This post is long overdue and it is a call to action.
In 2002 when I became a teacher, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became the new name of public education in the United States. This law had a huge effect on how teachers and students would teach and learn together, and how the federal government would recognize, reward and punish individual states, school districts, individual schools, teachers and students for achieving and failing to achieve state assessment standards.
NCLB was a powerful reauthorization of an older federal educational act called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, signed into law under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. The underlying goal of both ESEA and NCLB was to ensure a quality education for all children regardless of zip code and demographics.
Unfortunately, after 2002, it soon became clear to most teachers working in the public school system, particularly to those who worked with poor kids in poor neighborhoods that NCLB was set up to fail all children rather than to set them up for success.
In accordance with NCLB, all students in grades 3 through 8 would now take yearly standardized tests in English and Math, their scores would be noted alongside their demographic information, their schools would be ranked, and their teachers and schools would be held “accountable”. The accountability provision had a serious goal: all students were to be proficient in English and Math by 2014.
Let that sink in.
When students, teachers, schools, school districts and states did not meet their target, there would be repercussions.
And no school would be able to meet that target. And eventually all schools would be marked failures. School shutdowns, transfers of students to privatized charter schools, fired teachers and administrators, school takeovers, loss of federal funding, etc., etc., etc. The failures of reaching English and Math standardized test targets began first in poor areas and spread to richer suburban schools.
Knowing that we would eventually never reach that target of 100% proficiency, special ed teachers continued teaching their students, teachers in wealthy school districts continued teaching, teachers in poor rural districts continued teaching, teachers in urban districts continued teaching, many of us continued teaching while some of us exited the profession early.
In some places, the school district would be held accountable, in some places, the school administration and the teachers would be ranked according to the test scores of their students, and in more than a few places, the teachers would be held accountable for how students that they never taught did on tests. In Florida, a student on his deathbed, along with his teachers and parents, was held accountable for his failing to take his standardized tests.
In short, students were held the most accountable of all and they lost. Teaching students to the test became paramount to education – first in poor schools, then circling out to wealthier schools. Recesses eliminated, lunches shortened, social studies and science in elementary school scaled back, art, music and P.E. eliminated, and brought to life only in districts or schools with wealthier parent populations. Play, the means by which young people learn, became a luxury allowed only in wealthier schools in which the children would inevitably do well on standardized tests anyway.
Because we know that standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing – family demographics.
And this new abuse, misuse and overuse of testing that ranked and sorted students was called equity. This was called opportunity. This was sanctioned from the top. The message became that disadvantaged kids suffer from one thing in life – low test scores on standardized tests due to bad teachers.
My entrance into the nightmarish repercussions of this top down system happened when my child was about to enter kindergarten. I merely had to google a potential public school, and there I could see the demographics and the standardized test scores disaggregated for each subgroup of students: White kid test scores, Asian kid test scores, Latino kid test scores, African American kid test scores, American Indian test scores, Filipino kid test scores, Free and Reduced Lunch kid test scores. It was all there for me and every other computer savvy educated parent to see: the worth of a school depended on the test scores and strata of their students.
In the old days we called it “white flight”; in the new days we call it, um, hmm, still, well, “white flight”. Instead of white people saying, “I don’t want my kid to go to a school with black/brown/colored kids”, educated and upwardly mobile parents could now say without fear of being called a racist, “I don’t want my kid to go to a school full of kids with low test scores”. Pretty slick.
Thank you, yearly testing, for all your marketing, ranking and sorting. You have squeezed the joy out of learning and teaching; you have squeezed out art, P.E., social studies, science, music, recess and maybe even lunch; thank you for teaching my first grader how to bubble with a number two wide grip pencil; thank you for making students think that they are behind on the first day of elementary school, thank you for increasing the profits for the makers of Ritalin and diagnosing a whole generation of kids with Attention Deficit Disorder; thank you for making fieldtrips obsolete, thank you for diminishing each and every kid’s individual worth outside of the bubble.
And as a teacher, I can thank yearly testing for completely upending lesson planning, student projects, research papers, and instructional time so that my entire school can devote itself to the task of chaperoning students as they take tests full of computer glitches, poorly written questions, and write essays that are graded by temporary workers at $11 an hour.
Twelve years ago I became a public school teacher in California and ten years ago I became a parent to a public school student in California.
Write to your Congressperson now.
Here are some crucial links:
And a very intriguing article for all you parents and teachers who love math and wonder about the Common Core: