Jan 23, 2011

Fleeing from Schools in Need of Assistance

The No Child Left Behind Act (ESEA) may get a name change soon but one thing seems like it will remain: standardized, norm-referenced testing.

I am frustrated, on many levels, by norm-referenced bubble tests. First on my list of frustrations is the negative effect of the law's attention to subgroups. In case you are not familiar with subgroups, let me explain: each school district must report their students' test scores in a disaggregated fashion, listing the scores in ten groupings. The groupings are designated as follows: All Students, 5 ethic groups (American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Black, and White) and Limited English Proficient, Special Education, Migrant Status and Free and Reduced Priced Lunch.  95% of all students must be tested, but if a school isn't large enough to have a significant population in a subgroup, they do not need to report scores for that subgroup.

I understand that the purpose of this part of the law was to ensure that members of these subgroups are receiving a quality education and are not lagging behind their oftentimes more advantaged peers. But in my experience, reporting the scores of these subgroups can lead to anxiety, anger, divisiveness, and the occurrence of a phenomenon called "white flight.

My city is suburban; it is a part of a thriving and diverse area surrounding a state university. There has always been diversity because of the university--graduate students from around the world come here to study.  People here are used to having a mobile population of educated families moving in and out of our neighborhoods and schools. We have all enjoyed the way these families from abroad give our Iowa town a more urban flavor, make us feel more like citizens of the world than just citizens of our state. But in the past 5-10 years, the diversity here has changed; the mobility no longer comes just from international students. We've had an influx of people from Chicago who come to Iowa to find a better life for their families. Housing here is more affordable, schools are excellent, and there is very little violence or crime compared to Chicago. The problem is that many members of our community are not comfortable with our our newest residents. They bring their culture with them and it is different. For some people this difference is wonderful; for others it is frightening. We now have some very colorful neighborhoods, some schools where 50% or more of the student population is not white. Many of our newest students are African American.

When new students enroll in schools in Iowa, we find that many are not reading at the same level as students who were born here.  Our schools do an excellent job of intervening to help struggling learners grow; but in many cases the growth is not great enough to meet the proficiency requirements of NCLB (known as Adequate Yearly Progress.) Failure to meet AYP happens most often my community's most diverse schools.  As a result, schools with a lot of diversity are now labeled Schools in Need of Assistance (in other states they are called failing schools.) The local newspaper publishes the disaggregated results of norm-referenced tests for these "failing" schools. Members of our community see that in some instances it is the subgroup of African American students who are not achieving well enough on the state test. They hear about schools devoting resources to help these students achieve proficiency. Instead of supporting the efforts of the schools, they worry that all the resources are being devoted to "those kids," that their own children are being left behind.

Any school not making Annual Yearly Progress is required by federal law to offer parents the opportunity to transfer their children to another school. I believe that the intent of the law was to allow members of subgroups the opportunity to move their children from a low-performing school to a school that would offer them a greater chance of success. However, I do not believe that this intent has been carried through to standard practice.  The people who transfer to new schools are not members of underachieving subgroups in low-performing schools; in fact they are the highest achieving students. They are not leaving low-performing schools: the average ACT score for high schoolers in our district is 25.6. These transfer students are leaving the most ethnically diverse schools. 

The five most diverse schools in our district have been on the SINA list for the past two years.  As a result of being on this list they have been required by federal law to offer students the opportunity to transfer. They have lost students for two years and as a result of decreased enrollment they have lost teachers, too. The students they lose are the highest achieving students.  These high achieving students leave and scores drop again. Their transfers set up a cycle of low scores that will eventually lead to state intervention if we do not put a stop to it. Schools serving our most diverse neighborhoods will be forced to close. The law that was created to keep our students from being left behind will be the cause of their school's demise.

I do not know how to solve this problem. I don't know how to convince my neighbors that our neighborhood school is still filled with highly qualified teachers who are doing everything in their power to make sure that ALL students are learning and growing. The school my children attend filed their SINA plan in October and I had the privilege of reading it and offering feedback. The faculty there is vigilant in their efforts to help all learners achieve proficiency. This year they are differentiating instruction and using curriculum based measurements to track student growth. Even though their AYP on norm-referenced tests may not reflect the growth they're seeing, we already have evidence that students are growing and making progress this year. I hope that someday our legislators and neighbors will look at this growth and support it, that they will accept the changing landscape of our community and appreciate the richness it offers. If they do not, No Child Left Behind will ironically be the cause of that which it attempted to stop--the failure of our most at-risk children.

Jan 16, 2011

We're Human Beings First

Here is my response to an Education Week tweet posting a blog from Edutopia blogger, Ben Johnson. This comment is originally posted along with many others on Edutopia. Links to the original articles are here:

Teachers Are Not Social Workers - Teaching Now - Education Week Teacher http://bit.ly/i0qSyY

The Most Important Need: The Need to Learn | Edutopia http://bit.ly/f4aUFL  by Ben Johnson 

"I remember a student who came to school with bullet holes in his coat and limped around with an injured leg. I asked him about it and he shrugged it off saying something about if it was his time to go, then, oh well." --Ben Johnson

Last week this quote ran, albeit out of context, in a short blog that appeared in Education Week. Later, that Education Week blog was tweeted by someone I follow--still out of context. Prior to reading your full blog, Ben, it bothered me immensely to read it because for me this quote represents the crux of so many problems in our society right now. We don't put people first. 

Earlier comments about cell phone assumptions and roadside assistance touch on it, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that and can be found in every aspect of American life right now. We choose to threaten and criticize each other rather than to offer help and assistance. The negativity occurs in situations involving celebrities like Michael Vick, Sarah Palin and President Obama; in response to the shootings in Tucson; and in situations with the people in our classrooms and towns. When someone cuts us off in traffic we scream out names and obscenities. If someone stands on the side of the road with a sign begging for money we view them as animals. When a student comes into our classroom riddled with bullet holes, we keep teaching. 

Now, I've read your entire blog and I see some of the context that was missing in the Education Week snippet. I now have the full picture, but I am bothered only slightly less than I was before reading the whole post. You did ask the student if he was okay. And I think that you are right about training future teachers--they should not go digging into their students lives looking for problems to solve. But if a problem walks into the classroom, a problem like a student riddled with bullet holes, I think it is their responsibility as human beings to try to help. Helping students in need is important because doing so models a critical lesson that we all need to learn: human beings are important. People are our most important resource. Show your students that in your classroom they come first. Perhaps if that lesson were modeled more often, young people wouldn't be so quick to shoot each other.

Does this mean that the whole class should be disrupted in order to help one student? Sometimes. It really depends on the student and the situation. I have interrupted the learning environment in my classroom to deal with students' issues in the past and I am sure I will do it again--because my classroom is a cooperative of individuals. Each individual contributes to the whole. When one of them is suffering, we all suffer. We teach each other and we learn together. We are both a team and a family.

Now that I have read the quote in context, I have a better grasp of your main point, but I still have a question: whatever happened to the young man with the bullet holes in his clothing? Did the learning environment you created and maintained on that day lead him to graduate from high school, go on to lead a productive life? Or did he end up with a final, "oh well" because it was his time?


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