements are just plain ridiculous. A few years ago, my kids' middle school got dinged on NCLB because the special ed class did not show adequate yearly progress. WTF? These are severely disabled kids who cannot talk. What progress? To use this as an excuse to withdraw funds from a good school is IMO just beyond the pale.
And finally my pet peeve, from what I've heard from multiple sources, NCLB killed gifted education in many many school districts (luckily not in ours). Schools needed all the money they could get to train every student to pass the test, and since the gifted kids could pass the test with their eyes closed... off with the gifted ed.
It is evil. I hate it. I have a few professional teachers on my blogroll who would likely share more tales of horror.

Happy The Man said...

I think that kids learn more important lessons about life on the playground, choosing teams, organizing, etc. I'm also shocked at how much homework kids have these days. What on earth are they learning in the classroom? Kids can't even come home and play outside before it's dark, it's all about homework. Some kids are going to learn and others aren't. I didn't go through any rigorous education and I was able to make it through school and get into college (though I'm absolutely horrible at standardized timed tests).

I feel sorry for the many good teachers there are that are so good at what they do because they are overshadowed by the much larger quantity of horrible teachers and administrators. The whole public education system is a complete joke. I will admit however that much of it has to do with parents coddling their children and undermining the teachers. But at the same time the teachers have brought it upon themselves because many of them have used unrighteous dominion over the children just because they're adults. They bully them.

The horrible teachers should be removed, the good teachers should be paid better and it should be a field that inspires and attracts brilliant and competent minds instead of the dregs.

Not sure if anyone will even read these new comments to old posts but I can't help the fire being stoked.