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Education Tue Aug 09 2011

No Child Left Behind "Waivers": A View from the Classroom

by Adam Heenan

Since I started teaching, I've always looked forward to the first day of the year. I never sleep the night before, but it is not an anxious time, it is an exciting time. I am even a little jealous of Track E teachers that get to start a month earlier than I.

The anxiety doesn't come in September, but it usually begins in January, and that doesn't have to do with the end of winter break, but rather a beginning of the "Testing Season." Testing Season, formerly known as "spring," is the time of the year when all the really valuable learning that had been going on through December is then set aside for preparing students to take high stakes exams. These tests tests do not inform instruction - we do not see results until the following autumn- they only serve to incorrectly label what students in a certain zip-code cannot do.

It is a time-wasting disjuncture of the school year calendar that tells us nothing about what our students really know and really can do. Teachers know this; students and parents know this. However, it seems that the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan still doesn't get it.

When Duncan announced that he will allow states to "waive" their No Child Left Behind requirements, I held my breath for the ball to drop. Could it be? The end of high-stakes testing? The end of labeling our children and public schools as "failures?"

I don't have much lung capacity, and actually, I didn't have to hold my breath too long because a couple of paragraphs into the New York Times report I read that the only states that will get the waiver will be those states that have in put in place Race to the Top "accountability initiatives." Ah, Secretary Duncan, you never cease to disappoint my disappointment in you. States are being let "off the hook" of a bad policy, just to be traded for a different bad policy that has negative effects on teaching and learning."

For the better part of 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been decrying that Congress must re-authorize an "improved" version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) before the school year starts in August/September. This past spring the National School Board Association prepared an excellent summary outlining the finer points of the Re-authorization of ESEA.

But Congress never got to meet about NCLB since so much time was sucked up by the "Financial Crisis of 2011," leaving Secretary Duncan to make an unprecedented and unilateral decision to allow states to "opt-out" of NCLB requirements, the major one being that "100% of schools need to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by 2014," if they implement education reforms to be announced in detail next month.

Everyone in the education world, Duncan included, is in agreement that achieving the goal set in motion in 2000 by President Bush is ridiculous at this point, and has been in many ways more damaging for students, schools and communities than it has been helpful. Excellent schools across the nation are routinely labeled, "failing," or put on "probation," for not making improvements on high-stakes tests. The Center on Education Policy reported in May that Adequate Yearly Progress made by schools was the lowest ever, with nearly 39% of all United States schools "failing," and they report that the number is probably higher considering many states have changed their testing requirement since 2005.

Where the general public once did not have language to describe what was wrong with education in the United States, we now have labeled and categorized our children, and punished our public schools into education reform that resembles a scene from The Office. We now use words like to "Accountability" and "Performance" to describe teaching and learning rather than words like "teaching" and "learning."

In waiving out of NCLB, states will not waive out of accountability, according to Duncan. The high-stakes testing craze created in response to the NCLB Act provided Americans with the evidence ("data") for why reform needs to happen, but Duncan's Race to the Top (RttT) federal incentive program, modeled after Chicago's own Renaissance 2010 gave us the "how to" guide for reforming education: give states money for implementing certain kinds of reforms- tying teacher evaluations to test scores, turning around low-performing schools, lifting restrictions on charter school proliferation, and adopting the Common Core State Standards, approved by (most of the United States' governors). Duncan is leaving these requirements for states intact, and in fact in the 2009 and 2010, forty states and Washington D.C. legislated versions of these changes in an effort to win some of the $4 billion plus Edu-money. Hence the term, Race.

Though Illinois did not win one of the RttT grants in 2010 the General Assembly has lifted some restrictions on charter school proliferation, and is in the process of re-vamping teacher evaluations in the as-yet created Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 201o. Illinois Senate Bill 7, made infamous across the nation by Stand for Children's Jonah Edelman's anti-teacher union rant, enacted sweeping reforms in Chicago allowing the Mayor of Chicago to have even further control over lengthening the school day length and increasing class size. Illinois might as well apply for the waiver, what have we to lose that we haven't already?

The problem is that these kinds of reforms do not work to make schools better places to teach or learn. We have seen across the nation that merit-pay for teachers based on their student performance on tests does not improve teacher morale and often leads to cheating on high-stakes tests. Schools that get "turned-around," or "charterized," most often do no better and in some cases do worse than their public school counterparts in the same communities.

Educators and public schooling advocates, including Jonathon Kozol, Matt Damon, Diane Ravitch and Gloria Ladson-Billings among others gathered last week under the banner of Save Our Schools March with demands to end No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies, not to reform it. "NCLB operates from a deficit learning model," says Paul Gorski, founder of EdChange, "we can no more achieve justice by reforming NCLB." It's time we invest in education reform that benefits teaching and learning.

Teachers need professional development that helps us develop curricula responsive to our students' diverse needs. We need principals who are instructional leaders, not just building managers. We need full and equitable, no-strings-attached funding for all public schools.

The only real reform will come about when all schools are great places to teach and learn, and not test-factories. Teachers know this; parents and students know this. I just don't think Duncan gets it.

Adam Heenan is a public school teacher in Chicago. He blogs at Classroom Sooth and tweets from @classroomsooth.

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