Reading Between the Lines

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Reading Between the Lines

The latest chapter in American education reform is Every Child Achieves. Unfortunately, it reads like more of the same.

As children across America return to school this month, the controversial No Child Left Behind Act is poised for a makeover.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 following bipartisan passage in both the House and the Senate, No Child Left Behind was intended to make schools and teachers more accountable for student performance. But the law has been criticized for overemphasizing standardized test scores while tying school performance to federal funding.

“No Child Left Behind was very prescriptive,” explained Mercedes Schneider, a longtime classroom teacher and author of two books on education reform, in an interview with The Real News Network. “It told the states, you’ll set the goals but here’s the punishment if you don’t reach those goals.”

Congress is currently working to overhaul the law with a bill called Every Child Achieves. Versions of the bill passed both the House and Senate in July, and lawmakers are currently working out a compromise on a single bipartisan bill to send to President Barack Obama, hopefully in early 2016.

Reading Between the Lines

Following the passage of the Senate version, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had this to say: “This bill gives states more flexibility from one-size-fits-all federal mandates and reduces the burden of testing on classroom time, while still ensuring that parents and educators know how students are doing every year.”

But despite unprecedented populist pressure for a massive reduction in federal testing, Every Child Achieves does not do away with any currently mandated federal tests. What it does do is give states the power to determine how to use federally required tests for accountability purposes. In other words, states must test students and use their scores as a measure of whether or not they’ve met their targets, but can determine the weight of those test scores—and also use additional measures they determine.

It also reduces federal sanctions for noncompliance—a state’s failure to meet performance goals—which could result in less pressure at the district level, and in turn lead to students taking fewer pre-tests to prepare for the federally mandated tests—one extrapolation that might lend credibility to Education Secretary Duncan’s assertion that the new law “reduces the burden of testing on classroom time.”

This is meant to address a primary criticism of No Child Left Behind—that its unintended effect was to drive schools to focus on meeting federal testing requirements instead of student needs. But there are those even among Every Child Achieves’ supporters—like educator Mercedes Schneider—who say the new law doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t entirely do away with standardized tests as a measure of student learning.

“Testing needs to go,” Schneider said in the interview. “And I say that as a teacher. I’ve got over 20 years in the classroom, from grade seven to graduate school. And I see the pressure to teach to the test. The test scores mean school survival. And so that needs to go.”

Reading Between the Lines
Despite unprecedented populist pressure for a massive reduction in federal testing, Every Child Achieves does not do away with any currently mandated tests.

Mary Greenlee, a fifth-grade teacher at Carpenter Community Charter School in Studio City, California, says the reliance on test scores also negatively affects teachers, fundamentally changing their role—for the worse. “It forced us to teach to the test and allocated our monies toward test prep materials and things related to ensuring higher test scores,” she says.

Still, many believe Every Child Achieves is a step in the right direction. “Though not perfect, this bill … reflects positive progress toward fixing the punitive accountability standards under the No Child Left Behind Act,” says Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

Diane Ravitch—New York University professor, education reform activist and blogger—also praised Every Child Achieves for “drawing a close to the punitive methods of NCLB. The battle over reform now shifts to the states, but we welcome an era in which the voices of parents, educators and students can mobilize to influence policies in their communities and states.”

Others say the notion that Every Child Achieves offers “more state and local control” vs. No Child Left Behind is just partisan spin, because the bill extends federal authority not just to the poor schools that directly receive federal funds, but to all public schools, whether they receive federal funds or not.

This is problematic—critics say—if for no other reason than because it’s not what Americans want. According to the 2015 Friedman Foundation poll, 77 percent of Americans say the federal government’s performance in K-12 education has been “fair” or “poor.” And the 2014 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (the most recent) found that 84 percent of Americans think states and localities, not the federal government, should have the most influence over what children learn.

Reading Between the Lines
According to the 2015 Friedman Foundation poll, 77 percent of Americans say the federal government’s performance in K-12 education has been “fair” or “poor.”

Yet, the new legislation does little to change the Common Core State Standards, a highly controversial series of K-12 curriculum guidelines implemented in 2009 and adopted in 42 states. Common Core standardizes on a national level what is taught and tested in math and English in public schools. It also aims to mandate how things are taught in schools, providing “recommended instructional strategies,” and also through the back door, by aligning testing strategies with the “recommended” methods—effectively tying teachers’ hands in the classroom.

This is particularly problematic in math, asserts Greenlee, because it requires students to not only solve math problems, but to show understanding of complex formulas, at the expense, she believes, of gaining practical ability. “These math standards ask all kids to deeply understand something like fractions before they’re able to move on to the next concepts,” she says.

Yefat Dimant, a fifth-grade teacher at Kittridge Street Elementary in Van Nuys, California, disagrees. “Instead of just saying your answer, prove it to me. That’s essentially all we’re talking about with Common Core,” she says.

Dimant says the larger issue is that Common Core prescribes a ‘one size fits all’ approach. “Students come [to school] with a number of behavioral issues. Their father may be an alcoholic who is in and out of jail. There may be an assortment of distractions at home. They’re worried about what’s happening in their house, not solving that math problem.”

Add to that language and cultural barriers to learning, says Jeaninne Escallier Kato, who recently retired following a 36-year career teaching in the Sacramento, California, public schools. She speaks of a young boy in one of her classes who spoke Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language of Mexico City. “Because of his lack of traditional verbal communication skills,” Kato says, “we thought he was ‘special ed’. But when we tested him nonverbally, the kid was off the charts, extremely bright. If ever a child cried out for individualized teaching, it was this one.”

Dimant says that while she believes it’s counterproductive to ignore such variables as ethnicity, standard of living, family situations and language barriers with uniform instructional strategies, it’s even worse to take a standardized approach to performance measurement. Federal tests, for example, must be administered in English regardless of a child’s native tongue. Dimant describes a student from India who spoke Punjabi and was reduced to tears while taking a standardized math test and writing a short essay. “It turns out the kid was great at math,” she says, “but he couldn’t answer it because he couldn’t read it.”

Another provision of Every Child Achieves provides additional money for publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, of which there are 6,000 currently operating in the United States. They remain a favorite solution of education reformers, who cite greater curriculum flexibility and teacher freedom. Supporters further contend that charter schools are more effective and accountable than traditional public schools because as independent institutions they are less burdened by government regulations. Critics say charter schools have tough entrance requirements and that lack of government oversight may encourage them to cut corners.

The bottom line is that after much talk but little action, education reform is back in the spotlight. Child education advocates believe it’s long overdue. And, however it plays out, it “has to be about what’s best for the kids. Somehow, that often gets lost in this whole discussion,” says Kato.