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No Child's Behind Left, Part 1

By       Message Daniel Geery     Permalink
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The so-called No Child Left Behind Act is the most idiotic piece of legislation to slap our kids and American education in the face. Hard. It has provided us with a crooked yardstick for measuring the education of children, and has distorted or eliminated everything that should matter in a kid's life. It has severely damaged teacher morale, made administrators run in futile and pointless circles, and flushed untold tax dollars down the hopper.

It is now common knowledge that a huge portion of our population has never learned how to critically analyze, question and think, let alone read and write.   I won't pretend that my own answers aren't without their own challenges, but I do submit that they can be a first step toward a forward, progressive movement, that will help and empower children, instead of bringing them misery, drudgery, closed minds, and a dislike of learning--as the NCLB Act now does.

I wrote an article similar to this in the spring of '89, for Perspectives Magazine, issued by the Idaho Association of School Administrators. I modified the original for clarity and keeping up with what's happened to education since.

"Accountability" has become for many like the bells to which Pavlov's dogs salivated. The word elicits a predictable response, for surely it seems reasonable to join the parade proclaiming teachers should be accountable for their actions in the classroom.

It is imperative to examine that response more critically. Consider the heart of the word "accountable." That would be the word "count," which means "to call off numbers of the units of a collection or an amount in their regular order of progression; to enumerate, as to count a flock, or to count to a hundred."

In reality, the NCLB has come to mean that a classroom teacher should be performing so that his or her actions, or the consequences of those actions, are countable, measurable, or somehow quantifiable, presumably by some competent administrator or some standard testing instrument. The underlying assumption is that these results will be accessible to the public eye. In this manner educators can be "accountable" to the public that employs them.

A tantalizing carrot, for a public which likes to view itself as scientifically oriented and objective in its search for solutions to society's problems. However, as a third grade teacher attempting to do what I intuitively and logically perceive as "best" for the minds and lives of the twenty-six 8 and 9 year-olds in my class, I am acutely aware of a wide, unbridgeable gap between "accountability" and what I call "responsibility."

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The things I do which appear most important in the lives of children seem in no way "countable" by any stretch of my considerable imagination. On the other hand, if I hold myself to those things which are strictly "countable," I would be doing a great disservice to children I'm trying to educate.

A short list of important goals for me as an educator: fostering a sense of wonder in children; creating excitement about learning; developing skills for social problem solving, including the ability to make friends; helping children feel good about themselves; instilling the desire to read, to write, and to play with numbers; encouraging good manners and courteousness. Yet these goals, as near as I can tell, are 100% not countable and essentially not measurable.

The   art   of teaching, or seriously doing things that matter with children, goes beyond the quantifiable. We can no more measure the effectiveness of a teacher on some external yardstick than we can determine the value of the Mona Lisa by weighing the paint; we can no more arrive at a judgment on the quality of student-teacher interactions through quantified analysis than we can determine the complexities of a forest ecosystem by counting up board feet of timber. Teaching may be a science up to a point, but after that it is pure art, and not even accessible to anyone with a behaviorist mindset.

Of course there are relevant indicators that any attuned educator is likely to look for and, on a personal level, interpret as a form of positive or negative feedback. Such things, however, are at best fortuitous and indirect clues that one is or is not doing the right thing in the confines of the classroom. I herein offer a sampling of the feedback that I interpret as relevant (Part 2 gives ideas that any classroom teacher can employ immediately, and hopefully already is). Such feedback includes parents who tell me their children are always talking about what we do in class; the girl whose mother tells me she cried because she   couldn't   come to school; students who bring back library books about what we have been studying in class; children who get visibly upset because they miss writing on a given day; hearing years later that some child in my class went into science, or teaching, or some other field because of what I encouraged them to think about in their 180 days with me. Or the many children who tell me sincerely that they love my class. The list goes on but I trust you get the idea.

These indicators tell me, at least to some degree, that I am successful as a classroom teacher. Yet such feedback is scarcely countable, measurable, or quantifiable in any sense that an administrator can report to the public. Further, it has no relationship to the test scores on Iowa Basic Tests, and not a hint of a connection to any teaching behavior which an administrator, however capable, might note and somehow "count" in a classroom observation.

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Many student behaviors, of course, are countable or in some way quantifiable. We can measure mastery of math facts and skills (at least at some specific point in time, though disuse, attitude, and other factors may quickly erode the validity of our measurement); we can determine a student's ability to syllabicate words; we can measure reading comprehension, at least in the lower ranges of the skill; we can evaluate one's skill in alphabetizing; we can ascertain, for the most part, understanding in science and social studies.

My question is: "So what?" What has this to do with the human spirits we are trying to encourage and guide, inform and inspire? What does this comparison of one student to another have to do with the vital inner lives of the children we are working with? With the desire of children to create, discover, and reflect upon the world? With instilling appreciation for the natural world, as we might accomplish on an afternoon hike? With building a source of inner strength to deal or cope with problems in ones' home life?

By focusing only on the most tangible and measurable results an educator might be "accountable" for, be it student performance on tests or objective measures of teacher behavior, we are subtracting valuable time from the important matters we ought to be attending to in the classroom.

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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)

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