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Teacher Voices on NCLB

Representatives, political analysts, and union leaders have spoken out in the recent debate on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the current federal education law. (Or, as I prefer to call it, the Elementary Secondary Education Act or ESEA.) But the people most affected by the law - classroom teachers haven't had the chance to share their views. So I recently spoke with several colleagues to gather teachers' perspectives on ESEA. Love or hate are the first words that come to mind. Here are some reasons why.

I began by talking with one teacher who taught with me at 92nd Street School, and who served there as a Categorical Program Advisor for a few years. It was put under several sanctions for not meeting the growth targets laid out in the law.  We had classroom audits, a "reform partner" to turnaround our performance, supplemental tutoring services, and yearly ranking notices sent home to parents. Almost everything, just shy of removing the staff.  The school was located in a historically embattled area of Los Angeles, filled with housing projects, gangs on every corner.  It was a petri dish of the worst ills in America: institutional poverty, institutional racism, crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, incarcerated parents, and students in foster care. Add to this mix, new immigrants who don't speak English and who are in the country illegally trying to raise a family and make a living.  

Despite many challenges, we both agreed the school improved in part because of annual testing (started under California's STAR program and continued under NCLB), the publication of student data, and instructional audits. We started to see what before was hidden away. Another key component was seeing annual assessment data from other schools. (This was the first time schools could see empirically how other schools performed.) In California, our results were compared to schools facing the same challenges. Historically we knew, along with the rest of the country, second language learners and students living in poverty were not graduating from high school or moving on to college but that's about all we knew. 

Then I reached out to some other teacher friends who also taught or currently teach in schools who serve students living in poverty. Their number one area of consensus was keeping Common Core standards and annual testing.  The rationale is this: all public schools need to play by the same rulebook because the playing field is not level. 

Every teacher I spoke with agreed that ESEA accountability measures are important, particularly for eliminating the achievement gap. Though, currently, there are so many targets (many unrealistic) to meet under the law that schools with high minority student populations, high poverty student populations, and high ELL populations get penalized.  The new law needs to find a way to celebrate teaching and learning in areas of our nation that face multiple challenges.

Under the testing umbrella, teachers also think we need to give more time for students new to the country to get acclimated before being tested.  For all other ELLs there also needs to be a modified growth trajectory before we expect them to be working at the same level as their English only peers. 

Beyond testing, teachers talked about having better resources for instruction under the new law.  A good chunk of the money should be spent on professional development, as well as direct services to students but also on giving greater attention to schools overcoming challenges. One thought was to spotlight successful schools like high-achieving Title I schools. Teachers at these schools could serve as "teaching ambassadors of best practices" and work with colleagues at other, similar schools to improve instruction.

Some may be surprised by my friends' comments around the importance of testing, even I was. Personally, I feel that if we remove annual testing and data collecting, we will send a silent message that prosperous, mostly white America, doesn't care about our poor and mostly non-white students.  But when you think about it, closing the achievement gap, is the heart and soul of teaching and ESEA. It's not surprising that teachers want to keep the lights on this challenge. 

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