Friday, September 08, 2006


(News-Herald, September 7) Since the start of the school year is approaching, this might be a good time to check the state of governmental meddling with the schools. The answer is either “Wonderful and right on schedule” or “Continuing to be a disaster” depending on where you stand.
No Child Left Behind is still chugging along. To review, just in case you’ve forgotten the broad outlines, the program requires all the states to subject all students to standardized testing, which will be used to prove, theoretically, that every single student in America is above average by 2014.
It’s patterned after the Texas Miracle, where, under then-Governor Bush, school leaders showed exemplary skill in faking, lying, book-cooking and otherwise creating the appearance that students were getting much better at taking standardized tests. The superintendent who did the very best job of faking his numbers (Rod Paige) got to be President Bush’s Secretary of Education.
If you are an optimist, you may believe that this program is well-intentioned but poorly engineered and executed. If you are a cynic, you may believe that this is a clever plot to dismantle public education and redirect tax dollars toward funding rich kids’ private schools. If you believe it’s a great program that’s really going to work-- well, I’ve tried to find a way to finish this sentence that beats around the bush but, really, if you believe that, you’re a dope.
As of this summer, no states had met the deadline for having all “highly qualified” teachers in core subject areas. This will theoretically trigger an assortment of fines. Actually, everything in NCLB triggers fines and punishments, because the core assumption of NCLB is that people working in education could do a perfect job—they just choose not to. So if we threaten them sufficiently, things will improve. I’d rather not imagine a school that approached its students like that.
Across the country, some people are being alarmed to discover that their school is failing. In the face of that alarm, it’s important to remember one simple fact: Eventually, as NCLB is designed, every single school in this country will fail. Every single one. Anything less than 100% will be failing. And no school can achieve 100% success.
But that failure paves the way for federal and state take over of school districts. The feds are already preparing to fine some states because the feds don’t approve of the standardized test developed by the test (or, in the case of Nebraska, the state’s failure to develop a standardized test).
The feds use the testing to drive all education, which means that the government sets the goals for curriculum. Virtually every educator and administrator knows that teaching students to take a test is bad education, but they also know that teaching to the test is the best way to postpone the inevitable. So schools cut time spent on music and art and math and history and English to make room for Test Taking 101.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of PA has creatively grabbed districts by the purse strings. When the school districts wouldn’t volunteer to drink Smiling Ed’s “property reform” cool-aid, he got angry and rammed it down their throats. The long-term effect will be to cut the funding stream for districts and make them entirely dependent on state money.
So we’ll get “local” schools whose budgets are set by Harrisburg and whose purpose is to follow Harrisburg’s curriculum so that students can pass Harrisburg’s test, a test that must be designed to meet federal standards. The students produced by this system may or may not be well-educated, but at least they’ll be able to pass a standardized test. Meanwhile, home and cyber schoolers will still be free to learn that the earth revolves around the sun.
Nobody in Harrisburg is going to have the guts to actually legislate away local school districts. But I’ll predict that Jim Greenfield is not going to be the last Pennsylvania school board member to resign because he feels that the state has made his job undoable.
Why keep teaching if I think this is the future? Because in spite of all this, perhaps even because of all this, I still believe that education is really, really important. And despite our American education-for-everyone ideals, the ed biz has never been all sunshine and fluffy bunnies-- there have always been obstacles both to getting an education and to providing one.
The success of teachers and students has never depended on educational utopia—it depends on finding ways to navigate the obstacles. That never changes, even when the obstacles do.


Anonymous said...

I love your post, thank you.

I wonder if you could address the question I have relevant to your following words:

"Why keep teaching if I think this is the future? Because in spite of all this, perhaps even because of all this, I still believe that education is really, really important. And despite our American education-for-everyone ideals, the ed biz has never been all sunshine and fluffy bunnies-- there have always been obstacles both to getting an education and to providing one.

The success of teachers and students has never depended on educational utopia—it depends on finding ways to navigate the obstacles. That never changes, even when the obstacles do."

My comment/question is this:

Instead of passively accepting the "obstacles," and as you write that you believe in the importance of education but also see the impending destruction of the sytem that controls it, why, WHY, W H Y don't teachers find a way to unite, with administrators, parents and students who also watch in horror, for the chance to reveal first hand about the destruction of NCLB?

My question truly is not rhetorical--I really don't get it. How can we, who know very well what is happening sit back and watch it happen?

No, it isn't easy to get anyone involved, and harder when the people you need to arouse are opressed, perhaps depressed, most likely uninformed...but, damn, instead of anchoring out and hoping that the boat survives the current storm, and you seem to know very well that it won't, where is the crew, where are the teachers, where are the captains and first mates?

I believe in the teachers. I believe in your sincerity. I don't believe we will survive by sitting this storm out; I don't think you do either...

Peter A. Greene said...

Those are aall good questions. I'm not sure what the answer is.

The information is certainly there. Heck, Rod Paige's sorry past is well-documented. So it's not like people don't know, or at least have the chance to know.

I'm not sure where the power rests to do anything about it. Uniting teachers is certainly do-able-- but once we've united I'm not sure what we do.

Administrators have their heads on the NCLB chopping block. School boards are being slowly stripped off their powers. And in PA, much of the aging, retired and no-longer-raising-kids population is more interested in how they can avoid having to pay for schools than what is going on in those schools. In the end it may come down to public will to preserve public education as we've known it, and I'm not sure how much will there is.

So I don't know where the captain is. I suspect that this, as with much in the edu-biz, will be mostly fought guerilla style. It may be that actual teaching will become even more of an underground activity than it already is.

annie said...

RE: "Uniting teachers is certainly do-able-- but once we've united I'm not sure what we do."

I am not sure how different your experiences are there...but be warned, this is spreading everywhere....

I could give many examples but I will try to stay general.

In our county schools, teachers are given scripts to read, textbooks are chosen and standard accross a huge district and they are bound to pacing guides. The county writes and requires a regimen of "benchmark" tests and finals are required in ALL classes. Homework is tabulated as 15% of grades.

I will leave all of the filling out of this because I assume you know what this, in reality, translates into for the classes...

Choices have been compromised because of the AP explosion and AP classes are another scripted, test-based, shallow curriculum. Neither teachers nor students are adequately prepared for the material; they muddle through and get through it.

We have block schedules which have decreased classtime and overloaded teachers with work. And there is endless paperwork on top of the demands of grading hundreds of assignments and tests...

Fill in the rest yourself...

In answer to your question, if I thought you were right in assuming that teachers could become united, I think the solution involves taking back their profession. I think you deserve and are capable of selecting your own books, of developing curriculi, of creating and managing measurements and tests and assignments...of selecting and teaching topics for learning and thinking that may or may not fit into a prescribed capsul of time.

Is this optimistic or simplistic or ___________? Maybe.

My best teachers grabbed me out of my self-absorbed world and taught me from their souls. My not-so-great teachers still seemed to be quite capable of teaching me skills or knowledge without a script. My worst teachers seemed to suffer from a total lack of imagination and were rigid and fixed by standards I didn't care about or honor.

Schools should not be houses of misery under the ultimate control of failure...should they?

I am not sure that you are correct in assuming that because the information is available, that everyone, or even teachers understand what is happening.

I ran into a teacher not long ago who congratulated me on my letters in our local paper about the oppression in our schools. I was intrigued enough to ask her how her peers are managing the strong-hold of NCLB. She asked me: What is NCLB?

I believe that the public would listen to teachers if they were willing to speak. They can not speak as individuals; here, the ones who tried were fired.

I also wrote to a delegate in a local county because her signature was on a document in support of NCLB. She told me she had not read, nor signed the document. She also told me that she felt compelled to educate her peers about NCLB--because few of them knew much about it.

For the most part, we are a naive and trusting public. Teachers too. I constantly hear them comment that this will all change, as it has so many times before.

I am not so sure they are safe to be so trusting in this case; too much is at risk and I fear that without a strong committment, our public schools will face destruction.

Condatis said...

Regarding what "anonymous" said about "sitting the storm out"... well, those are my memories of school. How many others have those same memories? Once in a while I'd be challenged or have someone gain my interest but I have to say more of my learning occurred outside of school. I don't think school in my day was much different than now. But I'm not particularly worried about "getting my son the best education" because I think its more of a line of thinking that its my job to engender a love of learning in him and turn him loose. School is just a formality and a requirement.

Back when I was in school, parents were disinterested, trusted in teachers to do whatever and just wanted to see the report cards. Some kids rebelled at that, some struggled to show what everyone wanted to see, some got there easy. How to think wasn't taught. How to challenge and question and search for your self wasn't taught. Facts or figuring were taught to be regurgitated. I considered myself extremely lucky to have a few teachers in my years of school that did share a little passion.

Since moving to a new area, I've been looking all around the internet for any kind of report to tell me how the schools in this area "rate". But just as important to me are the sites that let "consumers" of that school leave comments as test scores.

But when it comes to regulations from on high regarding local and very personal things such as this, I would want "educated", I would want to understand what it would mean for my child and his school. And I think Mr. Greene hit the problem right on - in our state a good number of people with grown kids (our main population?) really don't care. They are overburdened by taxes on property that has been paid for, they are overburdened by increasing costs of living with health care and utilities. They probably really can't work up the passion needed to deal with the NCLB. Heck! My parents aren't even elderly but I know now that us kids are gone they don't keep up with school anything but DO worry about what they'll do when the electric bill is deregulated and triples like the gas bills did.

Its a balance. Not every person cares about the same things at the same times and you can't expect that. Energy and interest are of finite quantity. While one might worry about what their child will lose or suffer under NCLB, one could also put a little more energy into a more hands on approach to educating or at least giving their children the love of learning for themselves or maybe reaching out to those kids who's parents can't or won't.

Obstacles will always be there. When one is overcome, another will arise. Learning to deal with them is just as much an education. I think how we teach our kids to succeed DESPITE of government or personal obstacles to attain their own personal best level is what is important and that can happen sans school even.

Then maybe when this generation is older they'll have better "bs sniffers" when it comes to propaganda and spin and all that other political (uh, help me for a word here?) tripe.

annie said...

I do believe it is risky to adopt the attitude that either because "we made it through okay," or because "living with imperfection teaches you to pursue a higher ground," ...we can see the problems but sit back until the next educational trend blows in...

I think it was Alfie Kohn who wrote an excellent essay on the harmful conseqences of such rationalization or denial. I will look for the essay if you are interested.

Although it is true that depending on how old you are, it is easy or tempting to believe that you recognize a lot of what is happening in our schools and easy to decide that since you survived, your kids will survive...I don't doubt that an aware parent can "rehabilitate" what harm their children experience in school and make up for lost opportunities....

But, since the NCLB act, I can tell you that things have changed so dramatically in our schools in just a few short years, that even if you are in your early 20's, much of what you may think you are recognizing has a decidedly different essence and etiology.

No, schools were not perfect learning theaters "in your day" and yes, you did survive it...And yes, there are still great teachers, unimaginative teachers, and every flavor of teacher in between...

But what is happening now, with federal regulations mounting, has a decidedly fateful and disasterous effect on some of the cozier memories and experiences that most of us carry about out school years.

There are many things to ponder.

For one, you can take a look at the rates that teachers are leaving the profession...New teachers and veteran teachers, in their prime...

Look, but it requires some perserverance and intitative, at who is being hired and recruited to fill the vacancies, and how they are "educated."

Look realistically at who and what is benefiting, economically, from the federal controls: who is writing the tests, who is grading them. Who is in control of curriculum. Who supplies textbooks and materials. It is no longer a choice for our teachers; they can not plan, can't request resources or books...we are closer to the NCLB ground zero here...but this is all coming to your neighborhood soon.

This is a new world. And the impact of a thriving, humane and healthy public educational system on it should be a matter of great urgency. NCLB has a plan for the universities and colleges too...

If you are willing to spend some time reading and researching about some of the impact of NCLB, and some of the behind the scene benefactors of the policy, and understand who is benefiting and to what extent, and analyze what the goals or accompanying outcomes will be, you are a a rare individual.

I believe you will feel alarmed when you realize the huge discrepancy between how a policy or protocol appears on paper and how it translates in reality...

Take the phrase: "No Child Left Behind." It won't take you long to decide how the phrase can be interpreted realistically if you simply look at the results of compliance in the schools and on the children who the act proposed to target.

Find out who your child believes to be his or her "best teacher." Get to know them. It won't take long to have a discussion much the same as the words Mr. Greene has so eloquently written. And read his words again. They are foreboding, and they should be....

I believe he does not question whether the policies of NCLB are harmful, but rather, he wonders, as I do, how we and the schools, our students, our teachers, and our system of public education will survive this act...

Condatis said...

I don't disagree that the NCLB is harmful. But many of the issues in schools in how many years have been "harmful". I'm not saying people shouldn't be educated about the implications of the NCLB. But I would rather more strongly advocate that people with children adopt a more of the "can do" and "can do it myself" mindset instead of expecting government to ever have a solution.

The lack of quality teachers in innercity schools was a "harmful" thing for many years, yet there were kids with parents who had the "can do" attitude who came out just fine. I'd like to spend energy on advocating that individuals find their own solutions then the right solutions for *individuals* will present themselves instead of relying on a government to "group regulate" our wonderful resource of unique young people.

If people can't work up enough energy and concern for their own childs educational welfare but instead sit around and lament the state of public schools "done in" by the government then they probaby really aren't going to bother trying to gain a full understanding of all the finer points you listed.

Again, not disagreing with what you said, just saying there has to be a base or a starting point otherwise you just have more "followers" not knowing what they are following whether it be No-NCLB or Yes-NCLB.

annie said...

Thanks for this opportunity to have a civil debate; I appreciate your willingness to exchange ideas.

I understand your perspective and would throw several more results of the act out for your consideration.

I think that these are examples of the manner in which governmental control and business interference in public education has caused grave damage and prohibits the sort of resolution you suggest...

In my correspondance with many people who detail the effects and impact of this act, from many different vantage points, I have heard from a fair number of Education Professors in various Universities.

In particular, there are programs where it is traditional for students who aspire to make a difference in urban, struggling schools attend a particular school of education, created and maintained with a special focus on this very challenge.

The impact of NCLB on the new and student teachers in these schools is dramatic. Simplified: the schools who once benfitted greatly from the opportunity to have interns and fresh, young talent in their classrooms, no longer can invest the time; their struggle to make AYP over-rules the luxury. I hope that makes sense to you. Students and interns are consequently now sent off to suburban schools where teachers can still "afford the luxury" of an enthusiastic teacher's aide; they are not as apt, yet, to be completely censored by trying to make or keep AYP.

Inversely, the young interns and new teachers, who once might have embraced the challange of working in an urban school, no longer want the potentially negative mark against their own professional reputation that they would risk working in a "failing" school. Remember, part of the act does focus on monitoring the teacher's performance by the measure of AYP.

So, I guess, essentially we are in agreement about government intervention to some extent--at least the kind of government intervention that causes further harm to an already struggling aspect of our public school system.

And, as argued eloquently in many essays, the governmental "intervention" in our schools avoids altogether the many pressures and problems that might, if addressed by our government, such as healthcare, nutrition, and adequate social services, provide children in our urban schools with basic needs that would make a real difference in their ability to benefit from an education.

But, the argument for thinking and acting independently looses relevance as the reality currently is one of stiff government regulation over schools.

And you are right, the problems of poverty are not new, inluding the quality of schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

But, choosing to act on one's own accord really can't compete with or change the oppressive tentacles of this act.

So right you are that it is helpful for people to take the initiative to find solutions and make things better without relying on an act or a policy to give them their direction or ideals. But, what we are discussing is a "public" service and the long arms of the federal government has already aligned many powerful investors to control these institutions.

Another correspondant who also works as a columnist for a major newspaper, engaged his conscience in enrolling his children in public schools in an urban center often in the news for struggling with AYP. He wrote that he promptly decided to withdraw his children and currently homeschools them, calling the schools a doomed place of fog, with horrible gloomy, overburdened and undersupported teachers, and children who are so poorly socialized that he feared for his own children's safety.

The reality exists. And you and I both know that without an intervention, we stand to have bigger, wider, scarier problems with these same inner city children who will still be around in the future.

Obviously, these schools are not places where it is standard for families to come up with their own plan to make things better. So what do we do? Be grateful it is not our neighborhood? Be happy we can remove our own children from participation this ugly world...for now?

A lot of people were very encouraged that the government promised to address the issues of failure in the urban schools. As a matter of fact, we are told that this inequity was the basis of the act. The problem is, the structure and policy of the act subjects an already critical and problematic area with greater stress...

But that's not the whole story. The same standards that have impact on the urban public schools have impact on our suburban schools. The tests and policies that NCLB requires have suburban schools putting our children through a narrowing curriculum. It has our suburban school teachers teaching from scripts, on regimented, shallow, rapid clips to prepare for relentless tests. And suburban schools are failing AYP in droves because they too are required to "show progress" in minority subgroups who, no matter how much smaller in numbers, relative to the urban schools, still are required to meet "proficiency" tests.

I am sure you understand this as well as anyone who is informed does. The equations are confusing but in general, a successful school can be deemed failing if a subgroup of students does not show adequate test scores.

So, in the suburbs, we see and read about a massive exodus of good teachers, experienced teachers giving up and leaving. Wouldn't you? They are no longer allowed to develop curriculum or lesson plans, can't even be trusted to write their own tests, have very little impact on such key resources as textbooks or subject matter--it goes on and on...You must read the news reports about teachers leaving in growing numbers and what their reasons are....It is happening everywhere accross our country.

Maybe you are raising your children with the ideals that I try to instill in mine...We teach them to use their talents to make a difference in this world, solve a problem, try to help...What better way to make a difference than to be a teacher? Would you recommend that field to your own right now? I do not. I want them to be happy, feel excited about opportunities to use their minds and hearts to create new possibilities; this is not going to be a possibility under these conditions except as a rarity, with teachers like Mr. Greene, or the like, and look what he writes...and it will not get better but could get much, much worse as NCLB grows...

So what do we do?

There does have to be a starting point, I agree. We need a revolution. Where do we begin, when, how? I am trying in my own community but you are right, many people are complacent, and teachers are either busy trying to cope and/or afraid to lose their jobs, or giving up. Parents are busy. Lawmakers are, well, doing what lawmakers do; I am not a very powerful lobby.

I do what I can, which is to keep trying to understand what is happening, and write about it, talk about it, share perspectives and experiences with other interested people who also have a stake and belief in the importance of the survival of our public schools and a purposeful protective feeling about the importance of education.

Not everyone can be the bread...some people are the yeast.

Many people, past and present continue to inspire me and inform my perspective, many of them are teachers. That is how I came upon this site...I was drawn by the powerful words of another great teacher.

Peter A. Greene said...

Wow. My very first blog conversation.

annie, I understand your point about a revolution, but it will be hard for teachers to take thier profession back because we never really possessed it. Unlike doctors and lawyers, teachers are not involved in the professional training and development of their future colleagues.

It's a hard call some days, but I don't ever remember a time in my career when I didn't have to make some choices between what I believed was right and what the current Powers That Be said I was required to do.

This is certainly more far-reaching and potentially destructive, and it may well be that we're living through some changes in what public education in this country looks like.

What those changes mean will vary from place to place. I know some school districts where teachers have never written or designed their own programs-- I expect the current trend for them just means different sources for the material.

It would be great if NCLB was trashed tomorrow, but it will be, I suspect, a few more years (the AYP starts to shift into highly improbably gear in 2008, just as Bush, Jr., is out of office. My guess is that it'll all be watered down around then.

annie said...

"What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security ...

To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, regretted.

Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing) ... You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair. "

--German professor after World War II describing the rise of Nazism to a journalist

annie said...

If this seems too strong, I apologize in advance and make no other connection than to say I read these words with absolute respect and admiration for an honest and heart-felt human account of how excrutiatingly painful it is to live with the knowledge that you might have tried something before you ignored, surrendered, gave in, coped, rationalized, accepted, or dropped out...

From my Flickr