Sunday, December 02, 2007

NCLB in practice

My school, Noralto Elementary School in Sacramento, is being torn apart,
thanks to No Child Left Behind.
Of the 664 students at my school, 450 of them are English language
learners. They come mainly from underprivileged families, and rely on our
school as a pillar in their lives. Many parents are unable to provide the
academic support our students need, and nearly all our students struggle
with language barriers. Consequently, the vast majority of them are
reading below grade level. Fortunately, the staff is full of passionate
teachers who care deeply about these children.
When students arrive at our school from Mexico, Thailand and Laos, they
have to learn to speak the language before they can begin to read.
Additionally, students arriving directly from Thailand and Laos must first
master the English letters before they can even begin to blend the sounds.
Can you expect these children to be reading at a fourth- or fifth-grade
level by the end of the year? Certainly not. Have the teachers failed
because they have not achieved such a miracle? Yes, according to our
president and his No Child Left Behind act.
Every year, No Child raises the standards higher, and schools scramble to
meet them. Last year, the Annual Yearly Progress score requirement was
24.4 percent for English Language Arts (reading and writing). My school's
was 27.9 percent - above the required percentage - but one significant
subgroup, our Asian American population, scored only 22.8 percent.
So, once again, we did not meet the goal. Failing to meet the goal two
years in a row labels a school Program Improvement. If you are such a
school for five years, No Child can come in and wipe the slate clean,
getting rid of all the teachers and replacing them with new, "more
qualified" teachers - teachers who evidently possess mystical powers to
teach English to nonnative speakers in the blink of an eye.
What is extremely frustrating for Noralto is that our administrators and
teachers have been working harder than ever, and our scores have steadily
improved since the inception of No Child in 2002, when our reading scores
were only 14.3 percent. However, the government continues to take punitive
action, and labels us as a "failing" school.
My school is in its fourth year of Program Improvement. Next year, the
imposed goal is 35.2 percent - a goal we cannot hope to meet - and it will
continue to leap every year until it reaches the 100 percent mark in 2014.
This means that my school and thousands like it have "failed," despite
desperate efforts to provide quality education for all students. For us,
this means that all nontenured teachers will probably be fired at the end
of this year, and all permanent teachers could be "involuntarily
reassigned" elsewhere in the district. And, sadly, our students and
families will be faced with new teachers who will have no connection with
them, the school, the community or each other.
How is this better for children? How does it make any sense? The reality
of No Child is that it is sucking the joy out of education. A teacher's
job is to breathe life into education and to get children to love
learning. Creating rigorous testing is simply creating an oppressive
educational system in which music, computers, physical education, science
and social studies are gradually fading into nonexistence as the panicked
push for language arts and math becomes a nationwide obsession.
"Good" teachers are the ones who teach to the test, rather than those who
employ creativity, excitement and a positive learning environment. At my
school, a specialist has created a rigorous "bell-to-bell" schedule, in
which each minute of our day is mapped out. We are told what and how to
teach, what to put on our walls, and what interventions to provide. All
assemblies and field trips have been banned.
As a bonus, No Child is up for reauthorization in Congress, with the
additional stipulation of merit pay. This dictates that teachers' salaries
will be contingent upon test scores. The immediate effect of this act, if
it goes through, is that all the best teachers will flee to the best
schools, leaving the children who need the most help with the teachers
least able to supply it. Then, truly, we will be leaving our children

Alyson Beahm is a teacher at Noralto Elementary School in Sacramento.
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Copyright 2007 SF Chronicle

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