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Statement of Becky Pringle

Submitted to the Committee on Education

Wisconsin Senate

September 13, 2007

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today on the very important issues surrounding reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I am pleased to be able to represent the views of the 3.2 million members of the National Education Association (NEA), including the more than 98,000 members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), at this hearing.

I come before you today as an eighth grade science teacher with more than 30 years of classroom experience. My testimony is informed not only by my personal teaching experience, but also by the work I have done in numerous professional capacities for the National Education Association, as well as the opportunities I have had to meet with and learn from NEA members across the country. I serve on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and I chair the NEA Elementary and Secondary Education Act Advisory Committee. I have recently completed my service on the NEA Executive Committee, having had the privilege of representing NEA members in this capacity for two terms.

NEA and WEAC members have approached the ESEA reauthorization with a fervent hope that it would offer an opportunity for a renewed, broad, and bold national discussion about how to improve and support public education. We want all students to succeed. We show up at schools every day to nurture children, to bring out their full potential, to be anchors in their lives, and to help prepare them for the 21st century world that awaits them.

I have been honored to serve for these past two years as Chair of a thoughtful and diverse committee of our members, charged by the NEA president to help outline what, in our view, would be a positive reauthorization of ESEA. Our committee worked for more than two years — hearing from experts, digesting volumes of research, and listening to practitioners across the country — to come up with not just recommendations about how to change Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, but substantive, thoughtful recommendations about how to define and create a great public school for every child.

Simply put, this reauthorization is and should be about more than tweaking the No Child Left Behind portions of ESEA. It should be a comprehensive examination of whether federal policies follow what the research says about how children learn and what makes a successful school. And, this reauthorization should not continue to ignore the unacceptable opportunity and achievement gaps that plague so many of our communities and students.

Lack of access to after-school programs and extended learning time programs and curriculum gaps continue to prevent students from accessing a rich and broad curriculum. This is exacerbated by No Child Left Behind's over-emphasis and over-reliance on standardized testing in three subject areas: math, reading, and now science. Many poor and minority communities as well as many rural and urban schools do not have access to arts, advanced placement, or physical education courses, nor do they have access to innovative curricula such as information literacy, environmental education, and financial literacy. Too many of our neediest students are taught by uncertified and under-prepared teachers. There are significant infrastructure and school environment gaps that hamper learning. Students clearly cannot learn in buildings with leaky roofs or in classrooms in which one cannot turn on a computer and the lights at the same time without blowing a fuse.

These gaps are attributable not only to inequitable distribution of resources, but also insufficient resources altogether, particularly from the federal government. Each year under No Child Left Behind, the gap between federal funding promised in the law and what has been delivered has grown ever wider. To date, the federal government has shortchanged states and school districts by $56 billion.

If one of our goals is to remedy achievement and skills gaps that exist among different groups of students in this country, we cannot do so without addressing these opportunity gaps. This is about more than disparities in per pupil spending across states, within states, and within districts; it's about disparities in the basics of a student's life — disparities in the learning environments to which students are subject, disparities in the age of their textbooks and materials, disparities in course offerings, disparities in access to after-school help and enrichment, and yes, disparities in access to qualified, caring educators.

I would like to commend Wisconsin for having a more progressive philosophy about the distribution of resources and attempting to address the notion of equity. More needs to be done all across the country, however.

Our members have no doubt that No Child Left Behind, as it has played out in schools and classrooms across the country, is not fair, not flexible, and not funded. So, we have called on the United States Congress to take this opportunity for a major course-correction.

Here in Wisconsin, you have first-hand experience with the failings of No Child Left Behind. A survey conducted last year by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators found that a full 83 percent of Wisconsin superintendents believe No Child Left Behind is not helping to improve educational quality for poor and minority students in their districts even though that is the stated purpose of the law. In addition:

  • 73 percent of respondents believe that No Child Left Behind has not improved the overall quality of education in their districts.
  • 69 percent believe students are spending too much time preparing for and taking standardized exams.
  • 60 percent say the law is narrowing the curriculum in their districts.

Perhaps most troubling, 80 percent of Wisconsin superintendents do not believe their districts will meet the AYP goal of all students scoring proficient or advanced by 2013.

In June of this year, the list of schools that did not meet No Child Left Behind's unrealistic standards included 95 Wisconsin schools and two school districts — Kenosha and Milwaukee — that failed to make AYP. It also included 45 schools and one district — Milwaukee — that have been identified as "in need of improvement" for missing the same AYP objective for two or more consecutive years. These schools don't need new mandates or punishments from the federal government; they need resources and support, and they need a common-sense accountability system that presents a complete, accurate picture of their achievements.

The federal government has failed to provide Wisconsin school districts with $593 million promised under ESEA Title I, Part A, to assist schools in helping the students with the greatest needs. Of this cumulative shortfall, $191 million is for the current 2007-08 school year. While Kenosha failed to make AYP, the federal government failed to provide the school district with $16 million in Title I funds promised under No Child Left Behind since its enactment. While Milwaukee failed to make AYP, the federal government failed to provide the school district with $252 million in Title I funds promised under No Child Left Behind since its enactment.

NEA members in Wisconsin care deeply about the reauthorization process and its outcome because they have lived for more than five years under a system that was crafted without enough of their input, that has proven to be unworkable, and in too many cases has had negative, unintended consequences. They, like NEA members across the country, are counting on a thoughtful process this time and a bill that recognizes more than just the technical flaws with the statute, but the conceptual and philosophical flaws of the current test-label-punish theory of education reform.

Let me share some real-life perspective on the law from WEAC members.

Melissa Barkley, an elementary school teacher in Weston, writes,

Since the adoption of NCLB, art, music, drama, and physical education classes have been reduced or eliminated to make room for the tested subjects of math, reading, and writing. Because I am a great teacher, I know that students perform better when they are motivated. With the exclusion of these programs, students lack motivation to come to school and participate in activities. If it continues, students will have nothing to read or write about.

Kraig Brownell, a high school science teacher in La Crosse, tells us,

President Bush came to my high school (Logan High School in La Crosse) in May of 2002 as part of his trip to launch ESEA/NCLB. His reason for coming to our school was because we had achieved excellent test scores with a large population of economically disadvantaged students….Since [that time], class size has increased to the point that I cannot safely monitor and individually help in the lab area. In addition, the main focus of district-sponsored training has shifted away from methodology and toward focusing teaching to the ESEA test. What a waste of money and professional time it is to instruct teachers on how to teach students to take tests in place of teaching ways to educate students for lifelong learning and critical thinking!

Jack Clement, a social studies teacher in East Troy, says,

Because of NCLB's emphasis on high-stakes testing, teachers must take valuable time away from teaching the curriculum to prepare for, and take the state test (WKCE). The high school test must be taken in October of the 10th grade but does not correspond to most school district curriculum, so students are often tested on subject topics that they will not be taught until later in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. This test also does not promote higher-level critical thinking skills and is therefore detrimental to student learning.

Wendy Haag, a middle school teacher in Janesville, tells us,

I teach a self-contained math class in a middle school. This is a multi-grade level (6th, 7th, and 8th) class in which students with special educational needs from all areas are enrolled. I have two weeks in both the fall and spring in which about one-third of my class is missing due to mandated testing. Instruction is severely disrupted for students who are more in need of instruction and remediation, yet the district requires that each grade be tested twice each year so that we can show adequate gains. The current law requires my special needs students to take the same assessments without regard to their current level of skills or ability to understand the concepts. These interruptions in classroom instruction definitely interfere with both curriculum presentation and the mastery levels my students attain. Help!

And finally, Rozalia Harris, an elementary school teacher in Milwaukee, writes,

The focus on ESEA and testing has taken the heart of teaching out of the classroom. Students' spirit for learning and sharing has been reduced to rote memorization. Creativity is a skill students need to compete in today's society. Don't reduce the power of the teacher and students by having them spend 75 percent of their time and energy on a one-shot testing experience.

This week in the United States Congress, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on a "discussion draft" for reauthorization of Title I of ESEA. At that hearing, NEA President Reg Weaver told the committee that we do not believe the committee's first discussion draft of Title I adequately remedies most of the problematic provisions of the current law.

While the draft bill currently under discussion in the House includes the concepts of growth models and multiple measures in an attempt to get a more accurate picture of student learning and school quality, so far these provisions are inadequate, as the accountability system envisioned still relies overwhelmingly on two statewide standardized assessments. This does not give real meaning to the growth model and multiple measure concepts and defies the advice of assessment experts across the country.

We believe there must be a richer accountability system with shared responsibility by stakeholders at all levels for appropriate school accountability. Such an accountability system must marry not only accountability for achievement and learning by students, but also shared accountability to remedy other gaps in our education system and flaws in the current accountability model.

This reauthorization for us is about more than fixing AYP and other provisions that have been problematic; it's about recognizing that providing a quality education to every student takes more than a measurement system. It's about sending a message to students that they are more than just test scores. We should care as much OR MORE about whether a child graduates after receiving a comprehensive, high-quality education as we do about how he or she performs on a standardized test. We should be sending a message to educators that the art and practice of teaching is and must be about more than test preparation. If the only measures we really value are test scores, rather than some of the other indicators of a rich and challenging educational experience and set of supports provided to students, then we will have missed the mark again when it comes to adequately serving and educating all children. We will have avoided yet again the more difficult discussion of what services AND outcomes are important for all stakeholders to be held accountable.

At this week's congressional hearing, Reg Weaver reminded the committee about the essential elements included in our Positive Agenda that would truly make a difference in student learning and success. These include early childhood education, class size reduction, safe and modern facilities, and a real attempt to infuse 21st century skills and innovation into our schools to ensure that public education in this country is relevant and engaging to students in our changing, inter-dependent world. He urged the committee to remember that teaching and learning conditions are one of the two main factors (low salaries being the other) that continue to create the teacher recruitment and retention problem, particularly in the hardest to staff schools, and to take this opportunity to address these critical issues.

Today, I urge you to help send a strong message to the United States Congress that No Child Left Behind is not working in Wisconsin. I encourage you to go on record, calling for Congress to focus on what you know works — in Wisconsin and across the country — great teachers and staff, small class sizes, one-on-one attention, ongoing teacher training and mentoring, up-to-date books and learning materials, parental involvement, and community support, instead of mandates and punishments handed down from Washington, D.C.

We are pleased that, on the Senate side in Congress, Wisconsin's Senator Russ Feingold is planning to introduce legislation that would address some of the major issues I have raised here today. His bill would grant states more control over their testing schedules and accountability systems. States would be allowed to go back to testing once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school if they so choose. States could also continue to test annually as they do now under No Child Left Behind. The point is that states would have the flexibility.

Senator Feingold's legislation emphasizes high quality assessments, not high volume. And his legislation would move us in the right direction toward assessing student learning and school quality through the use of multiple measures and growth models. He has been a leader in the Senate in making his colleagues aware of the negative affects of No Child Left Behind in terms of narrowed curriculum, incompatibility with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and focus on punishment rather than help and support. He has listened to educators and his constituents all across the state, and we thank him for that.

Representative Petri has also been listening and shares many of these concerns. I was pleased to testify at a listening session he held in April of this year.

In conclusion, it is clear that the current NCLB law is not working for Wisconsin educators, students, or schools. Major changes are needed to ensure every child in Wisconsin and in every state has the opportunity to excel. I thank you for inviting me to share the views of NEA and WEAC with you today. We look forward to future opportunities to work together to ensure great public schools for every child.