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What To Do About Negative NCLB Stories? Not Much.

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Ed school professor Sherman Dorn wonders why I and others might tend towards minimizing concerns about the impacts of NCLB raised in a recent Washington Post article (Some typical responses to concerns about test-prep), and suggests that there are political implications.

The answer, put simply, is that stories like this -- a favorite among education writers and their editors -- have been coming out since NCLB was enacted, with little result. At the same time, the overall amount of curriculum narrowing and teaching to the test actually caused by NCLB is disputed -- as is whether its impact is necessarily a bad thing (much as teachers dislike it). Speaking of teachers, the NCLB backlash, to the extent it's taken place, is primarily among teachers, as noted by this post from the Public Agenda blog Reality CheckED. And, if anything's clear, the views of educators are no longer the sole arbiters of what makes a good education, or a good education system. For better or worse, that day is passed.

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Critics who insist on railing against "teaching to the test" demonstrate their ignorance of education reform and the NCLB legislation. The Washington Post's printing such criticisms, sadly demonstrates their lack of knowledge on the subject as well.

Prior to education reform (mid to late 80's) there was an egregious problem with what students were/were not learning in our public schools. Other than textbook publishers there was no plan, no curriculum in place! Even locally, teachers in the same grade, and often the same school, taught whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to teach it (as long as they pretended to use the adopted text of the district). The problem; each district was free to adopt whatever text they wanted. Some districts adopted challenging textbook series while others chose an easier route. I know this is difficult to believe but it’s the dirty little secret of our public schools prior to education reform. Should any parent or taxpayer be expected to accept this embarrassing situation from their public schools?

The business community was the first to recognize the problem. They concluded that too many of our students were lacking the basic skills necessary for success in the twenty-first century. Our public schools had to improve. They had to get organized.

Fortunately, the business community demanded reform from their state lawmakers, who accordingly usurped powers from local school boards and school administrators and put schools under a common umbrella. This produced the “standards” movement which established what was to be taught in each discipline from one grade to the next across that state. From here corresponding assessments were developed (coordinated with the standards) to ensure the standards were being learned.

That’s right. Since public education began in this country over a century and a half ago there was no promulgated plan for what was to be taught and when in our public schools. All those tax dollars spent on public education over all that time and no formal strategy for learning was in place. All those education "experts" - school boards, administrators, teachers (I was one for 34 years), schools of education, teachers unions, etc. - and the best they could produce was nothing short of organized chaos inside the schoolhouse gate.

Yes, teachers are now teaching to the tests (standards), or at least they should be. This means that FINALLY there is a common, agreed upon body of knowledge for all students from one district to the next. The previous embarrassing pell-mell approach to schooling which had dominated our public schools for too long was now a thing of the past. Children everywhere now had equal access to the rich body of knowledge we wanted for all our students.

NCLB tests are now given in grades three through eight to identify youngsters with learning problems. Once identified, districts can then provide these students the remedial help they need as early as possible. These students experiencing problems are the reason NCLB was produced.

Classroom teachers in schools identified as “underperforming” may well be spending a good portion of their day teaching to these standards/tests so their students will have the opportunity to learn what’s expected at their respective grade levels. Teachers in all other schools should be going well beyond these standards for most of their average and all of their high students; the kids who should be regularly challenged by critical thinking and problem solving activities.

Education reform and No Child Left Behind are not perfect but they are a step in the right direction and a vast improvement over what dominated our schools previously.

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