Race to the Children Left Behind

Whenever the words No Child Left Behind are uttered, every educator I have been around rolls their eyes, at best. The constant discussion in my classes is how do we promote best practices in education and comply with NCLB standards. This tension reveals how our politicians and educators interact.

Accountability: Don’t Look at ME!

They totally do.

Accountability is the big buzz word these days, and Obama slings it around as thoughtlessly as his predecessor.  To politicians, accountability in the classroom means holding teachers accountable for students’ successes or failures, because, as we all know, teachers show perfect control over their students’ lives. So when the students under a teacher do poorly, as determined by a state mandated standardized test, we need to get rid of that teacher. We gain nice clean data which allows us to clean up the education system. This idea sounds perfectly reasonable to people who aren’t the teachers.

Educators call it high-stakes testing, and it contributes to burnout. A few fellow grad students, beginning their student teaching, were told that from now until the end of May that they will run test prep with the kids. Two months worth of drilling and bubbling in answers, skills which may increase the students test scores. Drilling can lead to short-term success but the math and reading abilities kids gain when doing test prep don’t necessarily transfer to later in that students life. So we get students with good test scores who can only perform math and reading in the narrow confines of how they are tested.

Flash and Lack of Substance

So when I heard that Obama wants to overhaul NCLB, you’d think I would be happy. I’ll admit the rhetoric of respecting teachers as “nation builders” sounds extremely nice, but it has not been supported by current politics and pundit discourse.

While Obama wants to overhaul NCLB, the alternative program Race to The Top still emphasizes test scores, and the criterion for getting money from the program was to link teacher evaluation to test scores. Now they call it “Value-Added Assessment.” As Obama discussed, this method tries to keep good teachers and get rid of the bad ones. If a teacher does not improve or maintain students’ scores they are not “adding value.” The upside of this is that if a teacher raises scores they would receive more compensation, but the additional weight this gives the standardized tests balances out this apparent benefit.

Obama wants us to think he’s changing NCLB, but he isn’t. The same high-stakes testing that Bush introduced just has a new name. He wants to encourage innovation in our educational system, but with high-stakes testing, teachers cannot afford to take the time to encourage creativity in their students, unless they want to risk their job.

Accountability is important. There are bad teachers, and they can harm students. Unions often protect them, and politicians are looking for legislative tools to remove them. Their solution, however, is not the gunpowder to stop an oil rig fire; it is burning down a house to stop a robber.

Is this federal mismanagement, or another attempt to keep the poor poor and stupid? Can you formulate a better system of teacher (and administrator) accountability? Do you have experience with teachers “teaching to the test” that demonstrate the drawbacks of high-stakes testing? Any victories?

Donny got a BA in English, which he thought meant badass, but then he got to the real world. Now he realizes it means bitter academic. Donny did a stint in grad school with a focus on education, which made him angry enough to start writing columns. While education is still his main focus, Donny now wants to apply his academic rigor to other mundane activities.