As I write this I am returning from an educational conference focusing on assessment and instruction. In non-educator speak that means how do we as teachers take the learning goals, align our instruction and assessments to them in a way that makes it clear to every child what it is they are supposed to do and why, and evaluate them in a way that truly represents what they have accomplished? It is the last part of this question that really interests me, but not just in terms of my students. In the education world, I have discovered that there is a lot of preaching from on high, but as in all walks of life, the very people who should be role models aren’t fulfilling that responsibility.
Recently, the press released the results of the annual yearly progress (AYP) scores for No Child Left Behind. As usual, there were passing schools and non-passing schools. For a brief moment there was quite a bit of furor in the news about all of this, as well as the clucking of tongues by people pointing out that you work at a failing school. As I gained more and more information from the conference sessions, I started to see a real parallel between what happens at the level of the classroom, and what is happening on a much larger scale with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Perhaps if we could look at, and think about, the AYP results in a different way, as I have been challenged by this conference to do in terms of how I look at students and my teaching, the NCLB law could become a more user-friendly tool.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear the term No Child Left Behind. Why? Well, the answers to that are many and varied. Some will say it is totally useless, others get a tad more specific and claim that it forces many students to be left behind. There are many other reasons for which people will tell you it needs to be eliminated. Personally, while I have my issues with some of the demands of NCLB, I like the concept. After all what is my goal as a teacher? I want all of my students to be successful, that’s why I constantly seek out ways to better my teaching skills. To me, that sounds like not wanting to leave any student behind. So, why do so many people think NCLB is so awful? After this conference, where I was able to immerse myself into one aspect of education for three days, I think I have a clearer picture of why. The word clearer is the operative word. As one educational guru pointed out in a session, what our students often lack is a transparent understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. They usually know what to do, but they don’t understand why they are doing it. Perhaps a lack of this type of transparent understanding is why NCLB meets with such negative attitudes.
A common thread throughout the entire conference was the modeling of how to provide useful, positive, non-judgmental, constant feedback to our students. This kind of feedback is absolutely essential if the students are to understand what they did well, and clearly understand how to fix what wasn’t done well. What we are trying to move away from is the traditional classroom approach of instruction followed by a final test where one either passes or fails, but in any case the class is moving on to the next part of the curriculum. As I think about it, the latter is just what NCLB does. Schools work all year, there is a final test, and based solely on that one test a school is labeled as a passing school or a failing school. Guess what? There is no positive feedback that gets published. No wonder some people are in a hurry to bail out of the public school system and try other options. Like the student who sees the F on the paper and thinks that’s that, most people don’t bother to ask important questions such as “Can you help me understand more specifically why the school is failing?” “Can you tell me what if any progress or learning the students did make in the failing area?” Now that last question may seem peculiar to some of you. If the school is failing in an area how can you have made progress? Well, think of the traditional grading scale; what is failing? It is a wide range from 0% to 59%. As students discover, when they are able to compare pretest scores to post test scores, they may fail both, but learning has happened if the post test score is higher than the pretest. Indeed, with at least one school with which I am familiar, progress was made, but the school was labeled as failing a subject area. The scores for the students who did not pass this subject area were higher than they have ever been. In fact, many students missed the passing level by only one or two questions. The school did make overall progress in that area. Shouldn’t that fact have been made CLEAR? Unfortunately, the public was not made aware of this part of the picture. They and the schools only received negative, judgmental feedback.
What do you really know about a school and its students when all you have is one test score from a test given at the end of the year? The kids all know how much power that one test score has. Is it any wonder kids develop test anxiety? My hope is that we don’t all have to wait for the proverbially elusive, perfect world to see things change.
In the event the perfect world isn’t just around the corner, I would like to see some thought given now to devising a system whereby schools can be monitored on a regular basis so a trend in progress, or lack thereof, can be tracked. This monitoring needs to done in ways other than testing. As teachers, we realize that there is much more to a student’s learning than just the final test at the end of a unit. By the same token, there is much more to a school than just how the kids perform one day of the year. Why not look at the effort put in by teachers and administration for professional development to adopt best teaching practices? Why not look at the efforts being made on behalf of second language learners and the special needs populations? Why not provide the kind of professional development to districts that districts provide to teachers? Perhaps this would not only give the schools a clear goal, but a clear understanding of how to attain that goal. Is that too much to ask for?
I don’t know how to promote this thinking, but I truly feel that if the higher ups practiced the same best teaching practices that they preach, all schools, teachers, and most importantly, students would benefit. As I reflect on this piece, I feel compelled to slip in one more urging for Utahans to vote against Referendum 1, which would approve vouchers. We can make our public schools the best in the world if we are willing to make a commitment. The effort to make NCLB a positive tool for schools to have in an effort to improve would be a way to start the ball rolling. What do you think? In addition to No Child Left Behind, perhaps we should implement a grass roots program entitled No School Left Behind.