We're honored to have Lily Eskelsen, Secretary-Treasurer of the National Education Association and teacher extraordinaire, as this month's guest columnist on The MamaVote.
They could not have given a prettier name to a dumber law: No Child Left Behind.
The original law had a boring name. Since 1965 it's been called The Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA. A very bureaucratic name for a good law that gave high-poverty schools extra money for things like reading tutors, computers, teacher training and even class size reduction. In 2001, Congress passed the President's new version and renamed it No Child Left Behind. Every five years, the law is reauthorized. This is when changes can be made. This law needs a lot of (as in massive) changes. Because as it is now written, it's not just absurdly unworkable...it's hurting kids.
Let's take the new testing mandates. I'm a teacher. Teachers aren't against tests. We invented tests. But I always used tests for what they were designed for. The end of the chapter test. The spelling test. The essay test. I used them to diagnose problems with my elementary studentsor see if they were making progress on their times tables or whether or not they were able to communicate in a complete sentence. The politicians who passed No Child Left Behind don't understand children or tests. They wanted an easy way to tell if a child was learning. They wanted "accountability". Here's what they came up with.
Every state must choose a reading and math test and determine a cut score for proficiency. A state can pick a hard test or any easy test. A high cut score or a low cut score. They have to give a grade-level test to every student in 3rd-8th grades and once in high school. Every student. Children who don't speak English. Children with serious disabilities. Children who move every few months. An individual student's growth is not measured. This year's third graders are simply compared against last year's third graders. Every state must measure how many children in each grade level pass the test. More must pass next year. More the year after. And more and more until the magical year 2014 (that's only seven years away) when, because Congress says so, 100% of your school's children must hit the cut score in both tests. One. Hundred. Percent.
This, as it happens, is a statistical impossibility. If one child in one grade level on one test misses the cut score by one point, the entire school is labeled failure by the federal government. Many states have reported that under the "Perfection Testing Mandate" virtually all of their schools will be labeled failure. Even so, schools are trying hard to comply with the law. The pressure on teachers to drill and drill students only on what is on the test is enormous. Art, music, sports, technology, science, creative writing, debate, theater, vocational programs, history, everything that is not covered on the test, is at risk. Parents are seeing their children, even kindergarten children, worried about passing a test instead of excited about learning. I have seen my colleagues with tears in their eyes because they felt they were being asked to compromise their commitment to teaching the whole child.
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Politicians gave us this mess. But I always taught my students to clean up after themselves. Politicians can clean this up, but there are many, many things a candidate for public office is going to be asked to do. They are bound to prioritize those things that are of greatest concern to the people who elect them. That's you.
It's up to you to ask federal candidates for the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and, yes, even President of the United States, what they are going to do to fix No Child Left Behind. When you are called by a campaign or a pollster to find out what you're looking for in a public official, ask them if they intend to fix the testing mandates that misuse tests. There are fixes that make sense. Of course schools should be accountable for doing what they are supposed to do. Ask them if they support accountability that measures the growth of an individual student from the beginning of the year to the end of the year instead of simply comparing the percentage of this year's kids who hit the cut score with the percentage of last year's kids. Ask if they support allowing multiple measures of success instead of relying solely on a one-size-fits-all standardized test. Ask if they will restore the funding for things that work like class size reduction, reading specialists and teacher training.
Listen carefully to their answers. And then make your decision based on the candidate who understands what children truly need to succeed in school: Caring teachers, involved parents, a comprehensive curriculum and rich opportunities to learn in an atmosphere where kids are engaged and excited about where their education can lead them.
Then do the most powerful thing a citizen can do. Vote. Decide who will be the best advocate for your children and their education. An election is the ultimate accountability test for a politician who wishes to serve the public. But that test only works if we do our homework and show up on election day to mark the best answer to the question, "Which of the following candidates is going to help make my child's school a great place to learn?"
It gives me goose bumps to live in a country where we get to answer that question. We all have to live with the answer.