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Trust: A key ingredient in school change


While I have been critical of No Child Left Behind since its inception, I have resisted accusing its proponents of having bad intentions. When we attack motives, it seems as if the debate devolves into a shouting match very quickly, especially if those on the other side are determined to hide their actual agenda. Recent comments in Time magazine by Susan Neuman, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, suggest there may indeed have been a destructive agenda at work. According to this article, “there were those within the administration who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit….’ ‘There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.’"

This is not a huge surprise. I had been suspicious of NCLB. After all, if it had been designed to help the schools, wouldn’t it look different? Wouldn’t it give us some chance of succeeding? This is a personal question for me and millions of teachers and students. The school where I taught for 18 years was making good progress, but has been terribly undermined by NCLB, and is in year 5 of Program Improvement – and may not survive much longer. My school actually improved our test scores significantly for four years in a row, but the Byzantine sub-group requirements meant that we still failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress every time. (You can read more details about this here. )

The success of urban schools depends on trust, and this is where NCLB has been most insidious. Urban educators walk a tightrope. Many of our students arrive suspicious of our motives – we are representatives of an often oppressive system that has often felt hostile to them. In order to get them to buy into school, and the hard work we want them to do, they have to understand that we have their best interests at heart. NCLB has made this much harder. In rhetoric and policy, the leaders have attacked educators, blaming us for poor test scores because of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” (Interesting to note that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan recently admitted in his book that he repeated this phrase dozens of times and “never had any idea what it meant.”) This blame was furthered by the labeling of schools as failures for not meeting arbitrary proficiency standards.

This regime of ridicule had the effect of making schools even more focused on standardized test scores. Billions of dollars have been spent on scripted curriculum and test preparation. Recent articles on progress in schools seem to note two discrepant realities. First, test scores seem to have increased marginally. This is cause for great congratulations all around. The schools have shown they can “rise to the challenge.” We have raised the bar, and students are working to surpass it. But then there is the dropout rate. More students than ever seem to be dropping out. Could it be that these two things are connected? Many schools are holding students back, because if they get another year of school before the 10th grade test, they may perform better and raise the school’s scores. In some districts, even kindergartners are being held back to raise scores. Holding students back has been shown to boost the rate at which they drop out.

I think NCLB’s greatest damage has come from a fundamental realignment of the purpose of schools. Our schools should serve the aspirations of each and every student and their families. These aspirations are tremendously diverse, and it is the creative challenge of a good teacher to come to understand what they are, and work with their colleagues to design programs that allow their students to meet them. We are accountable, first and foremost, to our students. We need to equip them for their future. That means giving them a strong academic foundation, and challenging them to excel in ways that are meaningful to them. Students must be encouraged to express themselves, to think critically, to develop their ideas in creative ways, to delve into history, science, art, math, literature, music, and writing – the things that give real meaning to education. When this happens, students take ownership of their own learning. They begin to understand school is not something being done to them, but is a whole host of opportunities for them.

But NCLB has short-circuited this relationship. It’s premise was that educators had betrayed students, and that the Federal and State government needed to intervene to ensure “accountability.” As a result, today much of school planning time is devoted to figuring out how to boost test scores. Students are exhorted to study and memorize so they can do well on the tests, pep rallies are held during test week, and success at school is defined by how well you can answer several hundred multiple choice questions on a few days in May. The focus on test scores at the classroom level leads to a corruption of the purpose of education. If education is to serve to develop our students as powerful learners, we do them a great disservice when we define their success based on test performance. The goal of the classroom teacher becomes to prepare students to please a third party, “the testmakers,” who hold tremendous power over the lives of everyone involved. The students do not arrive understanding the importance of this mysterious test in May, so its relevance must be emphasized, and they are told their futures depend on how well they perform on tests like these. They are told they cannot go to college without doing well on them, and if they don’t go to college, they will be unable to support a family. So is it is any wonder that students who do not excel on these tests decide school is not for them, and drop out?

This misplaced emphasis has led to a crisis of trust in our schools. Many students do not identify with the goals we have adopted, and teachers are massively frustrated. Students aren’t the only ones dropping out. Teacher turnover in urban districts like mine is close to twenty percent a year, making sustained systemic improvement difficult.

And now we know that at least some in the Bush administration carried an agenda actively hostile to our schools.

In response to my post last week, a commenter named Jimmy contributed this thought: “Let's stop regurgitating what is already known. Let's bravely go into the unknown. Let's experiment and take chances. Let's build trust and consciousness and overcome fear and worry. Let's TEACH TRUST. Teach courage. Teach respect. Teach happiness. Teach health. But how are you going to teach those things if you don't know them very well yourself? Kids can learn these things only if we model them. It's time that we DO them.”

So how can we start modeling trust? I will share some thoughts over the next few days, but let’s continue the dialogue here. How do you think we can rebuild trust in our schools?


NCLB removes the creative aspect of learning (and thus teaching) ideas, concepts, and critical thinking.It turns the educational process from intellectual to industrialized...and mass production of learning is not viable nor desirable. I have long suspected that one motive from some sectors was to discredit public education.After 41 years, I am still teaching high school students the joy of studying physics. My students achieve and score well but I think NCLB made my profession less enjoyable and often made me question the environment under which I struggled to teach!

From the outset, I suspected there was a "hidden agenda" somewhere. NCLB sets up schools for failure. By 2014, ALL of our students are supposed to be proficient. Try as we may (and we do) that just isn't going to be possible. I suspect that some of the supporters of NCLB knew that and have, as part of their agenda, the privitazation (for profit most likely) of education.

This is a very thought-provoking piece, but I wonder about your proposition to "rebuild trust." This implies that there ever was trust in the institution, and by extension (perhaps) in American democracy. There are many groups of people in this country who have always been excluded from democracy and education, and not just the obvious groups. In the 50s, my mother was told that because she was a girl, she could never be a veterinarian (her passion) and should study home ec. Her mother, in the 1930s, was expelled from high school for her political activities.

And so, considering the history of education in this country, of why it was organized and who it intended to serve, how can we talk about "rebuilding trust?" For me that implies trusting the institution as it has been, the governments behind it, the narrow-minded teachers and administrators who worked in most of the schools I attended, etc. For many people (immigrants, women, people of color, people with disabilities, GLBT people) schools have been centers of oppression and pain...

So for me, it's about believing in the process of transformation, of the possibility of radically transforming our schools. There have been glimpses of what they could be, in some places at some times, and many people have wonderful ideas. I believe that education can be revolutionized--not overnight, and so perhaps we need to build (I hesitate to use the word) "faith" in.

How to build it? Little by little, transparently, visually, (photos, video, documentation). There's going to need to be a lot of heeling, space for people to air/process their pain in education, it needs to be a process that creates a lot of space. There are thousands of skilled, competent, passionate educators enrolled for this fight; we just need to keep on moving forward.

Mr. Cody:

Thanks so much for writing this so thoughtfully, and for your question regarding trust. Like Elena, I do not suppose that trust used to be there. I also have been relatively unmoved by the charges that the Bush administration intended to destroy faith and trust in American education. As you point out--he was able to mouth the phrase, "soft bigotry of low expectations," without understanding it. I suspect that there is a good bit about a promise to "leave no child behind," that Mr. Bush did not contemplate. I am continually annoyed and frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of education professionals to grasp this banner and wave it high as an opportunity to bring focus to the work that they do and build the support that is needed to, in fact, approach that goal.

I am not moved by the supposition that 100% may not ever be totally included in the same definition of proficiency. I am deeply disturbed that this becomes an excuse for continuing to exclude vast numbers of children (from groups that are perpetually excluded) from some basic level of of education--which some might choose to call proficiency.

How do we build trust? I was taught that trust results from a commitment to "do what you say you will do." In a country that professes a belief in universal access to public education, that means that we have to do everything that we can to guarantee access to a quality public education for all students. All meaning all. In a school or district where half or more of students are not able to demonstrate a minimally defined level of proficiency in two very basic (as in providing the foundation for everything else) subjects, we are not doing what we say. I know schools that have not reached half despite five years of improvement efforts.

Liz points out that she teaches her students the joy of physics--and they score well. Where did we get this idea that good teaching practice results in students that don't score well on tests (and that in order to achieve good scores the best thing to do is to throw out education and replace it with test prep)?

I have seen, since NCLB, some growth (as have others) in the focus on education for some of those groups on the bottom. It was absolutely revolutionary (and again--I cannot credit George Bush with doing this intentially) when students with disabilities were plainly intended to be included when we talk about "all." For the first time I could see the pathetic scores of some of those "special" places recommended for my own student with a disability (and by the way--these recommendations did not engender my trust). And I have seen those scores rise. Not all the way, not enough--and there is always the ongoing danger of going back to invisibility--but it matters.

Mr. Cody--you note that your school is one of those that has been "in improvement" for five years. You also suggested that there was real improvement before NCLB. I wonder how you measured it, and how and why you gave it up. I also wonder how your improvement planning (since NCLB) has either built or destroyed trust. Has the planning been a transparent process that included the community, and particularly parents, in the process? Are goals clearly written in understandable language with measureable goals? Is there thought given to selecting the strategies to arrive at those goals (and if so, how did you arrive at purchasing an expensive scripted approach?), or was it just an excercise in listing the things that were already in place? Did you report out interim progress to your community and parents? Did you share with them which things appeared to be working and which things not? These are things that build trust.

As a parent I truly believe in planning for progress and in holding public agencies (not just schools) accountable. Engaging in this process (where I can find it--which is far less frequently than is required, or should be) has not engendered my trust. I see plans written to meet some vague understanding of what will meet minimum qualifications (and then filed away in a drawer and never given a second thought). I see teachers and administrators who don't have time to listen to me thinking that they understand my values and desires, and those of my child. I see school buildings set up as fortresses in neighborhoods that teachers scorn as too dangerous, too unsupportive, too risky for their involvement. Yet those same teachers, locked up in those buildings wonder why parents don't show up for the "opportunities" that they provide.

Yes--we can build trust. But we cannot do it without committing to doing the work, recognizing the elephants in the living rooms, and valuing honest relationships with parents and community.

Margo asks:
You also suggested that there was real improvement before NCLB. I wonder how you measured it, and how and why you gave it up.

There was real improvement based on looking at student test scores, school climate, enrollment, teacher morale, the number of students trying to get into our school from around the city, and the level of engagement by teachers, parents and students in efforts to make the school work.

Margo further asks:

I also wonder how your improvement planning (since NCLB) has either built or destroyed trust. Has the planning been a transparent process that included the community, and particularly parents, in the process? Are goals clearly written in understandable language with measureable goals? Is there thought given to selecting the strategies to arrive at those goals (and if so, how did you arrive at purchasing an expensive scripted approach?), or was it just an exercise in listing the things that were already in place? Did you report out interim progress to your community and parents? Did you share with them which things appeared to be working and which things not? These are things that build trust.

I agree with you that these would be good things to build trust. Unfortunately, most of these things did not happen while I was there. I think something bad happens we are labeled a failure. Morale at the school dropped. The level of initiative and spirit of the staff was affected, and I think a lot of the good things you describe were not done.

I want to respond to something else you wrote: "I see teachers and administrators who don't have time to listen to me thinking that they understand my values and desires, and those of my child." This is an important point. Teachers and administrators are under tremendous pressure to take on so much. We are should be doing authentic assessment and giving feedback to students. We should be working with our grade level colleagues to do joint planning and collaborate on instruction and assessment. We are supposed to monitor student progress and differentiate our instruction according to the students' strengths and weaknesses. And we should be actively communicating with parents to do exactly what you say.

I hope this does not sound like I am making excuses, because I agree with you that as teachers we should fundamentally be accountable to our students and their parents, and we MUST engage with them to learn what their aspirations are. Unfortunately, the current emphasis does not make this a priority, and says we are accountable for raising test scores -- so that is where all the time goes.

How do you build trust? It starts at the classroom level with teachers assuming their role as teacher-leaders. I have heard the phrase "Students do not care about what we know, until they know that we care". I agree. How do we let students know we care? My experience has been by talking with students rather than at students. As a teacher, I try to create a student-centered classroom where the spot-light is on students learning and not teachers teaching. My role in the class is similar to that of a coach in sports. Like a coach, it's my role to decide on a game plan, organize instruction, set the process in motion, and be the cheerleader as students go about the process of pushing themselves to be successful. Building relationships with my students is the first step towards building trust.

On NCLB - I have mixed feelings, but I do not but into any theories hinting that there is any agenda aside from helping making schools and school leaders accountable for how we help students learn. Some may think that is being naive, but my focus is on helping teachers be better teachers,students better students, schools better schools, and this world a better place. My sense is that NCLB, at least the spirit of NCLB, supports me in that effort. I think teachers' attitudes towards how NCLB has been implemented, especially with unfunded requirements, clouds their thinking about the positive effects of NCLB. While the program needs to be improved, what I see in my large urban school district, are more programs focused on helping all students be better students. many of these services and the attention and resources we devote to certain sub-groups, is because of NCLB. That is reason enough for me to swim against the tide, dare to be different, and admit I'm glad our federal government is forcing public school systems to reflect and report on how they are trying to help students be better students.

"...we should fundamentally be accountable to our students and their parents, and we MUST engage with them to learn what their aspirations are. Unfortunately, the current emphasis does not make this a priority"

Au contraire, monsieur, these things are very much a priority within NCLB. There is some pretty specific guidance about the involvement of parents and the other "good things" with regard to planning. What I think we have to ask is why these things are so easily overlooked, while the attention to test scores becomes the reason for doing things that are pretty likely to have only minimal affect on scores and a negative effect on learning, enthusiasm and morale.

Yes--being labelled a failure is pretty hard to take. Not that the law in fact does that. Did we really think that the kids just wouldn't know if we didn't test them, or publish the scores. Did we hope that they would just stay out of contact with kids who go to more successful schools, or never go to college where they would see how poorly their education stacked up against others?

Excellent discussion. Thanks to you, Mr. Cody, for putting into words many of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. Trust. There is a tremendous feeling of distrust on the campus. One part of this loss of trust can be seen working as a teacher for our campus administrators as they try to advance their careers with incrementally higher test scores. The new coin of the realm. We teachers know they are not concerned with the general welfare of the students, not concerned with the whole child. So we are in the position of being trustworthy to our students while working in a system that does not serve the students, but rather is designed to serve its own bureaucratic desires. (The students know this, by the way.)I and other teachers often do establish trust. One of the ways to do that is through candid honesty (easier for a high school teacher?). For Margo mom -- I would not trust the schools as a parent. (My kids are young.) The privacy laws have been twisted to protect the privacy of the schools, not the child. Parents seldom get straight answers from school personnel, due to fear of retaliation from the parents. And the goal of the school is to avoid parental complaints, not to help accomplish parent goals. What are the solutions? Everything is based on testing. What can't be tested is not valued. We could put forth the argument that being trustworthy and caring for the whole child improves test scores. This has been true in my experience.

Sorry, I do not agree with Margo that NCLB makes engaging with parents and students about their educational aspirations a priority. NCLB requires the states to set "proficiency" levels based on standardized test scores, and set ever-rising targets for growth of those scores. The law may have language in it about parent involvement, but I believe that was one of many elements of the law never actually funded.

The law may not have used the term "failing school" but the policies are unequivocal. If a school fails to meet growth targets for four years, that school is to lose Federal support. That usually means the school will be dismantled. In my experience this leads administrators and teachers to push things not directly connected to increased scores onto the back burner. And since the tests are designed without input from teachers, parents or students, none of us are left with much power.

Though NCLB may not have been the perfect solution for the challenges faced by the educational institutions in the country, that some type of serious reform was necessary is without a doubt. To blame the state of the current education solely on NCLB and the current administration would not only negate the positives of NCLB (such as accountability) but would imply that schools/students/educators were all doing well pre-NCLB – and that, to say the least, would not be true.
I’m afraid that it is a repeatedly documented fact that not just for a few years, but for a few decades now, the state of education has been declining and quite frankly, nothing to brag about. If we’re products of any urban school in the nation, and we choose to be realistic in our outlook, our own experiences don’t tell us otherwise. Sometimes it seems like those who succeed coming out of an urban high school do so not because of but in spite of the education/environment (they are almost always inseparable). I myself am a graduate of the Oakland public school system (’89), and have very fond memories of my high school days. We had, for example, a great physics teacher who believed in a lot of hands-on learning experiences rather than text book memorization, and most of us who were curious enough not only enjoyed it but excelled in it. We also had an incredibly tireless and dedicated English teacher who made sure ALL his students had ALL of his attention and taught us so much more than memorizing a few lines from the required readings – so much so, in fact, that we not only read more literary work than the AP English students with so much more depth and understanding; our papers were better than many college level paper I see even today. But on the other hand, we also had a “great” music teacher and a “great” economics/government teacher who spent more time socializing with and making friends with every student – if you wanted to learn anything in those classes outside of whatever movie they stick in for you to fall asleep over, you had to teach yourself; their tests were the most ridiculous questions that in no way tested your knowledge (well, since they didn’t teach much there was nothing to test really), but every student loved the teachers and no one complained, myself included. And so we graduated – I can honestly tell you that at least half of the 700+ graduating class could not tell you then what the structure of the American government is, let alone the number of representatives for the state of California at that time; over half of the graduating class (those who weren’t lucky enough to have had our teacher) could not write a paragraph without major grammatical/spelling/punctuation errors; “subtle” discrimination, even in the late 80’s and in one of the most diverse school systems, was high- I myself was told by my trusted advisor that I wouldn’t have a chance at a scholarship I wanted to apply to, while my friend, who happened to be Caucasian, was encouraged by the same advisor to apply for it, even though both my GPA and SAT scores were better than hers. I dare say, Mr. Cody, the issue of trust and accountability were never there to begin with, so how can we accuse of NCLB breaking down what didn’t exist?
Undoubtedly, the concept of education is and should continue to be far beyond test scores and narrow conformities - but let’s not forget that the purpose of education is growth, and simply passing from one grade level to the next without acquiring the knowledge does not constitute growth; if holding a student behind a year to make sure they really understand the basics before being forced into a classroom where they will, without a doubt, fail, is considered wrong, then I have to say we are missing the point of education. I for one do not agree with the conformity that everyone in the classroom needs to be exactly the same age to learn any particular lesson – children of all ages learn at different paces depending on their particular interest and development phase, so unless those held behind are mocked and looked at as inferior by their parents and community, being given the opportunity to learn at their own pace benefits them more than it does otherwise (I have to question the extent of the parent/community attitude towards those held back who end up dropping out, as well as the attitudes of their teachers, because I have seen it work miracles in many instances, as has been acknowledged by one of the mothers on the NYT article you link above).
And like Margo, I am continuously disappointed at those educators who, instead of appreciating the ideology behind not leaving behind any child (regardless of whether Mr. Bush meant it or even knew what it meant), instead decide to use it as a sole contributing factor towards their school’s and student’s failure. Keep in mind though - those students who failed the NCLB standardized tests would have failed those skills anyway, and the only difference would have been the continued lack of accountability and the meaningless “numbers” in the “number of graduating class”.
So do I believe that the introduction of NCLB was/is a good thing? Perhaps not 100%, particularly because of the level of bureaucracy it involves and the extremely limited funding it makes available for schools to do what they’re told they must do. But I at least support the theory of the phrase itself. I have seen more than a few brave educators who have used this opportunity (and it provides many in terms of teacher training and financial support for offering advanced programs – you just have to dig into it with open mind and willingness to spend a lot of time digging) to create learning environments for their most neglected students by involving their communities, and just as important, by working on focusing their teachers’ attention on “better teaching techniques” rather than simply test prepping students. If the teacher is skilled in identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to appropriately deliver their teaching to a classroom with students of varying interest as well as ways of learning and degrees of “quickness” – so to speak - , then test prepping becomes nothing more than just a review session of what they have already taught (and a small part at that). The parents and communities have to be part and parcel of any plans for school improvement – you can’t educate the children if the parents/communities are not buying into the importance of what you’re teaching them – if the only thing important to the parents is that little Joey goes from grade 4 to 5 regardless of what skill he has/hasn’t acquired, you’re back to square one.
Tests and test scores are not bad things in and of themselves – they are only bad things when they are ignored as indicators of what the students do/don’t know. The energy and efforts of educators would be better focused on how to improve the idea of NCLB, because there is MUCH to be improved of the idea. But disregarding it or giving it a bad name because it pushes the limits of accountability, and blaming it for every bad turn a student or a school makes only lets us pretend that all is and has been good with our schools.

Recently, I was writing a paper for a course I was taking and I had to incorporate a brief philosophy of the school. I read, “We believe that every child can learn.” I gasped at that statement. Not because I don’t believe it, but because with all the pressure from the administration to get students “test ready” it didn’t feel like that was what was expected of us—to believe that all children can learn. When students walk into our rooms in September it may be in all our interest to believe that statement and to find ways in which all students can learn and then go about teaching them. If teachers believe in their students then they soon will believe in themselves—regardless if they can write a three paragraph response to a picture.

I agree it is a bit simplistic to blame all of education's woes on NCLB. I chose to teach in Oakland back in 1987 because I knew the students there needed me. The fact that our students were struggling was not some secret only revealed by NCLB.

It is curious that when educators question NCLB and the reliance on test scores as the only measure of learning that really matters, we are accused of
1. somehow defending the inequity that has existed for decades in education
2. not wanting to be accountable for student learning.

I think we are seeking the real source of our accountability here. I understand that students, parents, policymakers and the public want a way to understand how our students are learning. I think teachers need to actively pursue authentic measures of student learning, and make them public. At the same time, we need to move away from the threat-heavy approach of NCLB, and give schools the resources they need to take on the tremendous challenges they face.

This was great post and, not surprisingly, has stimulated very thoughtful discussion. Given what you (and Ms. Neuman) point out about the ugly motives of some behind NCLB, it's no wonder that it's implementation in many places has been brutal, or at the least, thoughtless. In some places, the problems the legislation rightfully attempts to address have actually been aggravated, rather than alleviated by the methods being used to achieve noble ends.
What I always like about Margo/Mom's comments is that she keeps reminding us of the parents' view of all of this. Like classroom teachers, parents' concerns and contributions are often ignored. It is no accident that some of the greatest turn-arounds in public schools have come in places where educators and parents have developed "trusting" relationships based around the needs of the children, and put things like test scores and performance reports into context. Those are the models I'd like to see examined more closely.

How can we rebuild trust in our schools? I am blessed to work on a project that is doing just that...one school building at a time. Our project is called Cross Career Learning Communities. It is an induction model that impacts anyone who is a part of it! It transcends induction...it creates a culture. It removed the "I know it all" heir that educators have at times and created a culture of learners. No hierarchy of expertise, everyone has a voice, and we take ownership of each other's strengths, weaknesses, and successes. We facilitated a place where educators were safe to say I don't know it all and I need help. That's empowering! That's authentic learning and growth...admitting that I need your perspective, your voice to help me help our children. That's what we are missing in schools...educators who can take ownership of every teacher, child, and situation in our buildings...moving forward to towards a shared vision and stopping at nothing to see that the mission is accomplished!

I would love to learn more about your program. It sounds like it has a lot in common with the mentoring program I am helping develop for science teachers in the Oakland schools. We are currently building a team of about 20 experienced teachers who will work together to mentor the many new science teachers in our district. We intend to build a collaborative community where we support one another as learners and leaders, and share expertise, so we all get the spirit that we are not in this alone.
You can read about it here:

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