In Defense of NCLB

2013 Jun 20: Just for the record, the person who wrote this was kind of a jackass. Signed, The Person Who Wrote This.

Dear Colleagues,

I feel a lot of distance between us lately, and not just because I’m child- and mortgage-less. It’s because I’m embarrassed of you. The public thinks we’re a bunch of whiney, overentitled babysitters and ever since NCLB debuted back in 2002, you’ve done precious little to improve our public relations.

I’m not at all trying to tell you that NCLB is perfect legislation or even that I have a perfect grasp on its policy or funding. But then, none of the complaints I hear in the teacher’s lounge, at department meetings, or around the blogosphere concern policy or funding.

You guys complain that NCLB forces you to drill-and-kill your students, that it sucks the life out of learning, that you’ve had to abandon your best lessons, and that it stifles your creativity. The Educator Roundtable has posted a lot of sobering, lucid criticism (completely sourced, no less) that really make the aspiring educational activist proud. But the rest of you just whine. And it’s killing me.

My union’s monthly propoganda rag, California Educator, is often painful to read, full of conspiracy theorizing, transparent political rabble-rousing, and hoary teaching clichés about “making a difference,” but its September 2006 issue was almost unreadable. Quotes from an article entitled NCLB Gets An F ranged from sensational to sniveling.

Many educators believe that the true purpose of the law is to set schools up for failure.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education blames NCLB for increased obesity among youth.

Montaño, who trains future educators, says NCLB has had a devastating impact on those considering entering the teaching profession. “There has been a decrease in teacher candidates throughout the CSU system.”

Does anybody outside the echo chamber believe any of these? I can’t decide which assertion is more absurd, or if the issue is even one of absurdity. Perhaps these are just suppositions run horribly amock. Since state-controlled schools are the occasional reality, NCLB must be an insidious ploy to privatize education. I’ve never seen even anecdotal evidence that physical education has been threatened since NCLB (nor does California Educator bother to supply any). But even if PE classes were cancelled nationwide, NASPE isn’t worth its funding if it blames NCLB before cheetos and bad parenting.

It gets worse once we push past all that unsubstantiated provocation.

Science teacher Mark Green … fears NCLB will soon take the fun out of teaching his specialty. Next year, [middle school] science will be subject to standardized testing under NCLB.

The drill-and-kill approach to learning is turning children off to school and offering no opportunities for students who might excel in other areas.

Pacing charts tell teachers what page they should be on at which time on what day. If students are unable to keep up, the constraints of the pacing guides keep teachers from going back over the material.

If I ever meet “science teacher Mark Green” I will have some very incredulous eyebrows for him. I sincerely hope the effect of all this entitled sobbing is limited to our teacher’s union where I know Mark has plenty of friends. But I suspect these complaints are leaking out into the civilian world, where we increasing come across as spoiled children snuffling in the sandbox at the loss of our favorite toys. This is embarrassing. I tell new acquaintences I’m a pimp. At least they know I work hard.

In between drafts I spent a lot of time researching NCLB at Shut Up And Teach and Practical Theory and it’s clear there are serious problems with NCLB. But this makes it more important — not less — that teachers stay on message. Most are content to set up this transparently false dichotomy between “serving my kids” and “teaching to the test” when there is a nearly limitless expanse between those extremes for the teacher who’s willing to work at it. You people can rally against NCLB without embarrassing yourselves and me but you’ve got to pick the right reasons and stick to them.

I certainly don’t dispute that NCLB constrains teachers. I mean, I personally feel constrained. But I have nothing but scorn for any teacher who floats the idea that these constraints have forced her to drill-and-kill her students, to trample past students who need help, to abandon creativity, or to sour her students to learning. Please name me another profession that had fewer quality control checkpoints than “teacher” did pre-NCLB. Even if NCLB were the most constraining legislation since Prohibition, I would still have nothing but dismay for these teachers whose first reaction to accountability is outrage rather than innovation.

I’ve written at length about how The Wire, in its third season, spoke lucidly and loudly to the difficulties of teaching at-risk youth. It did so obliquely, though, through tangential subplots involving the failures of well-intending police and parents.

However, in its fourth season, when it tackles the Baltimore school system directly, it becomes preachy, didactic, and almost as annoying as my colleagues’ ritualized mope-fests over standardized tests, though much much more eloquent.

Disgraced-police-officer-cum-middle-school-math-teacher Prezbo goes through a learning curve easily recognized by any former student teacher. He’s weak on the first day, passive-aggressive, and unorganized. He opens with the problem about two trains traveling towards each other at different speeds, the fate of which trains no one has cared about since the early 1980s.

Especially not Prezbo’s class.

Mercifully, the writers don’t try to pass Prezbo off as an expert teacher by end of the thirteen-week season, but he and his students do meet each other halfway on the whole math thing. Prezbo teaches them the probability of shooting dice and suddenly the class is motivated! Prezbo’s constantly-queasy, put-upon expression melts a bit as he observes pockets of learning around the room, groups of four and five playing craps and tossing Monopoly money on the floor. It’s a beautiful scene — sincerely — and further into the season, several students turn their knowledge of probability tables into big winnings in a street game.

But then weeks pass, those tests start sneaking up, and the teachers of Tilghman Middle gnash their teeth, tear their clothes, and scatter ashes around their classrooms.

CUT TO: Prezbo droning at his class, drilling-and-killing problems straight from the test manual. An administrator looks on approvingly. Once the administrator leaves, Prezbo slumps into his desk, and says acquiescingly, “We have 45 minutes … we can practice probability.” Cheers abound. Prezbo beams. Teachers watching HBO lean to their spouses and mutter obscenities about how NCLB “constrains teachers.”

All you people shame me.

One gets the sense from The Wire that if only those pesky adminstrators weren’t popping in all the time and if only those creativity-killing, obesity-causing standardized tests weren’t approaching annually, Prezbo and his class could shoot craps every day for the rest of the year.

In what drunken script conference did this rhyme with good teaching? In fact, Prezbo represents the laziest kind of teacher — the guy who only wants to teach the easy and fun material — for 45 minutes no less.

But teacher to teacher, let’s be honest. Learning is difficult. Learning runs a tractor through gray matter, plowing beds for neurons to connect. It was easy for most of us but it isn’t easy for most of our students. It’s typified by confusion, questions, and frustration.

Our measure as teachers is not defined by how well we engage students in lessons that are inherently engaging. Even a non-credentialed hack like Prezbo can spin gold from a golden lesson.

It so happens this week I’ll be teaching the exact same lesson as Prezbo, leading with the same salacious Vegas tie-in, hooking my kids the same way he did his. They’ll roll dice and gamble with lima beans for Tootsie Rolls. It’s fun. The kids will love it. I know that for as long as they’re rolling dice, discipline won’t be an issue. But if I spend more than a half hour of class time on such a superficial introduction to probability, much less the weeks Prezbo seems to have squandered, I’ll be really embarrassed of myself.

No, our measure as teachers is defined by how engaging, lucid, and relevant we can be during the difficult lessons, by how effectively we prepare all our students for their futures and for mandatory assessment, all while maintaining a brisk pace through a wide breadth of material. Nothing less. Know this: our worth as teachers didn’t change on January 8, 2002; our burden of proof just became greater.

As such, NCLB was the best thing that ever happened to mediocre teachers. As of January 8, 2002, mediocre teachers were no longer complacent, unadaptive, dispassionate, boring creatures incapable of differentiated instruction and intolerant of learning modalities. No, NCLB was just sucking the life out of teaching.

No longer were mediocre teachers too lazy to create fun and satisfying learning experiences that transferred easily to state testing; NCLB was forcing them to teach to the test.

The accountability measures of NCLB have mobilized the mediocre. After all, if they don’t bemoan the lens that’s drawing nearer their classrooms, someone might look through it and realize that …

… they allocate hundreds of instructional hours to activities that are fun and unchallenging for students and rather than find ways to make the other subject strands a little more fun and lucid, they gripe that NCLB is making teaching too rigid.

[Alternatively: If the learning can’t be fun — and forgive me, completing the square may never be fun — make it clear. Make it satisfying.]

they wait until the end of the year to start reviewing for standardized testing and once they finally check the released questions they claim they’ve been forced to drill-and-kill their students.

[Alternatively: Download the questions early. Work them into openers, into games, into assessments. If you read the questions straight from the manual in Prezbo-esque monotone, yeah, the kids’ll check out.

Instead, phrase them expectantly. “Let’s see how well you guys are gonna do in the spring.” I walk around and check their answers to a question-of-the-day and holler out a running tally — “Nine students right, three wrong.” — which doesn’t let anybody know how her neighbor did but which turns “drilling-and-killing” into a fun, challenging competition. Believe me. Even though your students are more cynical than you are about assessment, they still want to know if they can handle the challenge.

I think the Algebra CSTs are too heavy on quadratics but damn if the Geometry test isn’t a fine and fair exam I’m happy to let represent my students. My point is: have you people even looked at the test you’re sweating to discredit?]

… they take five minutes to get their students working, they let them line up at the door ten minutes early, and in between they burn the clock with slow transitions between activities. I’m not going to condescend to my audience by multiplying these wastes over 180 school days.

[Alternatively: Set the expectation from the first day that we work bell to bell. Everyday, when the bell rings, I walk in from greeting students at the door, give a quick welcome, and then silently count to thirty at a corner of the board reserved for discipline. The warmup exercises have been on the board since the bell rang and the students know that anyone who isn’t working quietly when I finish counting stays after class thirty seconds.

They also know from experience that if the class packs up early, I add problems to their homework assignment. They know that we don’t leave until everyone is in her assigned seat.

I keep the day’s worksheets within arm’s reach; I am rehearsed and planned and consequently, despite a close finish, I don’t feel rushed by NCLB. That includes all sorts of exciting project-based learning.

California Educator makes the shameless implication that minute-by-minute curriculum maps are commonplace nowadays. Even if this were true, if you’re going to cry to me about the pace of your year, the first thing I’m going to do is ask you how well you use class time. I’m going to ask you how much time you waste reviewing homework. Classroom management deserves its own post but we’ll let it suffice now to say it’s awfully difficult to meet content standards if you make yelling at your class an integral part of your daily lesson plan.]

Montaño is wrong. Enrollment across CSU teaching schools is down not because highly-qualified graduates are afraid of NCLB’s challenge. Enrollment is low because, as a profession, teaching has never been so disgraceful. Would all the intelligent, motivated university graduates who want to associate themselves with a pack of sobbing, embittered, entitled, lifetime-credential-holding children please raise their hands?

Listen, I do regret my tone somewhat. (For the record, my first draft was frequently unprintable.) I started teaching 18 months into NCLB so I never knew these salad days of slackened accountability my colleagues speak of in such reverent tones — days when it didn’t matter what you taught so long as it was fun enough to placate your unruly students, days when you didn’t have to hone your time management because, hell, if you didn’t finish the book, that was the next teacher’s mess to clean up. I’m glib and disapproving but, sincerely, I realize that NCLB must have been a rather rude surprise.

But remember that we define ourselves not just as teachers but as human beings by how we handle ourselves when the easy turns tough. You can complain and try to kick up enough dust to cloud your complacent practice. Or you can see this as one of the proudest and most challenging moments our careers, when we were called to serve every student, every racial and socioeconomic subgroup. A moment when one race left behind was serious enough for us to deem its entire school left behind.

Even though I have never worked harder for less compensation in any other job, I am so thrilled to have entered teaching for such a time as this. Complain, all you obstinate teachers, mired in mediocrity, fettered by inefficiency, too stubborn to seek help. Complain as loud as you want. I’ll still be here, still doing my job.

Sincerely,

Dan

About 

I’m Dan and this is my blog. I’m a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

43 Comments

  1. I’m with you on much of your ideological sickness throughout what you’ve written here. We had a professional development requirement in order to renew our teaching credentials every 5 years. It was a small requirement that was really just titular, but at least it was there, at least it was something to remind us that we need to keep improving. It was removed in 2006. If I ever hear any teacher happy about it, I swear I’ll throw a right cross. Now credential renewal is as easy as filling out a form on a Web site. That makes me ill.

    You would be right on the mark if NCLB (c’mon, it’s ESEA, let’s cut the propaganda) actually held teachers accountable. But here it is, 2007, and mediocre teachers are still mediocre and bad teachers are still bad. NCLB ain’t doing anything about it because those teachers don’t care and know they won’t lose their jobs over it. NCLB does nothing to raise teacher quality. If it did, I’d support it. All it does is make the public feel *as if* teachers are more accountable, *as if* something is being done to improve the state of public education. NCLB has done the worst thing possible by taking attention away from reform and stopping the public discussion of how we can make our schools better. The conversation ended because testing is the answer, as far as most citizens and politicians are concerned.

    Dan, I thought you might get a kick out of what I wrote about this roughly a year ago. I’d email this to you directly if I could, so please delete this link as soon as you read it. It’s just a point of interest for you specifically:
    The Good, The Bad, The NCLB

  2. Oh, and my school didn’t meet our API because we missed giving the test to 5 students. We met all other growth goals, but because of our low participation rate in one subgroup (yes, it equated to 5 students fewer than the target), the public sees that my school didn’t meet that goal (you have to meet every target out of 21, I believe, in order to meet your API). Yes, technically that’s the correct perception because we did not meet the target, but should we really be raked over the coals for missing 5 kids? Should that be one step in the march toward state takeover? That’s “accountability”?

  3. Since I find myself nodding along with most of your comments, Todd, I’ve got to believe my post is poorly purposed. See I agree that NCLB isn’t working for me like it should. It should be a great litmus test for teacher quality, but it isn’t.

    My post probably would’ve been better titled, then, “In Offense of Terrible Teachers,” or maybe, “Official Charter of Teachers Against Teachers, West Coast Chapter”

    I just can’t get down with all these teachers — my colleagues — who see the law’s obvious (to me too) weaknesses and want to toss it all out. And worse, they exploit their students (“won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children”) to serve a) their aversion to hard work, or b) in some slightly better cases their fear that they’re incapable of that work.

    There are plenty of good reasons to hate on NCLB, but it seems I’m only within earshot of the lousy ones: it forces me to be a bad teacher, it makes children obese, etc. You’ve brought up some really good ones and, though I don’t feel like I’ve got a solid read on you yet, Todd, more and more it feels like you’re urging changes to the law rather than outright abandonment. I’m not sure if I have that right.

    So in that, NCLB is a de facto litmus test for good teachers. It doesn’t matter to me whether you hate it or love it, only that you do so for the right reasons.

  4. Thank you for saying something that needed to be said, and for saying it eloquently. As a new teacher, I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the ins and outs of NCLB yet, but I must agree that the amount of whining I encountered in schools and in my university classes seems excessive.

    Thank you for describing how you operate within the system, creatively meeting the needs of the students and the law.

    I do agree with Todd, however, that NCLB doesn’t seem to be helping improve or replace the mediocre teachers. For my many observations, I witnessed very few effective teachers.

  5. Right, NCLB isn’t doing much to remove teachers but I think it is establishing a solid infrastructure for that kind of change.

    Privately, though, I’m afraid that I’m as bad as these teachers I find so insufferable. I whine as much as they do and I’m pretty sure I’m enacting as little change as they are. I know what I’d like to see:

    I’d like to see the testing macroscope brought down to a micro- level on every teacher at my school — including myself.

    I’d like to see every teacher with an accessible presence on some state website test scores running back for years, listed for the people who pay our paychecks.

    I want a pre- and a post-test.

    I want consequences for a teacher’s low performance, even if it’s just mandatory professional development.

    But having heard smarter people than me bandy about ideas like these long before I came onto the scene with my chalk and clipboard, is my hopelessness that any of this will ever happen just pessimism, or right-on accurate?

  6. I don’t understand what you mean about nodding along meaning that you did something wrong. I rather liked your agreement ’cause it made me feel like I got something right.

    I want the law there in a lot of ways, but it should only be the beginning, just as standards that are now in place (and coming upon being 10 years old) should only be the beginning. Conversations end when legislation come along because that implies that it’s all wrapped up. If ESEA (NCLB) is going to put a cap on things, then it needs to go away because that hurts education.

    Let’s get something in place as a start (which we have), but demand that we figure out better ways for it to measure whatever we want it to measure, not just assume that since we paid ETS millions of dollars it’s perfect. Recraft questions, provide more prep materials, realign sections to specific standards, etc. Then, let’s make sure that message is in the teacher colleges so the new batch is getting the word.

    Much of the things you list as what you’d like to see, I’d like to see, too. As long as that teacher Web site also lists AP, SAT, ACT, and appropriate college test scores (like the Early Admissions Program testing that is afforded to juniors on the STAR test in English and math), I’d like it as well. If it’s just CST scores, you already know my opinion on that.

    Sure, ESEA (NCLB) as a test for good teaching intentions. If you hate or love it for the wrong reasons, get out of the profession. If for the right reasons, welcome aboard.

  7. I personally believe, regardless of what it claims its goals are, a piece of legislature can not improve the quality of teaching by itself. Neither can standards, benchmarks, curricula, or any other piece of writing that governmental agencies, education researchers, or teacher educators come up with, regardless of how great their intentions are.

    If a teacher does not realize that his students performance is connected to their performance, why would he change? Are there some who do not realize that their teaching needs improvement? I am sure. Lately I have seen multiple examples of complete self delusion with respect to one’s performance. These people are convinced they do a great job.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am not delusional, and I realize that I am not doing a great job. If I know something is bad, do I necessarily know what is good? I know what makes good teaching theoretically! But how do I put that into practice? I don’t see how NCLB can help me become a better teacher.

  8. “I personally believe, regardless of what it claims its goals are, a piece of legislature can not improve the quality of teaching by itself.”

    This isn’t right. Sub out “the quality of teaching” with “the quality of driving.” There isn’t anything so sacrosanct about teaching that keeps it safe from penalties and social pressure, the majority shareholders in why people decide to drive safely.

    Though I haven’t been around all that long, I can’t picture the teacher who honestly assesses her practice as deficient, who earnestly seeks out solutions, who still comes up emptyhanded. That’s a freakish minority I can’t even picture.

    I’m thinking of the teachers who buy their students off with hours of free time every month, because it’s easier than teaching the whole time, who consequently gloss over complicated concepts, and then complain about standardized testing. These are the sorts who, if a light of sufficiently high wattage were to shine on their classrooms, would send their sloppy habits scurrying under the refrigerator. Except in some outlying cases, I believe the teacher gap is the product of conscious laziness and, yeah, the right legislation can fix this up for us.

  9. Interesting post. I think you are right that many educators place too much blame on NCLB, and that its a scapegoat for them. However, I don’t think that the show is trying to preach that dogma too, but rather represent the educators that do blame it in every way. My take on season 4’s representation of the schools is that its just another institution that fails people and is unable to see the truth of its own failings and the real reason for its students’ problems. As for Prezbo, I think his successes are supposed to be represtnative of the positive times Burns had teaching in Baltimore, but as happens with every character in the Wire, he is headed for a fall. Well, maybe just a reality check.

  10. I think I was misunderstood :( All the laws about driving would be useless if people did not try to improve their driving themselves. If they didn’t, the prisons would be full, but the quality of driving would not have improved.

    What I was trying to say is that teachers themselves need to be the driving force of change in the teaching profession. Legislature may give them more incentive to do so. I personally feel sad when we need to be threatened in order to do our best and to improve. Why don’t we try to do it on our own? Does it have anything to do with one’s motivation to become a teacher? People you talk about, the lazy ones, why are they teachers? Because they want to teach or because they don’t know what else to do? Anyway, I don’t disagree with you, but I still do think there are lots of teachers who are not aware neither of what they do, not how they do it. I can give you an example. Google mathedology, go to their lesson database and watch A.K.’s lesson, then watch the post interview.

  11. To e:

    I like your sympathy. I wish I had more of your generosity than I do. Fact is, though, just like a driver cannot claim ignorance of speed laws, simply because the consequences of breaking them are so potentially severe, I don’t excuse teachers their ignorance of lazy methodology.

    Teachers owe it to their kids to observe other classrooms, to honestly consider the evaluations they’re given, and to ask for more. The damage inflicted by a lousy teacher is too great for the excuse, “I never knew.”

    To F. Pants:

    I hate that on the basis of this one partial slam, one might think I have less than the highest respect for The Wire. I just finished a second run-through of the entire series and wandered away just as wrecked as I did the first time.

    But The Wire‘s typical evenhandedness wasn’t anywhere to be found at Tilghman Middle. And I don’t buy that Simon et al. were indicting teachers for their cynicism about and narrowmindedness toward testing. Prezbo verged on teacher-martyrdom when he thumped the table and cried, “Damn the tests, I came here to teach these kids.” (Paraphrased, but the false dichotomy still rang out.) And Cutty’s wife, with her weary resignation in every scene …

    … it’s just a pity because, if any topic could’ve used the nuanced, fair-but-scathing Wire treatment, I’m pretty sure it was NCLB.

  12. I wanted to say thank you for the kind words…that document took a minute for us to craft.

    I also want to speak to you about improving teacher quality. I am a former high school English teacher and now a teacher educator. If there was any possibility that NCLB was going to give us better teachers, I’d be waving a different flag.

    If I am to believe the thousands of teachers leaving comments on our petition, NCLB is driving dedicated, hard working, highly qualified teachers from the profession.

    If we are going to improve teacher quality, which I favor, we’ll need a much more robust instrument than a test, as David Berliner and others have explained on numerous occassions.

    Why not ask peers, supervisors, students, and the community to evaluate teachers on a number of indicators? Not only content matter but pedagogy and presence?

    Let’s be honest here, just because one knows something very well does not guarantee that transfer will follow. Some teachers, despite 4 years of college (or 5 at mine), despite being brilliant, just, well…what’s the word I want to use here….suck.

    That’s the word.

    Let’s get rid of them.

  13. Your site, experience, and research put me out of my depth, Phillip.

    I’m glad the Educator Roundtable endorses some measure of accountability and that one of your stated goals is to improve teacher quality. I believe you’re genuine.

    I also believe that, in addition to these soft, qualifiable evaluations you propose from adminstrators, peers, and students, hard, quantifiable test data are crucial. I don’t mind shifting focus to these soft metrics but it’s important for me and the community I serve to know whether I’m improving my students’ content knowledge, or if my classroom is just a year-long holding tank while they wait for a better teacher.

    As an aside, I wonder how many of your 24,000 plaintiffs would file suit against any sort of accountability measures. Those are the ones that scare me, the ones that suck, and I hope the endgame of your petition is to get rid of them.

  14. Oh, I forgot: you guy’s have earned buckets of credibility by dodging those mainstay NCLB complaints (forces you to teach to the test, kills creativity, causes obesity, etc.) that drive some hardworking teachers up the wall.

  15. Why work hard (your tagline at the top of your Blog)? Project Foundry will make it easier!

    Sounds like your school needs Project Foundry. It’s a web-based tool for the classroom that builds on the strengths of project-based learning. The tool dramatically reduces overhead for teachers, proactively engages students, and easily aggregates school customized assessments.

    Project Foundry captures the process, proof, performance and outcomes of a project to ensure these insightful experiences promote student growth and adhere to educational benchmarks.

    Currently used by 30 schools in 10 states, Project Foundry has become the tool of choice to implement project-based learning in schools.

    You should check out their website at http://www.projectfoundry.org

  16. “Please name me another profession that had fewer quality control checkpoints than “teacher” did pre-NCLB”

    President of the United States –> esp. yrs. 2000-2006.

    sorry but you did ask ;)

    to be less snarky… your thoughts actually clarify for me the realization that teachers are not all that different from students. they will seek out the easiest and most expedient way possible to satisfy the goals established by the authorities. then they will complain endlessly about it.

    not saying it’s wrong, just pointing out our human consistencies.

  17. Buz-zing!

    I think you’re right about both teachers and students tending towards laziness. Not a rebuttal to anything you’ve said, but it also seems to me that the consequences of one group’s laziness are vastly more damaging than that of the other.

  18. Thanks for bringing awareness to a side of the NCLB debate that isn’t getting enough exposure. My responses to what you’ve said here turned out to be much longer than I thought appropriate for a comment section. Forgive me, but I replied to your post on my own blog, and used your challenge as the impetus for some of my own writing.

    The link is here.

  19. Granted, there are teachers who are whining about NCLB – however, there are valid arguments against NCLB.

    The U.S. has a national teacher shortage of 200,000 this year and with the aging teaching population, few people entering the profession, and a steady increase in the student population, that number is going to increase.

    People feel that teaching is “easy” and the pay is adequate. If that were truly the case, why the large teacher shortage?

    There are some significantly unfair accountability practices in NCLB – it isn’t enough to have an opinion or a dissenting opinion, one must have an INFORMED opinion. The work I currently do affords me unique insight to the fallacies of NCLB and how it is going to eventually destroy what little infrastructure we have left.

    There are people on both sides of the NCLB debate, which is fine – it’s just that very few are qualified enough to have a worthy opinion.

    Until NCLB is reauthorized, let the beatings continue until morale improves.

  20. Dan. I got a response from you in my aggregator. I wrote up a reply. I came here to comment and it was gone. I looked for an email address, but couldn’t find one.

    Snafus? Should I wait for a revision? If you’d like the response, you can email me through my blog.

    Thanks for the good debates/discussions!

  21. A question I don’t see being asked…why would anyone support ANYTHING that George Bush comes up with? Maybe these “lazy” teachers could be part of the surge?

    Didn’t you expect the Wire to take a liberal slant on this topic? (and yes, it’s the best damn drama on TV – screw you, 24)

    Instead of defending mediocre teachers, maybe education should do something about ridding the school of them? Why tenure crap?

    Lastly, to the teachers out there: Good luck. I know you need it.

  22. Full disclosure: I just deleted a comment I deemed completely inconducive to any conversation here. It wasn’t an easy choice — I want censorship to be the infrequent exception around here — but it was quickly made.

  23. I believe NCLB could be a useful tool. The way it is currently operating however has much to be desired. Its funding is based more on penalizing the schools that need more funds and help rather than actually trying to improve the schools. The current practice is to take money away from public education and to then put it into untested charter schools. I’ve seen many schools have to lay off Fine Art teachers due to budget cuts. Before we can determine whether or not NCLB is a useful piece of legislation we need to properly fund it. Last the last statistic I saw that NCLB about 27 billion dollars short of funding since its inception. I can’t comment directly on the teaching situation NCLB creates because music is not tested via a standardized method. I do see the consequences though of the improper funding when many of my music and art education colleagues are being laid off due to cuts in funding. Talk is cheap; I’d like to see some action and funding.

  24. It bums me out that the curriculum is being narrowed so much, but, I don’t know, it seems to me that it’s more important to teach students literacy and numeracy than pottery. If a kid can’t read or add, it doesn’t make a huge difference to his possible life outcomes if he can drum a 4/4 beat. In case I seem totally ruled by my perspective, I’d put literacy way ahead of numeracy on the priority list, if it came down to it.

  25. Except that being able to drum a 4/4 beat has a direct impact on that student’s mathematical prowess. There’s a firm connection between musical ability and math skill.

    All of these things are connected. Literacy is taught on the entire campus, not just in one class. It’s an entire school’s responsibility to teach literacy. A narrowed curriculum allows for certain types of students at the expense of others. The wider the curriculum, the more likely a school actually can be everything to everyone.

    Give us bread, but give us roses, man.

  26. I’m concerned about your last comment. No matter how hard we work to make the Lit./Math experiences meaningful, a school dominated by the core subjects would be a dreary place, I suspect.

    I know you’re right about that, but your first sentence, particularly with respect to math, just isn’t correct. There’s a fair correlation between musical/mathematical ability, but causality … ? I mean, even if you wanted to embrace this holistic interconnectedness of everything, it gets really weird if we get into pottery (cylindrical integerals?) or photography (rule of thirds? proportions, I guess … ) or floral arrangement (beats me).

  27. Oh no. I said I’d leave this thread alone … but then these last few comments popped up in CoComment. Sorry Dan.

    This is something I’ve been meaning to write about on my little blog but haven’t gotten to yet. That means this comment will be too brief and completely lack citations for support, but I’ll get to it soon … promise.

    In the meantime, let me just say that I think this hits a major issue squarely on the head. A focus on just “the basics” and a failure to understand the role of the arts or the necessity of interdisciplinary learning is exactly what is killing education and is exactly why we are not connecting with SO MANY students (across the demographic board).

    I’ll throw in a few names: Daniel Goleman, Eric Jensen, Ken Robinson, Howard Gardner. Their books are worth considering.

    (I wrote about a “context and relevance” earlier, which connects to the interdisciplinary bit. I will try to address the arts bit more directly soon.)

    At the very least, it makes school a dry and dreary place to be, and that means teachers start from a losing position …

  28. Hey, throw Daniel Pink in there too… just to stay current…

    And I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this — if there was, we wouldn’t see so many smart folks debating it — I do *hate* the thoughts of literacy and numeracy taught only English and Math. We read across the curriculum, and we do math across it too.

    (O.k. we haven’t really gotten math into English much yet *except* in the idea of beats and rhythms in poetry, but I’ll admit that that’s a stretch. Or is it? I’ll muse out loud and wonder if my successful businesswoman wife knows more about fractions and math because of her training as a pianist than she does because of her math classes that she hated in high school. Are we teaching math in our drama classes when we talk about beat and rhythm? I don’t know… I wouldn’t have thought we were, but then I started thinking about what it means to explain a 6/8 meter to someone… hm. But I digress.)

    The hard part is this — it goes back to a conversation we had over the phone, Dan — what do we want our students to be? And once we answer that question, how do we get them there? Every subject area teacher loves their subject, but we all know that not every kid we teach will major in our subject, so why do we teach it?

    If a student can a) put together a sound, reasonable argument, both in writing and orally, and they can b) do enough math to understand the basics of our society (how many kids out there talk about how their “checkbook math” class was the most important math class they ever took?, what else do we NEED them to know? Personally, I’d throw in enough basic knowledge of the American governmental system to be able to talk part in a participatory democracy, but that might be my bias.

    Is everything else specialization? When was the last time knowledge of the animal kingdom was important to your daily life? And are you even aware that the whole kingdom-phylum thing was completely restructured? (I wasn’t until one of my science teachers at SLA told me.)

    And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t teach these subjects in high school… we should. But we should question *why* we do and *how* we do.

    Here’s the question behind all these questions, I suppose… picture two schools, one where the goal is to teach kids a very specific set of skills and knowledge such that every kid would be able to reproduce those skills and content on a test, and one where the goal was to teach students a very basic set of skills and then to expose students to a broad set of skills and knowledge and ideas with the explicitly stated goal of wanting to help find students find the ideas, skills, subjects, etc… that spark their own learning and passion. Which school would do a better job of preparing students for the world in front of them? Which school would you rather teach in? Which school would students learn more in?

  29. I need to quiz you a lot about the merits of this a la carte schooling you’ve got going on, Chris. Perhaps I’m a cynic. I find my students always tending towards the path of least resistance, which, yes, usually corresponds with what interests them most, but which is pretty hit-or-miss in terms of meeting their long-term needs.

    “Needs” is kind of the fulcrum of this whole thing, I guess.

    Let’s assume I think that proportions (a freshman year standard in CA) is about the most broadly useful math concept in the curriculum. Every kid needs to know how to use proportions. They’ll all live without it but they’ll all live much better with it.

    So what then?

    We teach through proportions and let kids opt in or out of further math? I didn’t fall in love with math until calculus, where Geometry, Algebra, and Trig all collided in a glorious and calculable explosion. Calculus! Which I only took because I assumed I had to take four years of math. Then, after college, I divorced math and fell in love with writing. After college!

    We’d see a flourishing of ROP courses and the arts, which will make kids immediately happier, which will make teachers immediately happier, but in the long run, these efforts to refashion education (in the image of video games?) bring along some heavy concerns.

  30. Trust me, I’m not a fan of a la carte education, and I’m the biggest fan of the classroom you’ll ever meet. And remember, there’s still credit requirements, and I’ll be the first person arguing for seven years of science / math education. But the question becomes what do with those years.

    I trust teachers. I trust teachers’ ability to inspire kids to learn.

    And in the end, the times I have seen the kids do *incredible* things with teachers is when they weren’t worried about coverage, but when the teachers had the time to take apart an issue in depth.

    I’m the anti-Marc Prensky. I’m not going to argue that we should let all the kids pursue whatever they want… and trust me, it takes a TON of work to structure real open-inquiry projects. And you have to scaffold the projects so that kids don’t regress to the mean, because some of them definitely will try to.

    And no video game will *ever* take the place of a group of engaged students and a caring teaching crafting meaning and learning together. Not ever.

    For me, I was really good at the game of school. I knew how to ace the test in any class I didn’t love. But I fell in love with learning when I had an English teacher who taught us Japanese mystery novels and showed us the connection to Hamlet, or when my American Government teacher let us spend weeks on end researching Supreme Court cases around issues that we cared about. Or when a physics teacher would show us some two-blackboard long physics problem and then stand back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

    It was when teachers could us their passions and inspire us that I took it upon myself to learn.

    I don’t want to let kids just go on their own, in fact, I’m thinking we need adults — which, for our chosen field, means us — *more* involved in kids’ lives. *More* invested in sharing with them the things we’ve learned that have brought us to teaching.

    I’m all for teaching kids Calculus, and I’m also convinced that math teachers like you will convince boatloads of kids to teach it. I am actually convinced that you are the kind of teacher who would (to quote myself, how egomaniacal) “help find students find the ideas, skills, subjects, etc… that spark their own learning and passion.”

    I just don’t think NCLB gets us any closer to that.

    More kids will take calculus, take physics, take advanced English , take C++ when they interact with adults who teach because both from a love of subject and a sincere (I’m really trying not to say passionate — you’ve got to know how hard that is for me!) joy in passing that love on to the kids, tempered by the knowledge that not every kid will love *their* particular passion, but that almost every kid will find some adult in the building to check in with and share that joy for learning.

    One of the questions I asked every teacher who interviewed with us for a position at SLA was, “Forget standards, forget tests, forget the official curriculum. What is the course you’d most love to teach? What would you love to share with your students?”

    I want to build schools with teachers who can rattle off three of those… whose eyes light up when they are asked that question. And then I want to give them every chance to do it. And I want to watch the kids take that energy and go further than we ever thought they could.

    And what I don’t like is that NCLB gets in my way because it’s so much about “coverage” not depth of knowledge or skills or critical thinking, that teachers and principals and district administrators get scared and teach to the test, rather than trust what is in front of them.

  31. Whoops. With the direction our conversation was taking, I totally forgot this post was about NCLB.

    At this point, I agree that NCLB isn’t pushing students towards their enduring interests, but that isn’t its point. To get frustratingly pedantic here, it’s No Child Left Behind, not Every Child Pushed Ahead. I’d prefer not to get bogged down in that, but it’s only fair to admit my concern these days is almost entirely for the kids reading six grades below their age, rather than their advanced counterparts.

    Another matter I won’t bother too much with (except for this one mention) is that objections rhyming with “teaching to the test” and “taking apart an issue in depth” never really strike the nerve with me they’re intended. I’m a beginning teacher who works like crazy to compensate for his inexperience. For my efforts at planning and class management, my kids consistently work a two-hour block period bell to bell while their counterparts in other classes line up at the door fifteen minutes early. No exaggeration. (That stuff has to get you conscientious administrators down, right?) Me, I get to hit the stuff I’m most excited about and cover the standards.

    I think we’ve been here before. I’m contending that the good teacher has nothing to worry about with NCLB. You contend it doesn’t do anything to make teachers good. Fair, but I think that’s, again, the inverse of NCLB’s point.

    I am warming to the idea that NCLB ought to take a backseat in older classes, classes where the students already have a baseline skill set (ignoring for the moment the question of what that skill set is).

    When, then, does that happen? And in the preceding years can we puh-leeze take high-stakes tests (while constantly working to improve them and the standards they assess, of course)? Because without them, the Erin Gruwells (her movie doppelgangers, anyway) will trade classes for dance parties, the Prezbos will teach craps for six weeks straight, and first-year teachers named Dan Meyer will elect not to teach quadratics because it’s a tough unit to teach. There was only one reason why I taught it the next year and — I swear, Chris — it rhymes with “NCLB.”

    P.S. ROP = Regional Occupational Program. Woodshop, autoshop, etc.

  32. What rhymes with NCLB? ;)

    (There are some points that I disagree with here, but honestly, but I’m completely wiped out from a REALLY emotional day at school dealing with some really tough student issues, and I am going to catch up on some TiVo, drink a cup of tea and hug my children in their sleep often. I’m sure we’ll find other reasons to debate this stuff soon. Be well.)

  33. @Commn Sense Until NCLB is reauthorized, let the beatings continue until morale improves.NCLB needs no reauthorization. If the legislature specifically does not kill it it self-renews itself.

    It is one of many of the Republican vampire legislation that were passed when it was a one-party system. Cute, eh? Self-perpetuating totalitarianism. It can’t die because no legislature elected after the Republican super-majority can ever get enough votes to kill it.

    On the other hand it is imitating George Bush and heading for self-immolation – a vampire so incompetent that it impales its own black heart on a stake of absurdity.

    The complaining you complain about is coming from teachers who are not so mediocre as intelligent enough to recognise NCLB as a fool’s errand.

    See Rothstein’s excellent article here:

    http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=leaving_nclb_behind