California English Journal
In 1963, the nation was grappling with the prospect of significant federal aid to public education. It all started innocuously enough. There was a little Elementary and Secondary Education Act money, some National Defense Education Act largess; nothing states couldn’t live without and nothing that changed the rules much.
As Everett Dirksen said from the floor of the Senate, “a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” And when you’re talking about real money, you’re talking about real influence, which brings us to No Child Left Behind.
This wonderfully-titled federal legislation rests on the proposition that failure to comply costs real money. That it violates the purpose of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn’t matter to anyone, for just about every entitlement that virtually all of us feels is rightly ours violates the purpose of Amendment Ten.
The constitutional problem aside, what could be objectionable about NCLB? There are five objections, plus two.
addition to the objections embedded in five premises, there are
NCLB rests on false premises and fallacious assumptions. That children are left behind is both true and largely unrelated to its provisions.
As a literacy coach, I thought I had an opportunity to change the actual thinking of teachers when I mistakenly thought my principal's idea of small learning communities centered around the teachers' own growth as lifelong learners and not on placing students into segregated pods of learning. In September, I placed on her desk a sample survey to give to the faculty to choose what kind of academic think tanks they would like to belong to on campus for the upcoming year. In my rough draft I suggested small learning communities like Backwards Design lesson planning, professional book groups, and lesson study coteries. My idea or vision was to give teachers choice and power over their planning and meeting time; to do something that would actually personalize and manifest the fuzzy generalities of the Schools Accountability Act of '99. Now in its sixth year, the Schools Accountability Act of 1999 (currently known as Education Code: Section 52050-52050.5) has wrought more roiling, ratings (Stanines), and data collection than any other education act in recent memory. Add to this sweeping reform the national guidelines of the No Child Left Behind blunder of 2000, and everyone-superintendents, principals, and teachers are all running for cover. Unfortunately, avoiding such top down initiatives in our district, and sadly, others, is known as being "non compliant" or not doing all the requisite movements the law requires. But movement isn't always headed in the right direction.
On its surface, the Schools Accountability Act makes perfect sense in its goals and purpose. Who would disagree with many of the law's mission-style statements? Certainly, all children in California deserve a "high quality education consistent with all statewide content and performance standards," or that "the state is in need of an immediate and comprehensive accountability system to hold each of the state's public schools accountable for the academic progress and achievement of its pupils within the resources available to schools." But the law's vague, political generalizations and directions are where the details demonize teachers and demoralizes their students. We spend so much time showing "compliance" (meetings, paperwork, and proof that we are teaching to the standards, monitoring improvement, and implementing all the myriad assessments), that the precious time teachers cherish and need to teach their curriculum is lost.
Our scandal in education looks a lot like Kenneth Lay cooking the books for Enron. In both cases everyone's putting out "compliance" papers that show, to quote the infamous line from Ronald Reagan that, "We're doing the best we can." Or, that "We've done nothing wrong." Educational administrators are doing their "best" and following another part of the Schools Accountability Act i.e., "Encourage teacher preparation that allows teachers to develop the ability to inspire pupils to become lifelong learners." This includes making teachers attend IIUSP, WASC, Faculty, and Department meetings-sometimes all in one week, forcing several on their staff to implement one-size-fits-all-scripted programs, and changing schedules to show their superiors that, "We're changing, doing something; we're in compliance."
And for their part, principals are following their job descriptions, trying out new schedules, planning smaller learning communities for their students-schools within schools, starting up tutoring programs, convening with entire departments weekly to make sure that diverse learning strategies take place in the classroom, and keeping up a consistent series of Learning Walks that are supposed to make all learning public. Despite all the memos flying and data being collected, the reality on my campus and others is that all we are doing is changing behavior. We have left out the harder work of altering the belief systems of teachers toward the good inherent in a sensible mandate. Most (and in several cases, all) teachers, like the loyal union members they are, are going along to get along. They adjust their curriculum schedules to fit the new time tables mandated from above and then write down the standards they teach on their bulletin boards as if that alone will show a better pedagogy and methodology in their classroom practice. They dutifully attend meetings, feigning interest, and get involved in discussions when they can point out the flaws of their bosses in trying to get everyone on board, or complain about the implausibility of their ever-mounting instructional and societal responsibilities. That is why my fall survey for teacher learning was so filled with hope.
But alas, my principal had other fish on the skillet, and the paperwork from these mandated projects couldn't get the seasoning it deserved if she had to stop and let her teachers into the kitchen. This was her show and job on the line too. In February, I noticed that my September memo was still on her desk, a grim reminder of the failed possibilities of a State's good intentions.
About the Author
The Importance of Parents as Partners in No Child Left Behind
Obstacles to Family Involvement
Some researchers have emphasized the need to find and cultivate a partnership between schools and families that would support children’s emotional and cognitive development. Comer and Haynes (1991) found parental participation in a child’s education to be essential for effective teaching and learning. It is crucial that schools offer programs that are meaningful and that will get parents to participate, especially those from low-income families, who seldom involve themselves in school. Shirley (1997) attributes this lack of involvement to a variety of reasons:
Schools need to play a more active role in engaging parents because it is precisely these socio-economically disadvantaged students who would benefit the most.
The issue of parent involvement over the years has shown that the relationship between parents and schools is a “complicated nexus” (Abrams and Gibbs, 2000, p. 81). With all that teachers and schools are expected to accomplish, trying to outreach to parents might seem like a “well-intentioned yet unreasonable extra chore” (Lazar and Slostad, 1999, p. 208). Especially for parents of middle and high school students, the complexity of the daily school routine, the fact that their children have a number of teachers, and the academic level of the work all might serve to inhibit connections. While parents may have the best ambitions for student achievement, they do not know how to implement their interest in a meaningful way. Studies have shown that “parents and teachers agree about the importance of parent involvement; however, there is some disagreement about the specific roles parents could play in education” (Christensen et al., 1997, p. 114). Parents perceive that they should be included in governance and curriculum design, but administrators and teachers prefer more traditional involvement such as volunteering in the classroom (p. 114). These blurred boundaries create confusion and animosity, resulting in barriers between home and school.
Because parents often feel distanced from the public school arena, they have had little opportunity to witness first-hand what teachers are doing in the classroom in such crucial areas as reading and writing. Although parents expect their children to learn language skills and to develop fluency in communication, they are often not equipped or confident enough to participate in their child’s literacy activities. We wanted to reach out to the creative side of parents for several reasons:
Despite the feeling that parent outreach is an unwelcome add-on in an already overtaxing day, the initial effort to establish communication can establish a feeling of “sharing the load” in the task of educating children.
Financially strapped single parents are less likely to be involved in the schooling of their children and also less likely to have positive communications relating to school. As well, these students tended to be lower achievers. Students from families at the upper ends of the socio-economic scale, no matter what their ethnicity, generally are higher achievers and have parents who are both involved in school activities and who communicate positively with their children about school (p. 1474).
Literacy in Schools
Several studies have found that parents can have a profound effect on their children’s cognitive development and reading ability. Parents can engage their children in many home literacy activities, such as reading to their children. This type of interaction can provide important preparation for children’s early reading and writing instruction in school, as well as important literacy development in later years of school. Many researchers have focused on whether features of home environments are associated with children’s literacy success. Previous research has suggested that home reading instruction and child-parent book reading influence academic achievement (Martini, 1995). Hewison and Tizard (1980) examined whether differences in six- to eight-year old students’ school achievement within a working-class population could be related to differences in parental behavior and day-to-day child-rearing activities. The factor that was found to be most strongly associated with reading success was whether or not the mother regularly heard the child read. In this same way, we hoped to find that parents who wrote regularly with their children influenced their writing achievement.
In the second group, eighteen students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades and their parents participated in the workshops. The group was about equally divided between White, African-American, and mixed-race families, of a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. None of the participants were English Language Learners. Two of the participating parents were professional writers, although they had not expressly conducted shared writing activities with their children at home. At the other end of the spectrum were struggling, less-educated single mothers.
In order to ensure that students’ writing improvement was directly attributed to the actual time spent writing at home with parents from the start of the project, a writing questionnaire was used. This questionnaire was provided in both English and Spanish and consisted of three questions. A combination of closed- and open-ended questions was used which ranged from general (if parents had been writing with their children at home prior to the study) to specific (if they had, how often, and what these activities consisted of).
We asked parents to use a writing log in order to measure the amount of time parents spent completing writing activities at home with their children. This log consisted of a blank line on which they wrote the writing activity they were working on. Next to each activity there was a space for the date, start and end time of each activity, comments, and parent signature. The intent of collecting this information was to determine if the amount of time spent writing with the child influenced the student’s level of writing improvement. Comments were used to provide the teacher with feedback and input from parents. The teacher could then tailor the activities and writing lessons to the parents’ interests to engage them in meaningful ways, respond to their needs, and give them a sense of ownership.
The Family Writing Workshops
On the first day of the workshop series, we gave an orientation to the participants about what to expect. Parents were instructed to complete the writing log on a regular basis to document the writing activity and the number of minutes engaged in that activity at home. We asked parents and students to complete the “writer’s survey.” We then modeled a brief version of process writing by taking participants through a writing activity, including prewriting (brainstorming), drafting, conferencing, and revision strategies. The activity was a “neighborhood map” where parents could recall their childhoods, and children could draw their own experiences. Participants drew their neighborhoods, either past or current, recalled various events that were labeled and pictured on the maps, and then chose one of the events to tell aloud to their writing partner (parent to child, and vice versa). What emerged from these memory exchanges was amazement on the part of parents at the details that their children remembered about certain events in their lives, certainly different from how the parents perceived their children’s experiences. The children also discovered a different view of their parents’ early lives. After the oral exchange, everyone then wrote his or her story drafts.
Groups of four, two parents and two children, then shared their drafts. We instructed participants in conference strategies such as questioning and “golden lines.” After groups had completed their exchanges, we allowed time for whole-group sharing, and found that this was one of the most heart-warming portions of the workshop. At that moment, our group became a writing community. The shift from “class” to “writing group” was palpable, supportive. The spontaneous applause after stories were shared brought the group together.
We collected the drafts to make photocopies for our records, then returned the originals to participants so they could complete “published” versions for “homework,” and discussed how parents could help their children with writing at home, giving them Writing Process handouts.
After a break for snacks and socializing, we continued with another writing activity, varying the format to keep everyone engaged. The same general pattern guided all of our meetings; about two writing activities, including pair sharing, foursome sharing, and whole-group sharing, plus snacking and community building, occupied the whole two-hour workshop period.
We found that writing activities that worked well for our classes also worked well for the Family Writing Workshops, and over the course of several sessions parents wrote poetry, memoirs, stories; created visuals; played with words and with ideas. We introduced some of the writing activities with short reading selections, modeling a particular writing device or style for participants to practice.
We were unable to clearly establish that writing improvement exhibited by the participating students was directly attributable to the workshops, because there were other factors affecting their literacy growth, such as regular classroom instruction.
Collecting the writing logs was more challenging than we had anticipated; parents did not return them even though students did speak of writing at home. As a result, we could not assess whether the time spent writing at home impacted students’ writing performance in a measurable way.
Although the ultimate goal was to increase student achievement, we feel that having created bonds between parents and our schools was an important accomplishment, since personal connections that were built can have long-lasting effects. In addition, we hope that by encouraging parent participation in education, we can have some small degree of influence on how families, both parents and children, view educational goals, aspirations, and concepts of success. Members of minority cultures from which many of our students come often do not pursue higher education; we feel that every effort we can make to involve parents in the school experiences of their children will increase their educational commitment. We hope to bring about positive change in families so that being educated can seem more attractive as a “way of life,” and that the pursuit of knowledge is valuable and rewarding. Positive school experiences for families can lead to a love of learning that can last a lifetime, truly leaving no child behind.
Gurupreet Khalsa has been teaching 6-8th grades at Odyssey Charter School in Pasadena since its inception in 1999. She obtained National Board Certification in Early Adolescent English Language Arts in 2003.
Almost all of my undergraduate students are planning to be teachers, and I am always on the lookout for words of wisdom from classroom veterans to pass on to them. Although I have been a teacher myself since 1972, most of my experience is at the college and university level, so one of the great pleasures of being a member of CATE is that I get to talk regularly with many elementary and secondary school teachers who have not only served hundreds of students in their careers but have also distinguished themselves as leaders in their profession.
I have only known Joan for a few years, but she has been teaching since 1971. Like so many of the experienced teachers I have known, I have always found her to be well organized, well read, and well-grounded. Also, I have admired in her a quality I can’t put a single name to, a combination of healthy cynicism towards our political and curricular masters and genuine concern and enthusiasm for teaching and for the students she works with.
After earning her BA in English at Cal Lutheran and her MA at University of Maine, Orono, she taught at the college level on the East Coast for a couple of years and had the opportunity to go on for her PhD and further college teaching. But she decided that she didn’t want to be in a college environment where she felt teaching was not valued, and so she returned to Northern California. She knew she wanted to work in education and she had spent a semester in an elementary school as an undergraduate - enough time to realize that it wasn’t for her! After working as an aide in a High School class, she found that she really enjoyed High School students and felt she could make more of a difference teaching at the high school level.
Though I would be hard-put to remember specific teachers in my life who have inspired me, Joan has no difficulty listing Mrs. Sears in second grade, Miss Hopkins in 5th grade, Mrs. Mace in 9th grade, Mr. Braud in 10th grade, Mr. McKnight in 12th grade, Professor Murley in college, Dr. Lemelin in graduate school. “That I can vividly remember them and how they influenced me as a learner and thinker is significant,” she noted. What they had in common was that they were all dedicated individuals for whom teaching was not just a job. “I have definitely modeled my teaching and commitment to education after them,” she continued.
Joan mentioned the importance of colleagues who have inspired her, but she also credited former students for helping to keep her focused. Last spring, for example, she received a graduation announcement from a student who had been in her class 4 years earlier. The student told her how Joan’s rigorous class had helped her to be successful at Harvard. “I have a special drawer in my desk where I keep those cards, letters, and pictures,” she added. “My inspiration on those days that don't go so well.”
I am very interested in what keeps people going professionally, especially in demanding situations. Joan has been through every kind of professional training and development that has come her way, from the Writing Project and the Literature Project to BTSA training. “The intellectual stimulation is what I crave,” she explained. “I’m a rather driven person, and can’t bear to do anything half-way.” At the same time she has learned to be disciplined. Although she loves what she does, she tries to keep her life in balance, and feels that it is important to be able to step out and step back when you need to: “When my kids were younger and the school year finished, we would go straight to the cabin. School didn’t exist again until the fall.” Like many of us, Joan is sometimes guilty of feeling as though she’s indispensable, so she said we have to keep telling ourselves it’s OK to do something else.
Joan has sometimes thought about leaving teaching, but can't think of anything else that would be as fulfilling. In fact, it’s almost as if she can’t leave. She has “become addicted to the classroom -- its unpredictability, its energy, the anxiety, the joy, the shared pathos and laughter.” She said that “in many ways, the classroom is life all compressed into one room.” But it’s more than just an addiction, she went on: “I feel like what I do is important beyond myself, that I have done something that has made a difference in other people's lives.” She was worried that this might sound corny, but insisted that altruism is at the heart of teaching, that in some way we teach because we want to help others. She doesn’t see herself as a deeply spiritual person in the traditional sense, but she does feel that she has been "called" to the teaching profession, and that “What I do is certainly a way to instill values and teach morality.”
If you’ve been teaching a long time, you’re bound to have ideas about what would improve the profession, and Joan is no exception. She is adamant about the need for greater respect for teachers. She admits she gets “frustrated by the extent to which parents and politicians, who are not professional educators, want to tell us how to do our jobs.” Without having respect as a profession, we have a tough time selling education to young people who are very capable but not necessarily well motivated.
In addition, if you have been reasonably successful in your professional life, you’re likely to have some idea of the factors that have contributed to that success. The first factor Joan emphasized was a “strong education in English. I discovered a passion for the subject, and I continue to be passionate about what I teach.” She also values intellectual curiosity, and the ability to find something new and challenging even in the mundane. “When I teach, I learn,” she said. “Every day that I am in the classroom, I gain something that reshapes my understanding of the world.”
Flexibility and a willingness to change are also important qualities to possess if one is to be successful as a teacher. Since our clients, the students, are constantly changing, we need to be able to change our teaching strategies, learn new material, and adapt to new technology and new ideas. She gave a very clear example of what it means to adapt and learn new things. “I was using the latest technology when I started teaching,” she explained. “An IBM selectric typewriter!” Then, 12 years ago, she started teaching journalism, and not only had to learn how to use a computer but also how to develop film in a dark room and print photos. “Now,” she went on, “I have 16 computers, 3 scanners, digital cameras and no dark room.”
When I asked her what would allow her to do a better job, she immediately answered: “Smaller classes. I know that this seems like a cliché, but to truly read and respond to student writing and to interact daily with students, I need English classes that are small enough that I can still have a bit of life to myself!” To read and respond thoughtfully to 30 papers (an average class size), taking 15 minutes per paper, a teacher could add seven to eight additional hours of work to her week. Since most teachers have five classes, that would require almost 40 hours for a complete set of papers. “If you add the hours spent responding to papers to the 50 hours per week that I already use to teach and prepare, I could work 90 hours. I hate taking two weeks or more to return papers because I know they need prompt feedback, but it is so hard to find time to do the grading. I need to sleep.”
I asked her what she
looks for when she is interviewing new teachers, and she was very clear
about what is required: a solid knowledge of the
subject matter - which often comes across in the letter of application
- a passion for the subject and for working with kids, and a natural ability
to work with others, to be a team player, to share. “I can teach
them methodology,” she declares, “but I can’t teach them
these fundamental dispositions.”
She was not referring to the time teachers spend preparing for class, reading new material or grading papers. She was referring to meetings before and after school, committee work at the school, district, and even state level, supervision of students on a variety of out-of-school activities, or attending conferences and other forms of staff development. New and trainee teachers sometimes seem unaware of the opportunities provided by professional development activities, she feels, and they sometimes do not understand the responsibility to participate in self-governance, and in staff and curriculum development. In short, the new teachers she worries about see teaching as a job rather than as a profession or even a vocation. At the same time, she also worries about the ones who put all their time into their work, who are so single-minded that she fears they will burn themselves out and leave the profession or become bitter about their inability to have a personal life.
By drawing attention to Joan’s concerns, I do not want to give the impression that she is bitter or that she has become jaded with her work. Indeed, her unhappiness at what she sees in some of the newer teachers is in contrast to the obvious pleasure she still gets from teaching itself. “Every year I look forward to it,” she said. She sees the high school years as an idealistic and formative period, a time when young people are testing their independence and shaping their values. “The students put enormous trust in us,” Joan went on, and this dependency seems to appeal to her altruistic side, her sense that she has given something meaningful to her students over the years.
Since Joan is looking forward to several more years in the classroom, I asked about the major challenges facing her and the school system in general. The biggest challenge she sees is educating the public about the dangers of the two-class educational system we are already well along the path to creating. “Public schools in America have always provided an opportunity for children to realize their dreams,” she explained, but she fears that “vouchers and charter schools and all of the other programs that try to justify exclusivity in education will strip resources from those who need public education to provide them with a level playing field.”
Meanwhile, the challenges facing Joan herself are also difficult to meet, but here, at least, she can take full responsibility for meeting them. She speaks for many of us when she says: “I need to keep my mind sharp, my enthusiasm in place, and my love of my students intact. I want to leave the profession at the top of my game, and not just hang on to get my retirement.” I would say there’s not much danger of that happening!
In a speech to the National Coalition of Education Activists, Luis Rodriguez (author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.) compared his own education in Los Angeles public schools with the educational experience of more privileged students in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania where he had been hired as a poet in residence. “Why was it that these schools had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college entrance rate? What is it about these kids that they can not fail? I asked the teachers and they told me that these children feel more than empowered; they feel that they are entitled. Their school won’t let them fail. The kids are not any more intelligent or creative than other kids. But somebody ensures that none will fail. There is a sense that the entire institution will, if necessary, come together for the needs of just one kid.”
This is the way it should be for all children. It is what I envision when I hear the rallying cry “No Child Left Behind.” But the $6,000 or so that California spends per student per year simply will not buy what $20,000 can offer students in Bryn Mawr. Money alone will not solve the problems of public education, particularly if squandered on bureaucratic nest-building, but money can help. It can buy smaller class size and tutors. It can put computers in every classroom and clean restrooms on every campus. It can buy books. Money can also buy professional development for teachers and their attendance at renewing events like CATE conferences and summer institutes.
No Child Left Behind legislation has caused a firestorm of controversy within the education community. Everyone is pointing fingers. It’s the fault of unfunded mandates. It’s the fault of too many tests. It’s the fault of under-prepared teachers. Finding fault is beside the point. There is plenty to go around. I just want a system that is committed to coming together when necessary for the sake of a single child. I want an institution like the one in Bryn Mawr that will not allow students to fail.
Parents put their faith in the public school system and count on our professional expertise to insure that their children will be prepared for life after high school. They expect and have a right to expect, that teachers will do everything within our power to insure that every child learns to read and write. Let’s reach beyond the rhetoric to the spirit of No Child Left Behind.