On a pre-selected Monday morning, teachers in every single fifth grade English classroom in the Paso Robles School District will approach the board and write: “Describe how a narrator’s or a speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.” The children will read the sentence aloud, probably in a robotic and creepy monotone, before breaking into groups to make flashcards and memorize the week’s Common Core State Standard (CCSS).
As the week progresses, teachers will read the same stories from the same textbook, organizing various group activities and projects that constantly refer back to the CCSS. On Friday, there will be a quick test, and on Monday the whole process starts over with a new standard.
Somewhere far away, a fluttering fairy drops dead.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- TEA PARTY TEACHER : High School teacher Lora Dixon believes in accountability but is frustrated with the test driven, standardized instructional methods recently imposed on the Paso Robles Unified School District. Also pictured is student Hazen Knowles.
“They want kids to go home and tell their parents that they’re learning about the elements of tragedy, not the inner turmoil of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,” said Lora Dixon, a teacher at Paso Robles’ Independence High School. “They’re taking the heart out of learning.”
The “they” in this case are Action Learning Systems, a private consultant company Paso Robles Unified School District hired last year. Despite test scores that improved at a rate outpacing the rest of San Luis Obispo County, the district entered advanced stages of Program Improvement (PI), triggered by its not meeting certain goals imposed by No Child Left Behind. Federal safeguards kicked in and required the district to pay a state-approved district assessment team $125,000 to visit the schools, observe classrooms, and analyze records before retraining teachers in a structured new method.
It’s called Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), and frankly, it works.
Project Follow-Through, a 28-year study of 20,000 students, analyzed the success rate of nine instructional techniques. DII ranked highest by a landslide. The method has four components: clear objectives, structured lessons, constant and intense interaction, and proactive classroom management.
“It’s a research-based strategy that will get results if done well,” said Gary Soto, president of Action Learning Systems. “There’s still room for creative lessons, and it keeps teachers focused on targets.”
Until Paso Robles gets out of PI, representatives from the district assessment team will make frequent trips to the area to monitor teacher performance and ensure that they’re sticking to the regimen of DII.
“The teachers in this district are excellent, and we have to sit there while they tell us how to teach,” said Sheila Wynne, a kindergarten teacher at Winifred Pifer Elementary.
Last year, high standardized test scores ranked Winifred Pifer as a “high-performing” school, but certain minority subgroups of students didn’t improve enough, and the school was placed in PI as well. The school had to send out letters that gave parents the option of transferring their students to two neighboring schools, both of which had lower overall scores.
Dixon explained that teachers had always faced periodic evaluations that consisted of a class observation, an interview, and a quick, two-page form. After Action Learning Systems’ recommendations were put into effect, the form exploded into an 18-page rubric that grades teachers on intangible qualities like their ability to “use effective instructional strategies and approaches to illustrate a concept and its connections within and across subject areas.”
“It’s vague enough to give anyone a good or bad grade,” Dixon said.
A key component of DII is the strict adherence to scheduling. Math and English teachers are expected to move from one standard to the next without looking back, keeping a steady pace that packs as much learning into the school year as possible.
“It’s so scripted,” Wynne said. “Sometimes the kids aren’t getting it, but you have to move on.”
This component seems antithetical to the spirit of the federal regulations, but it actually fosters a system of support classes for the students who are left behind by the regular curriculum. Because all the fifth grade math classes are on the same schedule, struggling students can be pooled into a single review period. They might miss music or art, but they’ll know how to multiply fractions.
“It also allows teachers in the regular classes to serve the kids who are learning at grade level,” said Steve Campbell, Paso Robles’ director of special projects.
And it’s all thanks to the infamous 2001 federal bill, No Child Left Behind, or NCLB (yes, this is an acronym story).
There are clear benefits to the standardization brought by NCLB, but most educators can’t help but find it a little depressing. Anne Quinn is the public information officer for Paso Robles schools. She’s also a librarian, and she described the high points and pitfalls of California’s Accelerated Reader program. In it, books are color coded by skill level, and students have to pass a test to graduate to a new color. Quinn said kids are eager to advance and will race through the library in search of green books and yellow books, but they seldom pick a book based on content or curiosity. It’s all test-driven.
“Yes, they are all becoming good readers, and yes, there is objective criteria to determine how well they comprehend what they are reading,” she said, “but is love of reading getting lost?”
Big, fat F
This fall, 26 schools in San Luis Obispo County had to send letters to parents letting them know that, according to the state, the institutions they trust to prepare their children for career, college, and citizenship weren’t doing their jobs.
When it comes to No Child Left Behind, SLO County has received a big, fat “F.” Under the law, all K-12 schools that receive federal funding must produce adequate test scores for various subgroups of students, and in SLO County, just 51 percent are passing. It’s a grade that could trigger drastic overhauls of curricula and staff, despite the fact that it’s incredibly misleading.
The scoring is strict. If a single subgroup of students in any grade level fails to improve by a certain margin on standardized tests for two consecutive years, the entire school is placed in “Program Improvement,” a blanket label with a tendency to confuse and frighten parents.
“Some are angry; others just know that their child is doing OK,” said Paso Robles Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Kathleen McNamara. “Lots of parents ask if their kids can still go college; others say they don’t want their child in an underperforming school and transfer to another.”
Program Improvement doesn’t necessarily mean schools are bad. Overall, SLO County schools are testing better than the California average. Scores in every category have risen steadily since 2004, but some students—the socioeconomically disadvantaged, the disabled, and English learners—haven’t improved enough.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- ASSEMBLY LINE EDUCATION: A highly structured curriculum of learning objectives was imposed on Paso Robles schools after several years of inadequate standardized test scores.
"You’re really hitting people where they live with these letters,” said Campbell. “You just can’t fit enough background in a letter to explain what these terms really mean.”
History, ABCs, and 123s
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 began as an effort to address the wide achievement gaps between white, wealthy students and the disadvantaged learners who needed extra attention but weren’t getting any. The law reauthorized 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act with the goals of ensuring that all teachers would be highly qualified and all students would be proficient in English-language arts and math by no later than 2014. That part’s important. Again, all students must be proficient by 2014.
These lofty aspirations received bipartisan support in Congress, including “aye” votes from California Democrats Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Lois Capps. Federal funding methods and broad accountability measures were established, but the details were left open for states to interpret.
A decade after the law passed, California finds itself trapped in an educational system steeped in strict mandates and a murky alphabet soup of bureaucratic jargon.
To understand NCLB and its effects on the state, one must be familiar with the annual California Standardized Tests (CST) given to all students in grades 2 through 11 and the California High School Exit Exam students must pass in order to receive a diploma. The test scores are analyzed, and every school is given an overall Academic Performance Index (API) number that ranges from 200 to 1,000.
California set 800 as the bench mark API for schools to be considered high performing, and in 2003, the state used the same measurement to define “proficiency” under NCLB.
A 2009 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that California’s definition of proficiency is among the ten toughest in the nation. The state, however, ranks 43rd in per-pupil spending.
“They want to drive a Lexus, but they’re paying for a Kia,” said Dr. Richard Oyler, principal of Daniel E. Lewis Middle School in Paso Robles.
Schools that have a certain percentage of minority subgroups qualify for Title One funding: federal dollars that each school can use at its own discretion to provide extra support for English learners, kids with disabilities, or other minorities. To hold these schools accountable, each subgroup also receives an API number based on CST scores, and they all have to hit that 800 API proficiency target by 2014.
That’s where the rigorous requirements of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) come into play. All states, districts, schools, and subgroups are federally mandated to close the gap between their starting API and the 800 goal by 5 percent of the difference every year.
“Statistically, it doesn’t make sense,” said Brad Schultz, the county’s assistant superintendent of educational support services.
New students, some with little to no education, are added to the cycle every year, but the demands of AYP continue to mount. What all this amounts to is that eventually, subgroups are doomed to top out.
“How can you have a subgroup of English learners testing proficient for English language arts?” Campbell asked. “By definition, it’s impossible.”
Impossible or not, if any subgroup fails to meet AYP targets for two years running, the school or district is placed in PI. For the school and the district, this designation means five years of shifting funding, devoting resources, and otherwise scrambling to pull the school back into good standing.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MOLDING YOUNG MINDS : Kindergarten instructor Sheila Wynne told New Times that the teachers’ lounge is rife with discussions about NCLB regulations ‘leaching the fun out of the job.’
In the first two years of PI, schools have to set aside 10 percent of Title One funding for teacher development and 5 percent for optional student transportation to neighboring schools. In year three, the school and district enter “corrective action” mode. Officials can then choose to replace staff, implement a new curriculum, or appoint an outside expert. Whichever path they take, serious changes ensue. During the fourth year of PI, the school/district must develop a plan for alternative governance (become a charter school, allow a full state takeover, replace all or most staff, etc.). The plan gets implemented in year five.
Remember, of course, that half of SLO County schools are in PI. In fact, half of Santa Barbara County schools have the same stigma.
“The roads into PI are many and vast,” said Wendy Shelton of the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. “The roads out are narrow and few.”
While researching this article, New Times didn’t come across a single person who wholeheartedly endorsed NCLB. Most acknowledged the law’s good intentions and many positive effects, but they all expressed frustration with the way improvement is measured and demanded.
As the federal policy liaison to the California Department of Education, Cathy McBride monitors the progress on any congressional bills that might affect schools and reports back to Sacramento.
“Everyone knows [NCLB] needs to be fixed,” McBride said.
In September, Barack Obama offered a “flexibility package” that would exempt states from specific NCLB mandates. It sounds nice, but the deal doesn’t come cheap. It’s only valid if states transition to a curriculum that aligns with new college- and career-ready standards outlined in the administration’s plan to reform education. Such a transition would cost California an estimated $3.1 billion.
“Congress is not happy about the administration’s waiver,” McBride said. “The best thing to do when you have a bad law is to write a new one.”
In response, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee began discussing an 860-page bill to reauthorize NCLB. The rewrite would forbid conditional waivers, remove AYP requirements, and eliminate the 2014 benchmark of 100 percent proficiency. But progress on Capitol Hill comes slowly. The bill has already seen 144 amendments, with 74 coming from rabblerousing Tea Party Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. According to McBride, Paul also invoked a traditionally ignored rule that prevents a committee from meeting for more than two hours while Congress is in session.
Though a deal was struck Nov. 8 to allow regular discussion of the bill to resume, McBride doubted it would be formally introduced to the Senate floor by the end of the year. It’s expected to pass the Senate eventually, but could meet opposition in the House of Representatives, where smaller, targeted changes are being proposed.
“California could apply for the flexibility waiver in February, but the standards might look very different after the reauthorization,” McBride said.
While Congress debates a new law and California considers an expensive and possibly shortsighted curriculum overhaul, the current requirements of AYP still apply. More schools will fail to meet their goals in 2012. The march toward statewide PI and further sanctions continues.
Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.