January 8, 2007

NCLB's Five Year Old Birthday Party

Lots of articles are rearing their ugly head today to commemorate NCLB's five year anniversary. Rather than go through each and every half-baked article, I'm going to analyze Greg Toppo's somewhat comprehensive article since he hits most of the big topics. Toppo identifies "five big ways it's changing schools":

  1. It's driving teachers crazy
  2. It's narrowing what many schools teach
  3. 'Invisible' students get attention
  4. It's making the school day longer
  5. It's changing how reading is taught

Let's hit each in turn.

It's driving teachers crazy

This one's my favorite. It may be driving teachers crazy, but that's only because they want to keep doing what they've always done despite the fact that many students weren't learning. People don't like change. Here's a good example:

Carmen Meléndez quit her job as a bilingual language arts teacher at an elementary school last spring in Orange County, Fla., after the law prompted her principal to institute 90-minute reading blocks and a scripted curriculum — in the process making individualized instruction impossible. Meléndez also found that she couldn't teach poetry anymore.

Oh, the poor dear, not being able to teach poetry to a bunch of struggling readers. Boo frickin' Hoo. I'm teaching an early elementary school aged student how to read, and I feel no compunction whatsoever to teach poetry at this early stage before he's mastering decoding.

Oddly enough, the principal seems to be doing all the right things in response to NCLB, namely, increasing the amount of time devoted to reading instruction and adopting a curriculum (i.e., a scripted one) that probably has some indicia of success with lower performers.

What drives me especially nuts with these education articles is that you rarely get the the flip side of the story. Left unsaid was that this school probably had a large percentage of students who weren't learning how to read under Ms. Meléndez and her poetry or that many, if not most, teachers do not have the skills necessary to teach low performers in the absence of a script. For example:

There are many at-risk children who are not likely to succeed when placed in widely distributed core reading programs. The problems stem from the programs not being designed with the degree of explicitness needed by the at-risk child. The programs often have serious instructional design flaws. Among these problems are (a) teacher explanations that include words the child does not know and that use sentence structures that are confusing for students with limited knowledge of language, (b) the rate of introduction of new skills is too fast, and (c) sequences that can cause confusion. For example, one program introduced letter–sound correspondences in alphabetical order, resulting in the letters b and d, and m and n being introduced in near consecutive order, and (d) too little practice and review.

That would have been a good rebuttal to the teacher's opinion.

Then we get a little teacher-pomorphism, teacher's ascribing their views to their students:

"It was insane," she says. "The kids were all jaded. They were tired — they hated school."

"They're 8 years old, and they're so worried about a passing score," Meléndez says. "I think that's inhumane."

Puh-lease. School is all about testing. How else are you going to get reliable feedback that what the teacher actually taught was actually learned by the students? Most kids who know the material will not find the tests stressful. However, the kids who don't know the material have good reason to be stressed.

Then we get this unfortunate comment by Philadelphia Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas:

Philadelphia Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas jokes that to really improve scores in his city, he could make classes smaller and modernize buildings. "Or we can give everyone the Illinois test," he says.

It's unfortunate because Vallas picked a bad state to compare Pennsylvania to, as is clearly shown in the sidebar. The Illinois test appears to be about as difficult as the Pennsylvania test. The Illinois test has about the same spread between its test and the Fed's test (NAEP), 31 points, as does Pennsylvania, 28 points. Vallas should have picked Mississippi, whose spread is a whopping 71 points. In Mississippi, only 18% of students passed the Fed's NAEP test while 89% passed Mississippi's own test. Talk about gaming the system.

It's narrowing what many schools teach

File this one under bad responses to NCLB. Since only reading and math (and soon science) are currently tested, some schools are responding, inappropriately I'd say, by narrowing their curriculum to focus on the tested subjects to the detriment of the other non-tested subjects. The obvious solution to this conundrum is to test all the subjects.

"What we're getting under (the law) is a very strong emphasis on building skills at the expense of history and literature and science," says researcher Thomas Toch of the Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

That's a shortsighted response. Today's instruction in history, literature, and science will form the vocabulary and background knowledge that will be tested in tomorrow's reading comprehension tests. In the fifth to eighth grades, testing in reading becomes mostly a test of comprehension skills, not decoding skills.

Then we get this little amusing bit of edu-babble:

Other critics say the law has created a "complexity gap." Children in lower grades have made improvements — some impressive — in basic skills, but the improvements vanish in middle school and beyond, when kids are tested on more complex conceptual thinking.
First of all, all the skills in the K-12 level are basic skills. There's nothing inherently wrong with the higher order thinking skills of lower performing children, other than them learning at a slower rate and needing clearer instruction. They are capable of performing many "higher order think skills" tasks just fine when information is presented to them orally about a subject they are familiar with, rather than when they have to read that same passage. That's a basic skills deficit. What these kids mostly suffer from is lack of background knowledge and vocabulary and an accumulation of non-mastered basic skills material. This is what presents problems in later years.

'Invisible' students get attention

Most agree that this is a good thing.

Even opponents of No Child Left Behind grudgingly concede that, five years out, the law has revolutionized how schools look at poor, minority and disabled children in big cities, who often find themselves struggling academically. It forces schools to look at test score data in a whole new light, breaking out the scores into 35 or more "subgroups."


A few observers, such as Mike Petrilli, a former top Bush administration official, say the law has been felt most keenly by suburban school districts, where for years low achievers weren't a priority because high-achieving kids could bring up the district average.

Only a few loons balk at this.

"It really has brought the Hounds of Hell down on the schools of Prince William County," says Betsie Fobes, a recently retired eighth-grade algebra and pre-algebra teacher at Parkside Middle School in Manassas, Va. "This AYP business is just killing us — absolutely killing us."

It's not the AYP that's killing you; it's your inability to teach.

It's making the school day longer

NCLB mandates free tutoring for kids who haven't reached proficiency. Again, this is a good thing.

It's changing how reading is taught

Another good thing, especially considering how poorly reading has been taught in the recent passage.

The only problem I see with this part of the article is giving nutter Susan Ohanian an opportunity to voice her crazy opinions instead of a less crazy advocate and/or the opinion from the other side of the debate.

"I don't dispute that it's quick and easy and it's a tool — and if you just used it that way, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it," Ohanian says. But she adds: "They're using DIBELS to hold kids back in kindergarten. And that's where it becomes really evil. Some kids are just not ready for that skills stuff."
Another, more accurate, way of saying that "skills stuff" is "those first grade skills." Bear in mind, that the primary reason many of them aren't ready for that "skills stuff" in first grade is because they haven't been adequately taught in kindergarten. It's not like they have a whole lot of time to catch. Guess what happens if they are still struggling with that "skills stuff" at the end of first grade.

Performing at grade level by the end of first grade is critically important
for the at-risk child. A study by Juel (1988) showed that the probability that
a child who was a poor reader in first grade would be a poor reader in the
fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88.

That means they're pretty much academically dead by fourth grade which is something that NCLB is seeking to avoid by getting away from the Ohanian school of thinking. Which has given us nothing but failure.


Unknown said...

Nice post, Ken.

You may, however, get some unwanted attention with this typo:

Since only reading and math (and soon science) are currently testes.

Hmm. Really. Right one, math; left one, reading? : )

KDeRosa said...

Those are my favorite kinds of typos.