Opinion » Commentaries

Dear Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Put the brakes on No Child Left Behind legislation



I have been a strong supporter of you in the past and have been proud to have you as a part of the California delegation in Congress. I am, therefore, profoundly disappointed that you are not only supporting, but actually co-sponsoring the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind.

I have been a classroom teacher for five years, following a career as a field botanist and developer of inquiry-based science curriculum through the University of California youth development program. I am also the mother of a student who will graduate from the California public school system this year.

I am deeply thankful that my son was able to take advantage of the flexibility, wonderful teaching, and project-based school activities that enabled him to stretch his knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I am also deeply grateful that he is graduating before the train-wreck that is NCLB fully hits our school district. My son calls NCLB "No Test Left Untaken." As an AP student, he had 2.5 feet of tests to take last spring.

I am fully supportive of high standards that are realistic for each student. I am fully supportive of accountability--each student should be showing growth. But we must stop relying on tests alone as a measure of success and start looking at other metrics: How many families have graduated from the family literacy programs? How many families of English Language Learner students have become active participants in the school? Are students making academic growth each year? Help us develop pre-schools that develop curiosity and language--not strict memorization! Change in the culture of illiteracy is a process, not an event that happens in a year, or even two or three.

NCLB is designed to define every school in the country as a failing school. Period. Any early benefits from a wake-up call have long since evaporated under a punitive, designed-to-fail mentality that believes that every single one of our nation's children are above average and can--and want to--attain college-level English lit criticism and math standards. California standards are wildly inflated and out of line with reasonable expectations for some of our children and indeed with teaching what is truly important: basic literacy, useful math, thoughtful questioning, and a deep understanding of the underpinnings of the continuation of human life on this planet.

Six years into NCLB, I am seeing more and more sixth-grade students without even a rudimentary number sense: If I multiply 20 times 30, does an answer of 60 make sense? California has compounded the problem by bumping the math standards down a grade: Our students used to take Algebra 1 in ninth grade now they are required to take it in eighth grade. Students are asked to comprehend concepts that are not age appropriate for a sizeable percentage of them. While a certain number of students do indeed thrive on earlier advanced math instruction, others flounder to understand and each year find themselves farther and farther behind since they haven't been allowed to develop a solid foundation. In sixth grade, my 11-year-olds are required to master 50 new math standards. Many of them are multi-part standards.

I understand these standards. I even know how to teach them when students arrive understanding the basics. I can even teach the basics in a way so that these students can master them if I am given adequate time. However, if you are one of the students who has been asked to master the relationship between multiplication and division before your brain is ready for the concept, how can you possibly be expected to master each of the more complicated concepts in less than four days? (That's 180 days in the school year, divided by 50 math standards. This does not take into consideration the time it takes to review standards in which students are shaky from second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade math.) We are failing these students by asking them to accomplish the inappropriate and then labeling them as failures.

NCLB labels schools that have students who cannot master these concepts at the designated grade level as failures. The consequences for being a "failing school" are punitive: Funds can be pulled, staff fired, and the school taken over by the state under the assumption that somehow the state can do a better job!

Indeed, NCLB has defined success as failure. I teach in a bilingual, dual immersion program. English Language Learners (ELL) are defined by NCLB as those testing below "proficient" on the California Standards Tests. Yet once they test proficient, they are re-labeled "Recently English Proficient" and are no longer part of the ELL population. NCLB demands that we show progress with our ELL students. We can never show progress with our ELL students since any time one of them succeeds, they are taken out of the ELL designation and it looks like all of our ELLs are failing since they are still (by definition) all below "proficient." How's that for a Catch 22! Unfortunately, this is but one example of the deep logic flaws in the NCLB legislation.

NCLB does not put more money in our hands to help teach parenting and family literacy. It pays for NCLB police to follow around administrators to see if they are "doing their jobs." We know from outstanding research done through Harvard University that helping families become literate helps their children succeed in school. Yet under both the original and new NCLB, we are penalized for the existence of the barrier rather than helped to overcome it.

I beg you to put the brakes on this legislation and go back to the drawing board. Avail yourself of the abundant research on programs that work to overcome the numerous barriers students face in their struggle to succeed and stay in school. Go to classrooms. Come to my classroom. Talk to my parents. Talk to parents who are now fleeing the public schools since they do not want their children to become part of the relentless march toward a deadening, one-size-fits-all, abandon-the-science (it's not tested), forget-the-time-for-discussion-in-favor-of-more-math-drills mentality that NCLB is foisting on our public schools.

It seems incredibly ironic that, at the same time China and other regimented school systems are looking to our public education system for ideas on how to stimulate creativity and critical thinking, we are pushing our schools to be more like the regimented Soviet-style education where everyone learns the same thing at the same time!

Help us fix our schools. Please don't hammer another nail in the coffin of public education.

Judy Neuhauser is a sixth-grade teacher in Spanish at Pacheco Elementary School. Send comments to the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

Add a comment