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On the Hill

Due for an Overhaul

Christina Bartolomeo

Educators are concerned about NCLB’s damaging effects on students—and new teachers, too.


“It should have been called ‘No Teacher Left Standing,’” quips South Carolina high school teacher Tonya Davis.

Now up for reauthorization by Congress, the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, is the sweeping 2002 education law that sets federal funding for, and imposes strict accountability requirements on, America’s public schools.

When NEA asked teachers across the country for their take on life under NCLB, one theme surfaced repeatedly:

Teachers deplore NCLB’s relentless focus on standardized testing. Educators say it encourages a “teach to the test” approach that replaces creative teaching with rote memorization, waters down the curriculum, and causes anxiety for students and teachers alike.

 Teachers are also worried—very worried—about NCLB’s impact on young teachers with a vision for their career that goes beyond “drill and kill” test preparation.

Schools as Test-Prep Factories

Mike Archer came to teaching after a successful career as a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and an editor with the New York Times regional newspapers. He loves teaching English at Mount Dora High School in Lake County, Florida—so much so that, after only five years in the classroom, he’s obtained his National Board Certification.

But now, Archer says, standardized testing preparation is dominating class time and hampering his ability to use his training.

“My students are being subjected to a constant battery of tests of marginal educational value,” says Archer. “Teachers like to use testing to diagnose what students need, but NCLB’s one-size-fits-all approach works against that goal. You’re turning kids into trained parrots. Running schools on a factory model makes it easy to score them, but it diminishes the opportunity to get a solid education.”

Teachers say NCLB’s emphasis on standardized testing ignores differences in students’ learning rates and styles; saps the joy out of learning; and overshadows higher-order thinking and reasoning skills.

“I want my students to know how to speak well, write well, work in teams, and develop a love for reading they’ll keep their whole lives,” says Archer. Instead, in his English III course, he’s required to use a state-directed curriculum that he describes as “ridiculously shallow…a mile wide and an inch deep.”

The state-directed curriculum for his English III class guides Archer to teach 14 essential skills, 17 essential questions, and 15 authors in the first seven days of the course.

Moreover, as schools channel their efforts into reading and math—the two main subjects tested under NCLB—teachers are alarmed that other vital subjects, including social studies, science, the arts, world languages, and physical education, are getting short shrift.

New Teachers Caught in the Crossfire

Current teachers say they value new teachers’ energy and ideas—and they’re concerned that NCLB is squelching new teachers’ enthusiasm.

Mark Murray, a 22-year language arts and social studies teacher in San Francisco, reports, “Brand-new teachers going into openings in hard-to-staff schools like ours are experiencing life under NCLB sanctions. It’s a culture shock.

 They get to our school and are told they have to use a certain curriculum and a pacing guide.

They say, ‘You mean I can’t use the teaching methods I was told would work? I have to spend how much time on assessment?’”

Hope for Change on the Horizon

Can NCLB be fixed to support students and teachers, not punish them?

There are high hopes that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and the new Congress can fashion a new version of the law that lives up to its original promise of helping all children learn.

Obama has broad public support for changing NCLB. A 2008 Phi Delta Kappan poll finds that only 16 percent of the public believes that NCLB should be extended without change.

NEA, one of the first organizations to point out NCLB’s serious flaws, will play a leading role in the reauthorization.

“NEA has always supported NCLB’s goals—high standards and closing achievement gaps,” says Joel Packer, NEA’s director of education policy and practice. “But the current law needs a fundamental overhaul.”

Crucial to NEA’s vision for reform, Packer says, is a revamped accountability system that includes multiple measures of student learning and school success (for example, teacher-designed classroom assessments, student portfolios, graduation/dropout rates, and the percentage of students taking honors/advanced classes). 

“The federal government must shift away from NCLB’s proscriptive ‘test/label/punish’ focus, and instead work with states to reward success,” Packer says.

He urges the next generation of teachers to mobilize to support these reforms. “It’s the best way to help ensure that when they enter the classroom, they’re actually treated like professionals.”

Mike Archer agrees. “Congress needs to hear directly from the people who work in the classrooms. If teachers speak out from Key West to Oregon, if teachers let parents know what’s really going on in the schools, the damage this unfunded, poorly executed law has caused, the truth will finally find its way to Washington.”

NCLB: Accountability Gone Awry

NCLB is the latest incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). While previous versions of ESEA rightly demanded accountability for federal dollars, NCLB’s accountability provisions are extreme and unrealistic.

NCLB requires states to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math. Schools must make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP)—as determined by a complex formula—or else face escalating consequences, such as replacing teachers and staff or turning the school over to a private management company.

But AYP doesn’t really measure progress, because it doesn’t acknowledge that students start out in different places, holding nearly all students to the same arbitrary benchmark. Thus, many schools making excellent strides are deemed “failures.”

Mark Murray teaches language arts and social studies at Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco, where many students struggle with poverty, learning English, and staying out of gangs—but NCLB doesn’t recognize these challenges.

For example, Horace Mann students with only one year of English instruction must take the same standardized tests as native English-speaking students.

Because Horace Mann didn’t make AYP, it’s been labeled “in need of improvement,” deflating staff morale and prompting an even stronger emphasis on standardized tests at the expense of a broader, more engaging curriculum.

“Teachers are made to feel that it’s our own fault—that if we were doing our jobs right, the kids would be passing these tests,” says Murray.

Like most teachers, Murray has no problem with accountability. “The point is to make accountability measures realistic, and not a burden,” he says.—C. B.

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