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Roberta Flack, Vietnam, and NCLB - All in One Op-Ed

It's a deadly slow week in education policy, so I'll pass along this op-ed in the School Library Journal (Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind) on a teacher's decision to leave teaching because of the No Child Left Behind Act. Minus 5 points for the melodramatic beginning (I feel like the last marine who got out before the siege of Khe Sanh. I feel like the one Titanic band member who overslept, missed the voyage, and lived. In my darkest moments, I feel like a traitor.), but you can't hold that against a guy who writes young adult fiction. Here's an excerpt:

If you’re a teacher, thanks for being braver than I am. Thanks for riding it out when I’m just, well, riding out. And if you’re a parent, please fight for your child. Ask to see your school’s test-materials budget and its library budget. Ask to visit the classroom on a random day, unannounced. Ask whether your kid is getting more or less art than she would have had five years ago. Ask why band practice is at 7 a.m. when it used to be part of the school day. And while you’re mourning the loss of art, music, language, or history, ask the one most damning question of all: What took its place? If you get really riled up by the answer, please consider running for a spot on the school board.

As for me, I’m out. And I’m sorry.

Are teachers leaving because of NCLB? Does anyone have stories or data?

When we started the petition, we asked teachers to identify themselves as such. For about a year, I copied and pasted those statements here:


The claims of leaving are in bold. I need to update the list before summer starts.

Last year Greg Toppo contacted a few of these individuals.


I went to an interesting workshop on teacher retention issues last fall, and one of the presenters made the case that one of the unintended consequences of NCLB was that as the struggling schools and districts focused more and more on testing, and on a fairly narrow conception of reading and math, it motivated good teachers to look for jobs in schools that weren't under those pressures, thus re-enforcing the problem of less-experienced, less-qualified teachers in struggling schools. I'll see if I can find a reference to the study.

I appreciate the writer's sentiments, even if he is painting with a broad brush. And I give him credit for lasting 14 years. Having left the classroom myself last June, I understand completely the feeling of exhaustion tinged with guilt he expresses.

Is there a cause and effect with NCLB? I suppose that depends upon the school. Certainly, as we've discussed on this blog several times, there is a narrowing of curriculum that can have an enervating effect on a teacher. The endless test prep too is a poor substitute for an education and is dispiriting.

Reflecting on my own experience however, I had many things working in my favor as a teacher. I felt supported by my adminstration, a collegial relationship with most of my colleagues, and many supportive parents. Still it wasn't enough to sustain me. Why not?

I summarize my teaching experience for friends not in education by saying teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. By this I mean that after a few years, some teachers find a way to maintain high standards, to strive relentlessly against high odds, to maintain their energy, their dignity and their sense of humor, to honestly reflect, change and grow. But many others fall back into a comfort zone, knowing we are capable of more, but exhausted by the enormous effort it takes to bring your "A" game every day and often not succeed. It is easy -- very easy -- to give less than 100% and have no one question you, or even notice.

When that time comes, when that personal Rubicon is crossed, the internal bargaining begins. Some flatter themselves: "Well 50% of my best effort is still better than 100% of others," they reason and soldier on. Some excuse themselves: "I could have gone to teach in the suburbs years ago. I've earned the right to coast a bit." For some -- a small number, but more than any of us might wish--burnout translates to entitlement: "They should thank me for being willing to work with these kids." It's indoor work, government benefits, and no heavy lifting.

But a large number--the majority I suspect--have their dark night of the soul, then make the honest and honorable decision to leave, before they become the problem they spent their year in the classroom trying to correct. Is that a function of NCLB? Again, that depends on the school. But the greater, more meaningful pressure comes from one's personal sense of accountability.

You question inspired me...and I am going back through the 2,000 comments that the petition's garnered since I last checked it.

Here's a recent comment:

32547. Lorie Franceschi Left teaching because of No Child Left Behind Act 95603

I haven't personally encountered any teachers leaving because of NCLB, although I've known a few for whom that might be wished. I have seen some massive buy-outs and lay-offs as a new wave of families sought other options (the burbs, the charters, vouchers) to my urban district. The result has been an increase in per-pupil expenditure in the district--concurrent with a decrease in the number of hours in the school day (go figure).

But last night as I talked to yet another school employee whose job is to "deliver services" to too many buildings and, as a result, operates in total isolation from any other "service providers" within any of those buildings, I felt a renewed sense of anger and frustration at the lack of professional responsibility and empowerment.

The questions cited above are VERY important questions. My question is who do I ask? I have been asking these kinds of questions for years. I also ask why we are wasting money on "test prep" interventions instead of interventions that teach the actual content that is tested. I ask about the data to support any of the choices that are made around intervention, drop-outs, discipline. Teachers that I talk to disavow all knowledge or responsibility--even for knowing what goes on outside their own classroom.

I know how to climb the chain of command--even knowing that the higher you get, the less accessible people get. This can take a very long time. On occasion I write letters to the school board. This guarantees a response of some sort--usually in writing--with a pat her on the head sort of conversation ending statement or two (that can be copied to Board members to demonstrate responsiveness).

When I look at the things that NCLB requires that are NOT happening (particularly those centering around parent involvement, but also any kind of meaningful reform in most underperforming schools) and the "go-along" attitude of so many teachers--I have a hard time tracing a line that implicates NCLB and leaves teachers blameless. Certainly one strategy for getting rid of change is to ignore it or subvert it and hope it will blow over.

As the service provider last night defended the splintered and non-accountable service delivery system that they participate in--and then suggested that it could be traced to two factors: the "decision-makers" (whoever they are--I haven't yet met anyone who accepts the responsibility for making decisions) and lack of funds--I ran slam bang again into the same wall I have been encountering for years.

No one was sticking up for art or libraries or music before we started measuring achievement in reading and math. I don't see many schools doing outreach to any of the arts (or recreation or library or health or human services) organizations in their community to organize more efficient means of seeing that all kids have access to these things. My kid went to a school that had a public library, a community recreation center and a public library miraculously all built around a beautiful green space. Do you think there were ever any conversations held between the three about how they could work together to ensure that kids had what they needed? My kid went to the library after school to be tutored. The tutor had to get there early to try to claim the only quiet conference space (there were other tutors). Meanwhile the school had a rule that said that outside tutors couldn't use the building after school.

Physical Education was limited to 80 kids and two teachers in a gym "playing" volleyball (except the ones that were sitting on the bleachers doing nothing). Gym classes couldn't be scheduled concurrent with lunch because gym was also a "holding tank." Meanwhile, the rec center had personal fitness machines, a running track--good stuff.

Yeah--as a parent, I'll keep fighting for my kid--but be aware that the teachers who don't also fight, who don't look outside their classroom, have adopted an attitude of learned helplessness--are part of the problem I am fighting.

Phil, thanks for those links and Rachel, thanks for the ref - if you can find the study, I would love to see it.

Margo, I hear your frustration. I recently gave a guest lecture on some of the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing to a class of pre-service teachers. More than anything, they wanted to know what teachers could do. And I was hesitant to tell them to raise hell at their schools, because this rarely works out well for individual teachers. But taken together, teachers acting in their own interest produce collectively irrational outcomes – the learned helplessness that you speak of.

Robert, I like your point about the cumulative impact of bringing your A game and not succeeding. It's an important one. In most fields, there is a pretty tight relationship between effort and outcome. You work hard on a paper or project, and it turns out better than it would if you didn't. In education, the best lesson can be thrown off by a pigeon on the air conditioner or a fight during lunch. Uncertainty dominates. One way of reading your comment, though, is to conclude that tight monitoring would solve the problem you've identified. In other words, would you have stayed if you were tightly monitored?

I'm sorry if I left the impression that tight monitoring would have made the difference. Just the opposite, in fact. I wouldn't have stayed a nanosecond if I were subject to the intensive scrutiny to which some teachers are held. But that's just me. Some people view the constant presence of administrators and coaches in their classroom as support; I view it as interference.

When I said that teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly, I left out the other half of the equation: it's the hardest job in the world to do well. In our most challenging schools, I fear it is quite literally impossible to maintain the energy and intensity it takes to perform at a high level over an extended period of time. But to the larger point of this thread, I think that would be true with or without NCLB.

Here's one paper on this issue. It finds that North Carolina's accountability system made it harder to retain teachers in low-performing schools. I couldn't track down an ungated version but the abstract and reference are below.

The paper uses a rich administrative data set from North Carolina to explore the extent to which that state’s relatively sophisticated school-based accountability system has exacerbated the challenges that schools serving low performing students face in retaining and attracting high quality teachers. Most clear are the adverse effects on retention rates, and hence on teacher turnover, in such schools. Less clear from our analysis is the extent to which that higher turnover has translated into a decline in the average qualifications of the teachers in the low performing schools. Other states with less sophisticated accountability systems should expect even greater unintended systemic effects of the type identified here.

Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd, Jacob L. Vigdor, and Roger Aliaga Diaz. "Do School Accountability Systems Make it More Difficult for Low Performing Schools to Attract and Retain High Quality Teachers?." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 23 (Spring, 2004): 251-271.


Out of 43 certified teachers, I lost one excellent Montessori teacher to NCLB this year.

NCLB has not been kind to teaching philosophies that rely on following the child.

Notice the length as well as the intensity of these comments. (and Margo/mom we have more agreement on this issue than any others.)

I blame the professional development that we impose on young teachers for making things worse. They are told to set "High Expectations" and do "Whatever It Takes." Teachers indoctrinated in this way often hold their frustrations in. Then, for so many, in May they keep getting offers to tranfer to lower poverty schools. They often cry every evening over the decision. Then they transfer.

Perhaps a similar dynamic applies to the central office. I work closely with administrators of all types and personalities. Like classroom teachers, they are often damaged by the need to "keep things positive." Bad news is not allowed up the chain of command. Often, I have sought to insert of few sentences of prose into reports for the Board. They would outline the trade-offs required by the various proposals. But only "win win" proposals are allowed. In my experience, administrators know that we live in a complex world where "quick fixes need to be fixed quickly," and "silver bullets" don't exist. But they are not allowed - or they think they are not allowed - to say so. In my experience, Board members would prefer honest briefings. But these problems, which preceded NCLB, have been made much worse by the law.

Which gets us back to comparisons to combat which are inappropriate. But, we should require policy analysts to reread Catch 22 before drafting legislation.

I am a school administrator who is taking my two young children out of public education at the end of this school year as a direct result of NCLB. This has been a three-year struggle for my partner, as special education consultant, and I as we are both committed to the public school system.

But following three years of teach to the test methods, ability grouping – mindless drill and worksheet teaching, and no funding for anything outside the core curriculum we have decided it is time for our girls to go elsewhere. The time and travel involved in taking our daughters to music, art, Spanish, and athletic classes outside of the school day has taken it’s toll as well. We have enrolled them in a school that actually offers art, music, Spanish, and p.e. as part of the curriculum.

This too is a difficult decision, one not without personal cost, and not without an awareness that while we can afford this move – other families cannot.

Great discussion. NCLB has changed everything--priorities, practices and preparation for teaching. I work with candidates for National Board Certification, and the most common question these days is "How can I prepare a portfolio demonstrating professional judgment and articulate what, precisely, my students have learned, when those essential teaching competencies have been removed from my control?"

Margo/Mom: "No one was sticking up for art or libraries or music before we started measuring achievement in reading and math." Defending the arts and "non-essentials" has been part of my professional life since I began teaching--music--in 1975. This is not about recent cuts in art, music, P.E. and world languages, it's about resource allocation--the belief that students should not be "rewarded" with creative and pleasurable learning until/unless they reach competency in core skills. The district next to mine was concerned, 5 years ago, about their marginal 7th grade reading scores. So they decided to eliminate one elective class and make all 7th graders take two hours of Language Arts. Their scores have not improved. But their band and choir were reduced to half their prior size, and world languages went away altogether-- although the number of teachers remained the same. NCLB changes everything.

In our last round of statewide assessments, the principal read a study claiming that students would do better on tests if they ate breakfast. So he bought granola bars and juice boxes for all kids to eat right before the tests. One of my students said "So now you care about us" as I was passing out the goodies. Kids get it.

I am staying despite NCLB, at least for now. It is all imperfect, and I never feel as though I am giving enough. The emphasis on test prep is maddening. Many kids are distracted and caught up in personal problems. Still, I don't think I've had a single day without something good in it, and many students have made great progress and responded enthusiastically to what they have learned.

At various points I have thought of leaving, because it can be so exhausting. But lately I have been reading books on education that fascinate me, and immersing myself in literature. This has turned things around. As I find my way through educational ideas, I feel less stranded. As I learn more, I want to teach more, too. The worst times have been when I felt my own mind going ever so slightly numb. As long as that doesn't happen, I can see myself teaching for many years. I hope it happens. And I hope that when the day comes that I can no longer offer students what they need, I will recognize this and go do something else.

I burned out after 7 years teaching HS math in an inner ring suburb. NCLB? No, Ohio has excellent year-by-year standards. What then? Students who have had no preparation for HS Math - - in other words, have not been taught to the standards in grade school. Students who were handed a calculator in second or third grade and told they didn't need to know the addition and times tables, no need to know how to long-divide, no need to understand decimals and fractions. Try teaching Algebra without these!?! Remember, the calculator and computer are GIGO machines (Garbage In, Garbage Out)!

In addition to this, they haven't been taught to read - - after all Phonics is a waste of time (sarcasm). And they certainly haven't been taught to think!! Ever try to do a story problem without thinking?? (They do, and fail.) Yet all of life is a series of story problems.

These children have been so hampered by an inadequate primary education and are so used to failure that they just won't try (and fail again if they do). It takes 12 years or more to see if any changes in the whole "free" education process result in a change.

I quit because 1/3 of each of my classes of 20+ felt that learning would earn them negative rewards from their peers, 1/3 didn't care, leaving 1/3 trying to learn in a classroom dominated by the first 1/3's disruptive behavior. Yes, a great teacher brings enthusiasm to the classroom, has students involved, creates discipline, knows each child, spends 12 to 16 hours per day guiding each child - 7 days a week. Yes I saw the movie, and he had a heart attack. I'm not a great teacher, so I got out of the zoo. 24/7/365 is not my idea of a life.

If NCLB thinks all children can reach a common goal - then they haven't seen the immense spread in the human population in both talent in one dimension and intelligence in another. They fail to recognize the cost of having teachers do the job the parents have abdicated - especially in the pre-K years. Then they wonder why the cream get watered down and the bottom just don't make it.

Ask any properly educated successful teacher how it's done and they'll tell you. It's hard work coupled with understanding individuals, knowing what each needs to learn, individualizing instruction, talking with parents and on and on. Not my cup of tea at age 70.

I have gone into tutoring small groups and individuals (for profit). It's fun and immensely rewarding.

NCLB's inverse correlation between high accountability and limited resources contributes to teacher and student burn out. I recommend we beef up mental health services to cope with these stressors, not only for students and teachers, but also for families, support staff, and administrators.
But--!--pointedly missing from NCLB are mental health services. I suggest we prepare ourselves, personally and professionally, for higher insurance rates as clinical service provider needs increase. What value is content knowledge if mental health is sacrificed?

Teaching so that students do well on standardized tests, as NCLB effectively mandates, isn't the problem. A solid, content-filled curriculum is what in the long run makes it possible for kids to do well on language comprehension tests.

There is no short-cut to improving reading test results. Spending hours every day on "finding the main idea", etc. will NOT make kids better readers. Once basic phonics have been mastered, comprehension depends overwhelmingly on the knowledge that the reader brings to the subject being covered. This is just common sense: someone who knows a lot about baseball, chemical engineering, the Civil War, etc. will find it much easier to read new material that discusses, baseball, chemical engineering, the Civil War, etc. Anyone who is regarded as a good reader has a lot of relevant background knowledge about a lot of different subjects.

So rather than teaching reading as a formal skill, like swimming or typing, kids need a rich curriculum of history, science, literature, etc.: what used to be called a liberal arts education.

That's why my kids attend a wonderful Core Knowledge school, and why I find their curriculum and academic performances so inspiring. Teach to the test by following a strong liberal arts focus. The results in the long run will be demonstrably superior to the mindless teaching methods mostly used now. Of course, the most beneficial reform would be to have many more parents who really cared about their kids and supported the teachers in their difficult jobs.

You might ask yourself in a few years, where is a good plumber, electrician, carpenter, autotechnician when I need one? Hmmm. Well, they aren't going to come from vocational-technical schools anymore. Why? Because we now treat 'shop' and 'career' classes like electives, so we can concentrate on the highstakes classes for math/english, and now, science. Soon, our kids won't know enough to get jobs in the trades, because all their time has been taken up trying to meet these impossible standards, the same ones they were trying to escape when they chose vocational-technical education, instead of academic. Wake up America. Before we have to import our electricians, carpenters, auto technicians, and plumbers from China and Mexico.

JRW: I heartily agree. "Finding main idea" is a waste of time. Having students read history, literature, philosophy--now that's a lesson in ideas.

The concept of "main idea" is butchered in test prep booklets. Kids are often taught that the main idea is "what the passage is mostly about." I have seen kids struggle to find the main idea in a passage that really didn't have one to speak of.

Now, let's have them read Plato's Allegory of the Cave, or Augustine's discussion of time. Then we can talk about ideas!

The Core Knowledge curriculum is beautiful. Teachers and students with that curriculum are fortunate. I dream of teaching at a Core Knowledge school one day--and one of my long-term goals, in any case, is to study the whole curriculum in depth--all subjects, all grade levels. It will only help me as a teacher, no matter where I am.

William Torrey Harris believed that a teacher should be familiar with the elementary branches, from the perspective of higher learning. "The teacher who is to teach these elementary branches after graduation finds no work of preparation in the normal school half so valuable as this review of those branches in the light of more advanced studies."

If only schools and education schools built their programs on this principle! This kind of approach makes me want to stay in teaching for many years.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Diana Senechal: JRW: I heartily agree. "Finding main idea" is a waste read more
  • Marlene Brubaker: You might ask yourself in a few years, where is read more
  • JRW: Teaching so that students do well on standardized tests, as read more
  • Kim, Teacher: NCLB's inverse correlation between high accountability and limited resources contributes read more
  • Al Peabody: I burned out after 7 years teaching HS math in read more




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