What keeps a kid in school?

In 2005, at a critical reading conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Margaret Finders from Washington University presented research on the reason why students do not drop out of school, i.e., why they stay in. The number one reason students stay in school: they have the sense that teachers care about them.

So the questions I asked myself were:

  • How do you show students that you care about them?
  • How do you care for students that are most likely to drop out and may not care about themselves or about school?
  • How do certain curricula prevent demonstration of care?
  • What is the relationship between the draconian nature of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its emphasis on punishment and the establishment of a caring environment in the classroom?

If we take all these questions together, you might show students you care by responding to their specific needs and interests, tailoring certain aspects of the curriculum to what motivates them, and providing support and encouragement in areas that might not be related directly to academic performance, e.g., their interest in art, music, sports, etc. This is especially relevant for students who are on the edge of staying in or dropping out of school.

Yet with each new Edison school, with each new implementation of Open Court, with each new implementation of data-driven assessment systems, and with each successive school added to the list of NCLB Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) failures, we see the rise of a curriculum designed to do one thing: improve test scores.

If a student is already struggling to find a way to care about school, emphasis on test preparation and test performance will do nothing to help. Obviously, it will do just the opposite. Students who find no interest in traditional academic subjects and who find self-esteem and purpose in art or music will have nowhere to go for solace. And so will likely drop out.

Teachers, especially high school teachers who have 100 to 150 students, already struggled before NCLB with the task of finding the time to reach each student on a personal, caring level. NCLB and the rise of the test prep curriculum make it less and less possible to care about students.

In fact, NCLB and these test prep curricula do just the opposite: instead of seeing students as people in need of care, students are seen as statistics. Each student, especially the students on the edge of passing the state test (“the bubble kids”), can potentially make or break the school’s progress towards AYP.

And if the student does drop out? Well, that’s one less to worry about affecting your test scores.

This is the poisonous environment that NCLB has created in our schools and why it will only make the drop-out rate worse.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Open letter to Sarah Carlin Ames

Note: Peter Campbell was a featured guest on today’s OPB news talk show Think Out Loud, along with Portland Public Schools PR person Sara Carlin Ames and a US Department of Education spokesman. With his air time severly limited (OPB host Dave Miller gave disproportionate time to Ames and the DOE flack), Campbell was still able to make excellent points. The show will be rebroadcast this evening at 9pm, or can be heard via podcast. –Ed.

Hi, Sarah. It was good to finally meet you in person today.

I wanted to follow up and challenge you a bit on your claim that what is being done at schools like Rigler and Clark is “working.”

Here’s a comment from the blog for today’s show from a Title 1 teacher:

Regarding schools improving and stepping up to the standards: I teach in an elementary Title 1 school and we have made many changes to our school math and reading curriculum and to our schedule in order to meet the state benchmarks. The way we have done it is by having students spend a big part of their school day preparing for the state tests. Students spend at least four months of the year being drilled on how to take and retake the online tests. They are pulled out of class to go and spend one on one time with an adult who listen to them read the test out loud or who will read the non-reading tests aloud to them. With all this help, students who are struggling in the classroom are able to pass the state test and make our school scores look good.

Drilling for the test means that there is now very little time for students to participate in art classes, science projects, or book projects. Our school scores are improving because as teachers we are getting much better at teaching to the tests and finding out ways to make the students pass them.. Please give me the old educational system back. This is the one where students questioned, researched, explored, created, worked on projects, . . .

The teachers that I talk to in PPS tell me similar things.

One of the major reasons my wife and I elected to pull our daughter out of PPS is for precisely these reasons — a test-centric curriculum that leaves little time for things that we consider essential to a well-rounded, developmentally-appropriate, engaging learning experience.

I don’t necessarily blame PPS for this problem. I think you and I clearly agree that NCLB is largely to blame. But I urge you and your colleagues to take leadership positions on this issue and inform the public about what’s really going on in our schools and how we can work together to change federal policy. I urge you to take public positions on the real source of the inequity that exists in our schools — poverty — and encourage the public to lobby local, state, and federal officials to take action. Together, we can make positive change for all our kids.

But if the public keeps hearing that things are peachy from you and your colleagues, then NCLB is never going to go away. And that would be a terrible, terrible thing for our kids.



P.S. – have you read Linda Perlstein’s book called Tested? If not, I highly recommend it. Perlstein is the former education reporter from the Washington Post. She chronicles the year-long experience of a school outside Baltimore in its efforts to make and maintain AYP. Although the school is “successful” and makes AYP, what happens to the students and the curriculum is heart-breaking. So much for these approaches “working” . . .

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Feds open civil rights investigation of PPS

The Sentinel reports today that the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation of Portland Public Schools based on the complaint of Marta Guembes on behalf of limited-English proficiency (LEP) students at Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

In a letter to superintendent Carole Smith dated July 15, 2008, the OCR notifies PPS that it is under investigation for violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically for:

  1. failing to provide LEP students the services necessary to ensure an equal opportunity to participate effectively in the district’s educational program; and
  2. failing to provide information in an effective manner to the parents of LEP students concerning their children and school programs and activities.

The choice of schools is illustrative of the segregation that reflects the concentration of immigrant populations in schools that form an outer ring in Portland, exacerbated by high out-transfer rates of white, middle class students to schools in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods.

Marshall, in outer southeast, is 22.9% English language learners (ELL), Roosevelt, in north, is 19.1% ELL, and Madison, in outer northeast, is 14% ELL.

Of the other high schools in Portland, only Franklin has more than 10% ELL (10.2%). Jefferson is 8.6%, Benson 5%, Cleveland 4.1%, Wilson 3.4% and Lincoln 1.2%.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


School Board applicants

As of the July 31 deadline for applications, five people had applied to serve out the remaining year of Dan Ryan’s zone 4 school board seat.

I admit to knowing very little about any of these candidates, with the exception of Buel and Gonzalez. If anybody has any information on the other candidates, please share here. Any candidates interested in writing an article to introduce themselves to the readers of this site may contact me directly at steve at ppsequity dot org.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


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